The best World War II books about people from Poland

The Books I Picked & Why

Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto

By Tilar J. Mazzeo

Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto

Why this book?

Irena (Sendlerowa) Sendler, a Polish Catholic, worked as a social worker for the City of Warsaw. After the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, she worked forging identity papers and assisting Jews, many of whom were friends. She used her access to the Warsaw ghetto to help rescue over 2,500 Jewish children. After the Gestapo arrested her, she survived brutal torture but never once gave up a child’s or fellow rescuer’s name. 

Irena’s story serves as a symbol of all those people who helped her, the members of Polish resistance organizations, and the thousands of Poles who risked their own lives and the lives of their families, to assist, shelter, and rescue Jews. Yad Vashem recognizes over 7,000 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations. For various reasons, the actual number of Polish rescuers is likely thousands more. This account by Tilar J. Mazzeo does justice to the story and brings out the human side of the remarkable Irena Sendler.


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The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz

By Jack Fairweather

The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz

Why this book?

Witold Pilecki risked everything for his country. As a Polish resistance fighter he volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in September 1940. There, he helped forge a Polish underground resistance of hundreds of prisoners. Despite torture, hunger, and conditions far worse than anyone imagined, he remained in the camp for two-and-a-half years by choice. His well-documented reports on Auschwitz in early 1941 were the first ones sent out of the camp. His plea? Destroy the camp before it grew worse.

Jack Fairweather wrote a definitive account that is thoroughly researched, and an engaging read. The world ignored Pilecki’s reports during the war. After the war, Russian communists declared Pilecki and his family enemies of the state. Pilecki’s story is well-known and revered in Poland. His valor and sacrifice deserve worldwide recognition.


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My Sister's Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin's Siberia

By Donna Solecka Urbikas

My Sister's Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin's Siberia

Why this book?

My Sister’s Mother is a family memoir set against the backdrop of forced evictions and deportations of Poles to forced labor camps in frozen Siberia. Russia invaded Poland two weeks after Germany did, and the two powers divided Poland between their countries. Soviet communists murdered thousands of Polish citizens, Polish military, and in 1940 deported hundreds of thousands of civilian Poles, in freezing cattle cars, to forced labor camps in Siberia.

Urbikas’ mother and older sister faced impossible circumstances imposed by Stalin’s brutal policies against Poles. The core theme focuses on motherhood, the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and how far a woman will go to survive and protect her child. Then, the story transitions into the epilogue of war for thousands of Poles: life in a displaced persons camp and growing up with inherited trauma and the challenges common to first-generation Polish immigrants.


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The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

By Clare Mulley

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

Why this book?

Winston Churchill called Christine Granville his favorite spy during World War II. However, Christine Granville was the code name for Krystyna Skarbek who was born in 1915 in Poland to an aristocratic father and Jewish mother. She grew up privileged, sharp-witted, and later became an expert skier fluent in French. Beautiful, daring, difficult, and adventurous, she and her husband fled to Britain when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939. There she volunteered to spy for the British and became Britain’s first female special agent.

Granville’s intelligence and effective espionage saved hundreds of lives. The French and British governments conferred many awards to Christine for her bravery. She dreamed of a free Poland, yet Poland fell to communism after the war. She remained in Britain and became a British citizen. Clare Mulley’s well-researched book brings new recognition to this outstanding Polish woman.


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All But My Life: A Memoir

By Gerda Weissmann Klein

All But My Life: A Memoir

Why this book?

Gerda Weissmann was only age fifteen when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. Born in Bielsko Poland to a middle-class Jewish family, the book follows her family’s loss and tragedy through the Holocaust. The author survived multiple concentration camps and a death march against impossible odds. Liberated on her twenty-first birthday, she weighed only sixty-eight pounds. This inspiring book includes moments of human decency and normalcy.

Of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, three million were from Poland. Klein captures the essence of what it meant to survive a genocide with only her life. Klein is a highly recognized voice for human rights and Holocaust remembrance, and the beneficiary of many awards and honorary degrees. Gerda Weissmann Klein is a name to be remembered.


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