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The Pioneering Gentile – Irena Adamowicz

She traveled from ghetto to ghetto.

Irena Adamowicz was a Polish scout leader and integral member of the anti-Nazi Resistance who helped trapped in Jews in ghettoes survive and communicate with Jews in other ghettoes to plan uprisings.

A devout Roman Catholic born to a family of Polish aristocrats, Irena grew up in Warsaw and was an avid participant in the Polish Scouting movement, also known as the Pioneers, which was similar to the American Girl Scouts. When she reached her teen years, Irena became a Scout leader.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Warsaw and remained active in the scouting movement as an adult, providing counseling and teaching classes for young girl scouts. In the 1930’s she was one of the few Polish scouts who reached out to the Jewish youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. Irena used her extensive scouting experience to help the Jewish group develop programs and classes, and she became a counselor to both Catholic and Jewish youth. At this time Irena worked as an inspector of children’s homes.

When Germany invaded Poland the Nazi occupiers targeted the Catholic scouting movement, characterizing boy and girl scouts as criminals and dangerous partisans. Many scouts were executed without trial, including those killed during the notorious Katowice massacre.

Irena joined the Home Army, a clandestine Polish resistance movement, and made contact with leaders of the Jewish Fighting Organization, a resistance group led by some of Irena’s friends from Hashomer Hatzair. As Jews were forced into ghettoes in Poland’s biggest cities, she hid Jewish friends in her apartment. Irena was allowed to travel in and out of the Jewish ghettoes because of her work as an inspector. Irena became a courier, delivering messages from ghetto to ghetto and enabling Jewish resistance leaders to communicate with each other and plan uprisings against the Nazis. She often traveled dressed as German nun. Although she knew that her resistance work put her own life at risk, she also provided food, medicine, clothing, and other crucial aid to Jews suffering in the squalid, disease-ridden ghettoes. She also provided moral support, and touched many hearts during an inspirational visit to the Kovno Ghetto in July 1942. The Kovno Jews gave her the nickname, “The Pioneering Gentile.”

After the war, Irena maintained close friendships with some of the few Jews who had survived.She worked as a translator and librarian. In 1958 Irena traveled to Israel and worked on a kibbutz for three months. After her return to Poland, the secret police kept her under surveillance and prohibited her from contacting any of her friends in Israel.

Irena lived in Poland until her death in 1973. She was posthumously honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in 1985, and was one of the main subjects of a groundbreaking book by Bartoszewski and Lewin, “How Poles Helped the Jews, 1939-1945.

For reaching out to Jews in times of peace, and risking her life to save them in times of danger, we honor Irena Adamowicz as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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