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The author of a middle-grade novel inspired by the work of Irena Sendler, who smuggled thousands of Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II, discusses her research for the book and her own meeting with the then-95-year-old Sendler.
In Angela Cerrito’s The Safest Lie, Anna Bauman is only seven years old when she and her parents are forced to move into a tiny apartment in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw during World War II. Now she is nine and her family’s space has been reduced to a tiny room shared with strangers. They are hungry, cold, and live in constant fear for their safety. Like most of the children in the ghetto, Anna attends Mrs. Rechtman’s youth circle. The group distributes clothing and “homework,” a code word for food. Then Jolanta, a worker with a Resistance organization, calls upon parents in the ghetto and tells them about a plan to escort their children to safety. This means that the children must be given new names, a new religion, and false papers. Anna is assigned the name Anna Karwolska and is taken to a Catholic orphanage where she stays until she is relocated with a loving Catholic family. She lives this new life not realizing that her foster parents know she is Jewish. Then, at the end of the war, the children with living relatives are forced to once again give up their homes and return to family they may not even know.
The work of Irena Sendler and other members of the Resistance who made it their mission to deliver the children of the Warsaw Ghetto to safety inspired Cerrito to write this work of fiction. Her research took her to Warsaw, where she had the opportunity to meet and talk with Sendler. An extensive teacher’s guide on The Safest Lie is available on the Holiday House website.
SCALES: In your author’s note, you talk about your trip to Warsaw to conduct research for The Safest Lie. What research did you do prior to going to Warsaw?
CERRITO: I interviewed Mary Skinner by phone. She was working on Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers, a film about Sendler and the child rescues. She also had an English translation of Irena Sendler’s biography. I read many books including Janusz Korczak’s Ghetto Diary (1978), Gunnar S. Paulsson’s Secret City (2002), and The Last Eyewitnesses (1998), a collection of memoirs. I also frequently checked out the volumes of Lucjan Dobroszycki’s The Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto from my local library. While I avoided reading WWII fiction, I did read Korczak’s King Matt the First (1986), a book my character may have heard as a series of radio broadcasts before the war. Additionally, as part of the Kimberly Colen Memorial Grant, I was able to travel to New York for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. There I met with Mary Skinner for another interview and toured the Museum of Jewish Heritage and had an opportunity to meet with Ilana Abramovitch.
SCALES: You spent time in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Tell us about specific discoveries you made there that contributed to Anna Bauman’s story.
CERRITO: The institute’s archives include hundreds of testimonies of children recorded immediately after the war. The translator I worked with, Ewa Prokop, was so shocked, she gasped several times with each account she read. The horrors the children described were so immediate, direct, and matter-of-fact. They told of seeing their family members murdered, as well as being starved and beaten by those entrusted to help them. Even though I’d read a great deal before the trip, I was unprepared. After only a couple of testimonies, it became clear to me that during the war the children’s very definition of normal had changed: the fear, the horrific events experienced, day after day—for years, it was their whole world.
This shaped my telling of Anna’s story, especially the scene where the printer’s children walk to Anna’s foster home and tell about the fate of their parents. Additionally, after days of hearing the chilling testimonies, I knew the novel would need balance. I’d already written the scene in the safe house, where Anna is determined to remember her life before the ghetto. After reading the children’s testimonies at the institute, I included more of Anna’s prewar memories throughout the novel.
SCALES: You also conducted research at the Museum of Jewish History in New York City, and you acknowledge Ilana Abramovitch for offering valuable advice. What kind of advice did you receive from her?
CERRITO: She suggested I look at the big picture rather than become obsessed with small details. She was the second person in two days (the first being author Marvin Terban) who told me my project was likely to grow from the picture book I had planned into a novel. They were correct! Dr. Abramovitch showed me a film clip of an interview with Irena Sendler. In the film, Irena told of another child-rescuer, Anton. This led me to the film Les Justes, by Marek Halter. From there I contacted Roissy Films in France and was able to obtain a copy of the film for research. Halter was one of the first to go into Poland and interview typical Polish citizens about their experiences during the war. One of those people was Irena Sendler.
SCALES: Sendler was the inspiration for this novel. Tell us about meeting her.
CERRITO: I felt as if I had been holding my breath for months leading up to meeting Irena, and when I finally stepped into her room, I could exhale. A great deal of planning went into the research trip to Warsaw. Irena was careful not to promise a meeting, only that she would try, and any meeting would depend on how she was feeling—after all, she was 95 years old! The interview was pushed back a day, and I didn’t know we would actually meet for certain until an hour before the appointment. She kindly included my friend and my daughter, Alexandria, who was eight years old at the time, in the visit, as well as Ms. Prokop, our translator.
SCALES: Tell us about your conversation.
CERRITO: I asked her about the child rescues and about her friend Eva Rechtman. I told her of the video of her I saw in which she spoke about Anton, and I learned more about Anton’s role in the rescues and his fate. We also spoke about her time in prison and about current events, such as the war in the Middle East and Pope John Paul II, who was having health concerns at the time. Throughout our time together, Irena spoke with strength and conviction, often gesturing with her hands and pounding her fist on the armrest of her wheelchair.
SCALES: Did she relate specific details about the children she rescued?
CERRITO: Irena spoke about the child rescues in terms of logistics. She talked about Zegota and being part of the secret organization and spoke often about all of the people who helped her, repeatedly stating, “I didn’t do this alone.” Speaking of her dear friend Eva Rechtman almost brought her to tears. I was also fortunate to be able to interview Anna Mieskowska, who wrote Irena’s authorized biography. Mieskowska had the story behind the story. She knew so many more facts and events that weren’t included in her book.
SCALES: It’s not surprising to learn that Sendler kept your daughter close by her side during your visit. How did your daughter react to meeting this amazing woman?
CERRITO: The Jewish Historical Institute displayed the temporary exhibit “Children of the Warsaw Ghetto.” Alexandria and I saw the exhibit the day before we met Irena. She learned about the conditions in the ghetto where so many children struggled to survive, and about the transports that took thousands of people, including children, to their deaths. She knew who Irena was and that Irena helped children get out of the ghetto. Alexandria was impressed with Irena. She told me, “Her voice was so loud and so strong.” Years later, in high school, Alexandria and her friend did a school presentation about Irena Sendler and the child-rescue operations.
SCALES: At what point did you know that your research was complete and you were ready to write Anna’s story?
CERRITO: I think I share this trait with other writers of nonfiction and historical fiction: the research never feels complete. Even through the last draft, I continued to research. During the final draft, on the advice of my editor at Holiday House, Julie Amper, I added more time after the end of the war. Anna was longing for her family to find her. I searched news files and weather reports and added the scene where everyone in town gathers around to listen to the first Polish radio broadcast from Warsaw since the occupation.
SCALES: The novel is told in first person from Anna’s point of view. Did you ever consider writing it in third person? How might this have changed the story?
CERRITO: Actually, the very first version was written in third person. It was a completely different novel. I didn’t feel as close to Anna. Too much time was spent explaining the changes that were taking place in Poland, rather than showing Anna’s and her family’s experiences. When I changed to first person, the story felt more immediate and intense. I would say the change of point of view helped me to be Anna.
SCALES: Jolanta and Mrs. Dabrowska represent Irena Sendler. Does Anna embody a bit of Sendler as well?
CERRITO: Jolanta was the code name Irena Sendler used inside the Warsaw Ghetto. She used many aliases after escaping execution, including the name Klara Dabrowska. Anna is forced to hide her identity throughout most of the novel, as Irena did each time she stepped into the ghetto with a fake ID or met with families to arrange care for the children. I think the greatest example of Anna embodying the spirit of Irena is when she enlists Jerzy’s help to save Zina and Jozef. Irena never failed to mention that she had a great deal of help with the child rescues. She had to take chances and trust people with her secrets. She also put herself at risk to save others. The safe thing for Anna would have been to forget about Zina and Jozef. But, like Irena, she couldn’t be silent in the face of suffering.
SCALES: When you began the novel, did you plan for Anna to be reunited with her cousin Jakub?
CERRITO: Not initially. In earlier drafts Anna was all alone at the end of the novel. Though this was the typical experience for most rescued children after the war, it tore my heart out each time I read and revised the story. I had to add the reunion with Jakub in order to keep working on the manuscript. I found this was the right thing for the story as well, because it brought me more memories of Anna’s childhood and the special relationship she had with Jakub.
SCALES: Why is Anna so surprised to learn that Sophia, Stephan, and Jerzy knew she was Jewish?
CERRITO: From the start, it was a matter of life and death that Anna must never admit her Jewish identity. Though she longed to remember—and be—her true self, she only dared to think about her family and her past when she was alone at night. Though it was obvious to her that the people in the first safe house knew her situation, from the moment she left there, the world knew her as Anna Karwolska. During her time living with Sophia, Stephan, and Jerzy, she always wondered if they would care for her, actually really love her, if they knew her true identity. As she grew to love them, she worried about putting them in danger. At the end of the war, it was a relief to know they knew her secret all along, but also a disappointment. She could have been her true self with them. Similar to Chaim, she hid too well.
SCALES: Young readers will want to know whether Anna ever sees Sophia, Stephan, and Jerzy again. In your mind, are they ever reunited?
CERRITO: Honestly, travel in postwar Poland, especially for those who were Jewish and minors, would have been a challenge. Many children in Anna’s situation ended up in refugee camps for years. However, it is nice to imagine that Anna could have brought Jakub to meet her Polish family. If she were able to visit, I’m sure it would have been a happy reunion with fine food and interesting conversation.
SCALES: Children were stripped of their identities in an effort to keep them safe. Chaim was so young when he was rescued that he doesn’t believe that he is Jewish. Did you read accounts of children who never reclaimed their identities?
CERRITO: Yes, Anna Mieskowska shared with me stories of several children who were saved by Zegota at such a young age that they had no memory of their true families and true identities. I also read personal accounts in which children were not told about their identities until they were teenagers. Aside from coming as a complete shock, the revelation was often met with disbelief and an enormous sense of loss.
SCALES: Did the title of the novel come to you in the beginning of the writing process or at the end?
CERRITO: The title of this book changed several times. I have to credit the Kehillat Israel School and their webmaster Stephen Rayburn. His website provided me with many ideas for Grandma’s sayings. One is “The truth is the safest lie,” which inspired the title.
SCALES: What do you feel is the greatest value of historical fiction?
CERRITO: To me the greatest value of historical fiction is that it allows readers to be transported to another time, to be immersed in actual events through the experiences of a character they can relate to and care about.
SCALES: How difficult was it to write The Safest Lie after writing a more contemporary novel (The End of the Line, 2011)?
CERRITO: Actually, I wrote the first draft of The Safest Lie before I had even started writing The End of the Line. The Safest Lie was more of a challenge because it required more work before it could be published.
SCALES: What are you writing now?
CERRITO: I’m working on a contemporary story about a girl with an unusual talent who will stop at nothing to meet a famous athlete she thinks is a long-lost relative.
Saving the Children
The following titles about Irena Sendler, the Holocaust, and the rescue of Jewish children make excellent companions to The Safest Lie.
A Bag of Marbles. By Joseph Joffo. Illus. by Vincent Bailly. Tr. by Edward Gauvin. 2013. Lerner, $29.27 (9781467707008). Gr. 7–12.
This graphic novel based on Joffo’s 1973 adult memoir tells the story of Jo and his brother as they escape Nazi-occupied Paris in hopes of reuniting with their older brothers on the Italian border. To stay safe, the boys must lose their Jewish identity.
The Cats in Krasinski Square. By Karen Hesse. Illus. by Wendy Watson. 2004. Scholastic, $17.99 (9780439435406). Gr. 2–5.
In free verse, a young girl tells how she escapes the Warsaw Ghetto and how she and her older sister gather the cats living in Krasinski Square to help them smuggle food and other items to those remaining in the ghetto.
A Hero and the Holocaust: The Story of Janusz Korczak and His Children. By David A. Adler. Illus. by Bill Farnsworth. 2002. Holiday, $16.95 (9780823415489). Gr. 3–6.
This picture-book biography details the courage of the director of a Polish Jewish orphanage and his efforts to protect the children as they were herded to the Warsaw Ghetto and later to a death camp.
Hiding from the Nazis. By David A. Adler. Illus. by Karen Ritz. 1997. Holiday, $17.95 (9780823412884). Gr. 2–4.
A Christian family in Holland takes in the daughter of German Jewish refugees and protects her from the Nazis, but when the war is over and her parents come for her, the child has become so attached to her new family that she doesn’t want to leave.
In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer. By Irene Gut Opdyke and Jennifer Armstrong. 1999. Knopf, $10.99 (9780553538847). Gr. 6–8.
Irene Gut was a 17-year-old Polish nursing student when she bravely saved the lives of a least 12 Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Irena Sendler: Bringing Life to Children of the Holocaust. By Susan Brophy Down. 2012. illus. Crabtree, $33.27 (9780778725565). Gr. 4–7.
Irena Sendler was only 17 when she devised a plan, including smuggling a small baby in a toolbox, that saved thousands of Jewish children during the Holocaust.
Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto. By Susan Goldman Rubin. Illus. by Bill Farnsworth. 2011. Holiday, $16.20 (9780823422517). Gr. 4–7.
Another nicely detailed account of Sendler’s rescue campaign.
Irena’s Jars of Secrets. By Marcia Vaughan. Illus. by Ron Mazellan. 2011. Lee & Low, $11.44 (9781600604393). Gr. 3–6.
This picture-book biography provides an introduction to the humanitarian work of Irena Sendler, focusing on her efforts to record the names of the children from the Warsaw Ghetto so that they might be reunited with their parents.
Mister Doctor: Janusz Korczak and the Orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto. By Irene Cohen-Janca. Illus. by Maurizio A. C. Quarello. 2015. Annick, $24.95 (9781554517152). Gr. 4–7.
This account is based on the true story of an orphanage director in Poland who refused to leave the children when they were taken to the Warsaw Ghetto. His story led the United Nations to adopt the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959.
The following are suggestions for implementing the Common Core State Standards with Angela Cerrito’s The Safest Lie and related titles. You can find out more about the Common Core State Standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: After the class has read The Safest Lie, engage students in a discussion that encourages inquiry and close reading of the text by utilizing the following questions:
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4–7.1.Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5–6.2. Determine a theme of a story; summarize the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5–7.3. Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in the story.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5–7.5. Explain how a series of chapters fits together to provide the overall structure of a novel.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.4–7.1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions on grade level topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.4–7.3. Summarize the points a speaker makes and explain how each claim is supported by reasons and evidence.
In the Classroom: Ask students to explore Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project website. Then, ask them to write a brief essay that discusses how this project speaks to the power of research and the important role students have in educating the world.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4–7.1. Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4–7.8. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
In the Classroom: Read the memorials to Irena Sendler on the above website and write a memorial tribute to Sendler that Anna Bauman might write.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4–7.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
After more than 35 years as a school librarian, Pat Scales is a freelance writer, children’s literature advocate, and the author of the revised edition of Books under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children’s Books (2014).
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