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 Holocaust survivor I knew personally.

I left New York in 1965, but about ten years ago, Irena sent me the unpublished account of her youth. She was born to Jewish parents in Warsaw in 1929. When she was three, her father divorced her mother. Shortly after, her mother married a non-Jew, who adopted Irena officially in 1939. Irena's maternal grandmother and her father were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto and gassed in Treblinka. Her stepfather, a chemical engineer, was a sapper in the Polish resistance. He made gun deliveries to the ghetto, issued false papers to Jews, and blew up German supply trains headed to the Russian front. He was executed by a firing squad in Warsaw in May 1944.

Irena and her mother never lived in Warsaw's ghetto. Instead, they hid in the family house in the city and later in the country. But in 1942, Irena visited the ghetto with her mother and saw her grandmother and father for the last time.

As a child, Irena felt alienated, particularly from her maternal grandmother and from friends her own age, all of whom lived in the ghetto. She was fearful and conscious of the fact that she endangered everyone who spoke with her and knew she was Jewish. But she was also courageous. With her stepfather, she carried guns and grenades to the ghetto to be used in the later uprising.

During the Warsaw Uprising, Irena and her mother cared for young men wounded on the barricades. In October 1944, when the Germans retook the city, both she and her mother were transported by cattle car to Germany. But the following May they were liberated by Russian troops and made their way to Holland. They arrived at Ellis Island in February 1947.

The highlight of our renewed friendship came in January 2004, when my wife, our daughter, and I spent a week in Poland with Irena. She was our guide to Warsaw's past. We saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where ghetto fighters are honored along with other Polish heroes; the superb monument to the ghetto heroes; the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising; and even the monument erected on the very spot where Irena, her mother, and other partisans had descended into the canals to escape. We visited the Umschlagplatz, where trains departed for the concentration camps, and the remarkable museum of the Jewish Historical Institute. And we spent time at Janusz Korczak's orphanage. A pediatrician, teacher, and radio personality, Korczak ran a home for two hundred Jewish children. He had every opportunity to escape but chose to accompany them to the gas chamber. When asked what he would do if he survived the war, this great Jewish humanitarian replied: “Take care of German orphans.”

Like Korczak, Irena is married to the present. At eighty, she still paints, sculpts, and teaches art in New York. But she also spends four months a year in Poland teaching and hosting workshops on forgiveness. In a land still struggling with long-standing enmities, she urges her students to move out of the past, beyond fear, to forgiveness, reconciliation, and love of life.

Published in the 2009-10-09 issue: 

Patrick Henry is Cushing Eells Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Literature at Whitman College. He is the author of We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France during the Holocaust (2007) and the editor of Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis (2014).

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