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Belatedly, Irena received recognition including Poland’s highest honour.But inevitably, the American students’ portrait of Irena reflected their youthful naivety.She made two coded lists, recording the children’s fake and real identities, and buried these in glass jars in the garden of a friend.She escaped on the morning of her scheduled execution with the connivance of her guard, who had been bribed by the resistance.Her daughter Janka, 61, who lives in Warsaw, told me, ‘My father [Stefan Zgrzembski] met Mum before the war.I don’t know exactly what it was about her that fascinated him but somehow their love affair continued even though she married someone else.’ They hid the children in coffins and body bags, led them through cellars and sewers; they sedated babies and carried them out in boxes.But my brother never got over this, while I decided there was no purpose in scratching old scabs.’ 'She was asked to save two children, a boy and a girl.The parents wanted them to go but the grandparents did not.
She was 29, beautiful, with a ‘fantastic will for life’.
Irena emerged into the international spotlight as a predictable female stereotype: a Madonna of the ghetto, a living saint.
Shortly after the students found her, Irena retreated to a care home, her world now shrunk to a high-backed chair and a table holding pill bottles, tissue boxes and faded photographs.
‘I was 14 when I realised that my “father” had died in 1941, whereas I was born in 1942,’ she told me.
‘When I was 17, a friend said she’d heard I was Jewish.