Courage & Integrity: The Warsaw Orphan by Kelly Rimmer Imagines the Women Who Risked All to Save Jewish Children during World War II
Inspired by Irena Sendler, the real-life heroine who smuggled thousands of Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rimmer brings to life the team of women who supported Irena in The Warsaw Orphan (Graydon House, 2021).
BY CYNTHIA ANDERSON
Kelly Rimmer first encountered Irena Sendler when she was in Poland researching her book, The Things We Cannot Say. She was immediately fascinated by Irena’s story because even by wartime standards Irena possessed an extraordinarily rare depth of courage and integrity as she led a team that saved and sustained the lives of over 2,500 Jewish children over the course of World War II. Rimmer explains that ‘Irena had been taught by her father that she had a responsibility to help the people around her, if they needed assistance, and she was committed to that ideal, even when it meant regularly risking her life and ultimately, facing torture and imprisonment. One thing that particularly struck me about her story was that she led and coordinated a whole team of people to rescue those children, and yet Irena’s team is almost a footnote in accounts of her life. I wondered who those other women might have been, and that train of thought inspired several characters in this novel.’
These characters include Elzbieta, a teenager, and her neighbor Sarah, a nurse and social worker for the Department of Health and Sanitation who are both granted access to the Ghetto. Through their compassion and commitment to save as many lives as possible, they identify babies at risk of dying from malnutrition or illness and build trust with the parents to persuade them that their children will be placed in loving families outside the Ghetto. Rimmer’s novel delves into the psychological toll endured by those residing in the Ghetto as they struggle to accept the death sentence hanging over them and the impossible decision to give up their children as the only means to save them. ‘The people trapped within the Ghetto lived in a melting pot of rumor and propaganda with no way to know what their future held. It’s a huge responsibility to write stories like this, something that literally keeps me up at night sometimes.’
Wherever it was possible for Rimmer to access primary sources, she did. She relied on the Ringelbum Archive – an incredible collection of over 6,000 documents related to life in the Warsaw Ghetto, including reports, diaries, posters and drawings documenting the horrid conditions. These documents were buried underground in metal boxes and milk cans. ‘Emmanuel Ringelbum was a Jewish historian who coordinated a team of over 50 people to compile and protect this archive, determined to ensure that the story of those who lived and died in that place would not be lost.’ This past April was the 78th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and to commemorate the Ringelblum Archive a group of Jewish organizations unveiled a monument marking the area where the archive material was buried.
One of the novel’s central characters is Roman and through him, Rimmer touches on the history of the ‘Jewish Catholics’ trapped within the Ghetto. ‘I was surprised by that piece of history,’ Rimmer says, ‘I learned about the three Catholic congregations in the Warsaw Ghetto when I first started planning this story and I immediately knew I wanted Roman to be a part of one of these sub-communities. Some estimates put the number of ‘Jewish Catholics’ as high as 5,000 people (out of the 400,000 plus people trapped within the Ghetto at its population peak).’
The friendship that develops between Roman and Chaim is central to the novel and brings to fore the bravery of those in the Ghetto who chose to fight the German army. Rimmer says that Chaim was one of her favorite characters in writing this story. ‘He’s not perfect, but he’s genuinely good, and even as the world around him dissolves into chaos and pain, he just keeps putting his community and his friends first. Chaim wasn’t inspired by any one person I came across in my research, rather he’s intended to represent the courage and determination of all the men and women who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.’
Rimmer says she is ‘a compulsive plotter and had the entire book planned out before I wrote the first sentence, although the detail sometimes unfolds in unexpected ways.’ This happened in the evolution of the mother-daughter relationship between Elzbieta and Truda, who through the course of the novel develop courage in distinct ways. ‘The importance of that relationship and some of the shifts it takes caught me by surprise. Once I saw where it was headed, it felt right, but I didn’t realize where I was going until I was on my way there!!’
The story spans the tumultuous years from 1942 to 1945, covering the distinct periods of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Warsaw Uprising and the immediate post war period, which presented their own challenges. In terms of research, Rimmer found that ‘the immediate post war period was definitely the most difficult to research on a practical level. There are, thankfully, easily accessed records and accounts of the war era, but it was much harder to access reliable and detailed information about the early communist era. On an emotional level, the Warsaw Ghetto was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever researched. We cannot shy away from the reality of what happened there, but there’s no way to make sense of the depth of evil those people experienced.’
Rimmer is currently writing a new novel with the working title The German Wife. ‘It’s a sweeping story about history, family and freedom, and it’s due to be released sometime in 2022.’
About the contributor: Cynthia Anderson is writing a novel, Beyond the Steppes, set in 17th-century China, about the journey of a Mongolian girl from nomadic herder to the Empress who helped shape modern China. You can find out more about her here.