A promise is a promise. We don’t usually do “young adult” fiction here at the Book Haven, but in this case I make an exception – a duty as well as a pleasure. Seven years ago, over bronowicka wegetariańska and some very good wine and vodka at Pod Baranem in Kraków (I later learned it was one of Czesław Miłosz‘s favorite restaurants in that wondrous city), I heard the story of Irena Sendler, who had died a few months before in 2008. It was an extraordinary tale told late in the evening by her friend and Holocaust survivor Lili Pohlmann of the city’s Judaica Foundation.
Now the story is well known, but back then it wasn’t. I was skeptical of Lili’s claims of her close friend who had saved thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Why had I never heard of her? I went back to my Kraków apartment and googled, and confirmed Lili’s account – since Sendler was a Polish patriot, the Soviet authorities had had an interest in suppressing the story, which became known only after 1989. I resolved pretty much then and there to do what I could to share the history, as I have done here and here and here and here and here, and a few other places as well. So how could a not cover Angela Cerrito‘s well-researched The Safest Lie when the publisher, New York’s Holiday House, sent it to me?
The fictional story is told from the point of view of one of Sendler’s hidden children, nine-year-old Anna Bauman. When she hears her new, assigned name, Anna Karlowska, she says, “The words are heavy and far away, like a stone thrown so far out into the lake that it is impossible to hear the splash.”
Sendler herself makes two brief appearances in the book under the code name she used, “Jolanta.” Her first when she makes arrangements to rescue Anna from the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler said that, for each child saved, she needed a team of 25: 10 to smuggle children out, 10 to find families to take the children, and 5 to get false documents.The second encounter occurs when Anna is in hiding at a convent school – Sendler said not a single convent had refused to shelter a child.
In The Safest Lie, the fictional Anna overhears a conversation of an unknown woman with Sister Maria:
As I dust the first windowsill, I hear Sister Maria’s conversation through her open door.
“We heard of your capture. We even received news of your death.”
“In these times, one doesn’t know what to believe,” answers a woman. The voice is decisive, but so low. Someone used to talking in whispers. It’s low and rumbly, but strong. I try to slow my breathing and quiet my heart so I can hear properly. I know that voice! Jolanta? My heart drums in my ears. Could it be?
“Perhaps the news you heard was true. Today I am Mrs. Dabrowska. Tomorrow perhaps another name. We try to be safe, though we know safety isn’t always possible.”
Oh how I wish I could run into Sister Maria’s office. I want to ask Jolanta a million questions. … Outside the door, I hear Sister Maria say, “Fifteen will help a great deal.”
“Tomorrow then,” says Mrs. Dabrowska, who sounds just like Jolanta.
I walk into the office and set my cloth on Sister Maria’s desk. I study the woman. Her hair is not like Jolanta’s, and something is different about the face. Could it really be her? The woman smiles at me. I’ve never seen Jolanta smile. “And how are you today?” She places a hand on my arm.
“Very well, thank you,” I say. The hand doesn’t feel familiar, but the woman’s yes do. Does she know me?
“Anna, please excuse us,” says Sister Maria.
I leave the room and wait at the end of the hall by the statue of Mother Maria. I pray again. Should I speak with her? Should I ask if she’s Jolanta? I wait until the lady leaves Sister Maria’s office. When I see her walking away, I decide it can’t be Jolanta. The woman drags her left leg. It looks like every step causes her pain. Not at all like Jolanta, who took short, speedy steps.
Irena Sendler had been captured, tortured, and sentenced to a firing squad by the Germans in 1943. Although they had broken her feet and legs, she escaped. She lived until April 2008.
Anyway, it’s a gift idea for the coming month. It’s a fast-paced, moving 181 pages. I had trouble putting it down.