Irena

When she first moved into our neighborhood in Flushing, New York, in November 1954, with her husband and two young sons, Irena quickly became known as the woman who would never answer the bell if the person at the door was in uniform. I distinctly remember yelling to the parcel postman one afternoon: “Don't bother. She won't come.”

I was born into that neighborhood in 1940. It was mainly Catholic and Jewish, but when I was growing up, talk of the Holocaust was verboten. No matter how much time I spent with my Jewish friends—in their homes, playing ball, or at the local Jewish center—we never spoke of it. Not once. Not even in the late 1940s when a half-naked woman ran frantically down the street screaming: “The Germans are coming! The Germans are coming!” (All that came was the ambulance, to take her to Creedmoor State Hospital.) Not even after my mother and I stopped at a candy store on Union Turnpike and the emaciated woman at the cash register reached down with my change and I saw a number imprinted on her arm. I had recurring nightmares about that arm, detached and tattooed, as if in a surrealist painting.

When I was discharged from the Army in 1962, I returned to live at home while I attended St. John's University. That was when I got to know Irena Polkowska Rutenberg better. Her younger son Jackie liked to ride in the Good Humor truck I drove during the summers. Irena and I would discuss many things, including her childhood in Poland. She was the first...

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About the Author

Patrick Henry is Cushing Eells Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Literature at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.