Irena's Gift: An Epic WWII Memoir of Sisters, Secrets, and Survival (Hardcover)

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Weaving mystery, history and memoir, Irena’s Gift is the captivating account of one woman’s personal quest to uncover the unspoken and give voice to her family’s secret war-torn history.

From the glittering concert halls of interbellum Warsaw and the vermin-infested ghetto where an SS officer is convinced to save a Jewish child’s life, to the author’s upbringing in a Christian home, this is the story of resilience, sacrifice, Jewish identity, intergenerational trauma, and the secrets we keep to protect ourselves and those we love. For readers of When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer, and House of Glass by Hadley Freeman.

In 1942, in German-occupied Poland, a Jewish baby girl was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in a backpack. That baby, Joasia, knew nothing about this extraordinary event until she was thirty-two, when a letter arrived from a stranger. She also learned that the parents who raised her were actually her aunt and uncle. Joasia kept this knowledge hidden from her own daughter, Karen—until an innocent question unexpectedly revealed the truth.  

Determined to understand the generational trauma that cloaked her family in silence, her own origins, and to help heal her mother’s pain, Karen set out to unearth decades of secrets and piece together a hidden history—from the glittering days of pre-war Poland to the little-known Radom Prison, where of 500 resistance members tortured, only 10 survived, her grandfather the only known Jewish one. There, Karen finds answers, yet not easy ones.

As she exposes her family’s saga of love and betrayal, countless brushes with death, precarious hiding places, and the astounding negotiation with an SS officer who saved her mother’s life, Karen must reconcile the complicated, multi-faceted truths behind human behavior. 

Irena’s Gift weaves together a mystery, history, and memoir to tell a story of sacrifice, impossible choices, impossible odds, and the way trauma reverberates throughout generations. Yet it is also a story of resilience and bravery, revealing how love and hope, too, can not only prevail through the worst imaginable circumstances, but resonate through time.

About the Author

Karen Kirsten is an Australian-American writer, refugee advocate, and Holocaust educator who lectures on the topics of hatred and reconciliation around the world. Her work has appeared in, The Week, The Jerusalem Post, WIEZ in Poland, Boston's National Public Radio station, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and her Best American Essays-nominated piece, “Searching for the Nazi Who Saved My Mother’s Life,” was selected as a Narratively Best Ever story. Raised in Australia by a mother who was a Holocaust survivor-turned born again Christian and grandparents who silenced her questions about concentration camps, Karen lived amongst refugees who were hiding horrible secrets while trying to rebuild their identities. After discovering her grandparents were not her biological grandparents, she traveled the globe to uncover her family’s hidden past. She has lived in five countries across three continents and now calls Massachusetts home. She can be found online at

Praise For…

Praise for Irena’s Gift

“Karen Kirsten proves family stories and densities of human affection, when they ran up against that calamity we call the Holocaust, are as individual as fingerprints. News withheld, and what is passed on in doubt and affections, is always dramatic if it can be creatively depicted, and Karen Kirsten more than fulfils that task of narration and enchantment here.” ―Thomas Keneally, Booker Prize-winning author of Schindler’s List

“Deeply moving and beautifully written, Irena's Gift is a powerful unravelling of mysteries and memory. The journey of reconstruction and reconnection brilliantly evokes a lost era full of pain and love, as well as laying out the intricacies of intergenerational trauma. In addition to its value as Holocaust history, Irena's Gift deserves to become a classic of the memoir genre.” ―Lucy Adlington, author of The Dressmakers of Auschwitz

“Karen Kirsten’s debut is a harrowing family drama that spans the globe ― from Jewish ghettos patrolled by Nazis to Melbourne suburbs of poodles, kookaburras, and refugees. Kirsten goes on a quest to piece together her family’s secrets and finds much more than a tale of survival from history’s nightmare. She tells a story of disillusionment and faith. She reminds us that sometimes heroes can be repulsive, and sometimes lies keep families together. Irena's Gift is beautifully written, deeply researched and deeply felt.” ―Kevin Birmingham, New York Times bestselling author of The Sinner and the Saint
“This is one of the best second-generation Holocaust books ever published. I loved it and couldn't put it down.” ―Ariana Neumann, New York Times bestselling author of When Time Stopped

“An extraordinary story of how secrets and lies can tear a family apart.” ―Maya Lee, author of The Nazis Knew My Name

“In Irena’s Gift, Kirsten brings to life the true and remarkable story of her family, including her mother and her grandmother, who like my Opa, sabotaged munitions at an armaments factory. This is a story of extraordinary women, survival and sacrifice. A must read.” ―Tara Moss, human rights and disability advocate, and author of The War Widow and The Ghosts of Paris
Product Details
ISBN: 9780806543659
ISBN-10: 0806543655
Publisher: Citadel
Publication Date: July 23rd, 2024
Pages: 352
Language: English