Names in a Jar by Jennifer Gold is a historical fiction book with events based on the story of Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse and social worker who saved thousands of children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. The story is told from the perspective of Anna, a child she saves, and her sister Lina, who helps her escape the ghetto.
The story begins with a prologue, so it is clear from the outset that Anna survives the war. Each chapter alternates between Anna’s voice and Lina’s voice. Their history unfolds as we learn more about how they are living right before the war begins.
When they are forced to go to the Warsaw Ghetto, Anna finds a way to become a smuggler. Although the work is exceptionally dangerous, she and her family know that it is necessary for survival. It is through her smuggling work that she meets Irena Sendler, called Jolanta in the story. While trying to help a newborn get smuggled out, Anna is smuggled out as well, against her wishes. Anna and the baby end up in the countryside as the children of a childless couple. Her story continues as a Jew who is hiding her identity, even from those closest to her, and as a person who encounters Nazis in the town.
Lina becomes a forger, helping other children get smuggled out of the ghetto. Eventually, she is transported to Treblinka. The journey by cattle car, the infamous camp showers, and life in the camp are not glossed over. The story does not simply allude to events or sugarcoat them in any way. It is filled with dramatic moments great and small. The book includes several deaths and murders, a rape, a self-inflicted abortion, and incidents of both same-sex and heterosexual encounters.
Although this story is fictionalized, many of the events in this story did happen to people during the Holocaust. It includes many actual horrors of the war and may be a difficult read for some readers, so some discussion before reading the book may be warranted.
The story ends on a positive note, many years after the war has ended. Anna and Lina have moved to Israel as they had hoped to do and managed to build the lives they had dreamed of for so long. Ultimately, the story is not just of the horrors that Anna and Lina endured but is a tale of their survival and of those who helped them survive.
Cindy Wiesel is an English teacher in Israel and leads a weekly book club for adults. She has edited teacher resource materials and served as a collection advisor to school libraries.