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Irena's Jars of Secrets

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A picture book biography of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who helped save nearly 2500 Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II.

A 2012 Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Older Readers

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A picture book biography of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who helped save nearly 2500 Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II.

A 2012 Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Older Readers

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Irena Sendler (1910–2008) was a Polish Catholic social worker who, as a member of the Polish underground organization Zegota, smuggled some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and arranged for them to live out the war with new identities in orphanages, convents, and foster homes. Hoping to reunite the families after the war, she kept lists of the children’s original identities, which she buried in jars under an apple tree. “As more children were rescued, Irena dug up the jars, added their names to the lists, and buried the jars again,” writes Vaughan (Up the Learning Tree). Sendler was ingenious, ushering her young charges to safety by hiding them in “baskets, boxes, tool chests, sacks, and suitcases” and even under the floorboards of an ambulance. And she was fearless, refusing even under torture and the threat of death to reveal the children’s whereabouts. Vaughan and Mazellan (You Can Be a Friend) have created a fine piece of historical storytelling, with brisk, reportorial prose and shadowy, impressionistic oil paintings that offer gripping testimony to the full horror and high stakes of the times. Ages 6–11. (Oct.)
Children's Literature - Lois Rubin Gross
Ron Mazellan's appropriately somber oil paintings set the mood for this important book about a Righteous Gentile, a Christian who saved Jews from sure death at the hands of the Nazi killing machine. As with her Japanese counterpart, Chiune Sugihara, Polish social worker Irena Sendler was charged from an early age by her father to "save a drowning person even if she couldn't swim." Irena internalized the message and practiced it, during the war, by joining Zegota, a secret group of saviors who infiltrated the Warsaw ghetto and smuggled children to safety with willing Polish families. Irene Sendler took her mission one step further: she preserved the names and identities of the children she rescued so that they could be reunited with their families after the war. The strength of this book is that Marcia Vaughan does not just portray Irena's dedication to her young charges and the risk she endured to save Jewish children (she escaped death at least once when she was secreted out of jail cell on the eve of her execution), but attempts to explain why parents were willing to hand over their children to a virtual stranger. Here is where Mazellan's art successfully marries the text by showing the pain of parents making an unthinkable choice. Recognized by the Israeli government in 1965, and honored with a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005, Sendler lived to see her good work acknowledged. Extensive glossary, source notes, and Internet links for further study. This is a powerful book and a graphic book. It is not a picture book for the youngest child, but it is a book that explains, in an age appropriate manner, the magnitude of Irene Sendler's mission and her great deeds. Extensive glossary, source notes, and internet links for further study. A necessary purchase for complete Holocaust collections. Reviewer: Lois Rubin Gross
School Library Journal
Gr 4–7—Vaughan's biography in picture-book format details the heroic deeds of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who helped save nearly 2500 children from extermination. In 1940, when German soldiers confined Warsaw's 400,000 Jews to a neighborhood of rundown apartment buildings surrounded by a high brick wall, Sendler remembered her father's words about the necessity of risking one's own life in order to save others. Her position as a senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department allowed her to enter the ghetto to check sanitary conditions, and to sneak in food, medicine, and money. She joined the underground organization Zegota (the Council for Aid to Jews), whose members worked with her and other social workers to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Vaughan describes the incredibly dangerous methods used to rescue several children. As she promised their parents, Sendler kept lists of the children's real names, false identities, and whereabouts (convents, orphanages, foster homes), which she buried in glass jars in a friend's garden; when the war ended, she provided these lists to the Jewish National Committee, an organization that searched for and reunited relatives, and placed parentless children with other families. Mazellan's dramatic oil paintings-mostly in appropriate dark, somber grays and browns-cover most of each spread, leaving a buff-colored strip to hold the succinctly written, yet descriptive, text that can be understood even by those who have little or no knowledge of World War II or the Holocaust. A two-page recap that includes the impressive awards and honors bestowed upon Sendler is appended.—Susan Scheps, Shaker Heights Public Library, OH
Kirkus Reviews

Irena Sendler is enshrined at Yad Vashem as "righteous among nations" for her courage in rescuing Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Brought up by her parents to respect all people, Irena could not stand by and watch the horrors of Hitler's methodical extermination of the Jews of Warsaw. She worked with a secret underground group to carry out a variety of elaborate deceptions to spirit hundreds of children out of the ghetto to be hidden by other brave gentiles. She kept meticulous records hidden in buried jars because she hoped to reunite the children with their own families at the end of the war, a hope that proved futile because almost all the parents died in the concentration camps. She was captured, tortured and scheduled for execution, but she managed to escape and go into hiding. Finding a way to impart even a small understanding of the Holocaust to children is a task fraught with difficulties: How can anyone comprehend such insanity? Vaughan tells the true story without embellishment, employing stark, unadorned syntax that never wavers into pathos, sentiment or myth. It is a definition of quiet heroism. Mazellan's very dark, deeply shadowed oil paintings capture the unabated terror and sorrow. Children should read this work with an adult who is armed with some knowledge of the material.

Powerful. (afterword, glossary, sources) (Informational picture book. 9-12)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781600604393
  • Publisher: Lee & Low Books, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/1/2011
  • Pages: 40
  • Sales rank: 409,724
  • Age range: 8 years
  • Lexile: 1040L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 11.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Marcia Vaughan is an award-winning author of numerous books for children, including Snap!, a Junior Library Guild Selection, Whistling Dixie, an ALA Notable book, and The Secret to Freedom, a Teachers' Choices Award winner published by LEE & LOW BOOKS. A full-time author, Vaughan is a popular speaker at national and regional conferences. She lives in Vashon Island, Washington, with her husband and their son.

Ron Mazellan is the illustrator of several award-winning picture books, among them The Harmonica, which appeared in The Original Art, a gallery show of children's book illustrations. He holds an MFA degree in illustration and is a professor of art at Indiana Wesleyan University. Mazellan was drawn to Irena's Jars of Secrets by Irena Sendler's character, bravery, and selfless acts of kindness. He and his family live in Marion, Indiana. His Web site is

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 21, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This was a wonderful story. This is a book I will definitely rec

    This was a wonderful story. This is a book I will definitely recommend to my history department at school. It is beautifully and simply written yet the message is so powerful. It is the story of a woman, one of many selfless people, willing to put their own safety on the line to save as many Jewish children as possible from the Warsaw Ghetto. The Holocaust happened so many years ago that our children know very little about it. This is one way to start an inquiry based lesson on the Holocaust. This is an excellent book and one that needs to be on the shelves of all schools.

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