Irena Gelblum. Jewish Fighter Who Chose Not To Exist.



For years, the narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was written by men. That’s why the story of Jewish women liaison officers, fighters and conspirators is so little known. Female liaison officers were on the front line – they smuggled weapons to incite anti-Nazi resistance, money to help Jews in hiding, and rescued people. April 19 marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is also an opportunity to tell the story of the courage of Jewish women fighters. One of them was Irena Gelblum, unknown to the world for decades. Journalist and writer Remigiusz Grzela devoted fourteen years to her biography. “The Three Lives of Irena Gelblum” (“Trzy życia Ireny Gelblum”, Bellona Publishing House, Warsaw) with an introduction by Professor Norman Davies (“God’s Playground”, “Rising 44. The Battle for Warsaw”) and an introduction by Holocaust survivor historian Marian Turski, whose words “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky” circulated the world three years ago, is the most likely version of herstory. Probable because she herself for years falsified it, destroyed documents and traces.

Irena Gelblum was born in Warsaw in 1923 to a wealthy Jewish family. When World War II broke out she was 16 years old. She ended up in the Warsaw ghetto with her family, from where she probably came out in 1942, and thanks to her excellent knowledge of German and also her so-called good looks, she got a job at the post office. She quickly made contact with the Jewish underground and joined the Jewish Combat Organization, which was formed in July 1942. She operated on the Aryan side, including running the ŻOB (JCO) contact apartment at 5 Panska St. in Warsaw, where the most important figures of the Jewish resistance were hiding. Her parents and only brother were sent to the Sobibor camp, where they perished. She tried to save them and organized their rescue, one day late. She participated in actions of the Jewish Combat Organization together with her then love, Kazik Ratajzer (Symcha Rotem) but also took part in individual actions. Among the most daring was the leading out of another liaison officer, Renia Kukiełka, from the Mysłowice camp. Irena Gelblum entered the camp, ordered Kukielka to put on her clothes and leave in them, and stayed in her place herself, confident that she would be saved. That’s what happened, too. Together with other ŻOB activists, she took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. After the war, she joined the Nakam group – 50 Jewish avengers centered around the “prophet of vengeance,” later Israeli poet Aby Kowner. Their plan was to kill 6 million Germans for 6 million Jews by, among other things, poisoning the German water supply. The plot was halted, Ben Gurion did not want to build the state of Israel on revenge. The avengers illegally emigrated to Palestine. All but Irena Gelblum stayed there. In 1948 she returned to Warsaw already with the false name of Conti.

Her post-war fate is an attempt to change her own identity and repress her wartime heroism. She was a stewardess, a journalist and a colorful figure of Warsaw. When, after March 1968, on a wave of anti-Semitic campaign created by the USSR (Polish society supported Israel in the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, contrary to Soviet policy), she, like other Polish citizens of Jewish descent, was to leave without being able to return, she decided to completely change her identity. She married Italian journalist Antonio Di Mauro, already gaining confirmation of her “Italian” plan. She became Irena Conti Di Mauro, leaving Poland on a consular passport. This allowed her to return to Poland very quickly. In the 1970s she began to build a new life in Poland as an Italian poet living near Warsaw, born in 1931, and as such everyone knew her. She even changed her voice and the way she spoke. She did not recognize people from her past. She remained Irena Conti Di Mauro until her death in 2009. She left no trace of her wartime biography. Others who knew her at the time respected her decision and did not talk about her.

Remigiusz Grzela, who knew her as Irena Conti Di Mauro (she translated his poems into Italian and wrote the afterword to one of his books), began documenting her biography after her death.

“Three Lives of Irena Gelblum” also tells the story of other Jewish heroines of the time, including Ziuta Hartman of the Jewish Military Union, Chajka Klinger, who founded the resistance movement in Będzin, Wladka Meed, Luba Zylberg, Chawka Folman-Raban.

British historian Professor Norman Davis noted in the Introduction: – It is a work of salvage or rescue – in the author’s words ‘rebellion against erasure’ – that aims to recover what might easily have been lost. It tells of a remarkable woman, who not only lived a highly complicated life or lives, but who on occasion conceal her identity or, changed it.

Marian Turski, Holocaust survivor and Chairman of the Council of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews wrote: – I knew Irena. I got to know her after the war. I knew about her obsession, which I would call the elixir of youth. I respected this obsession and when – as a scientific editor – I made footnotes to [Antek] Cukierman’s memoirs – I did not reveal her identity. I am grateful to the author and the publishing house for honoring the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising with publishing of this book.

Remigiusz Grzela: – Irena Gelblum’s wartime deeds were courageous, and not, as men used to say, crazy. She dared to do so much because she had nothing left to lose. She went against armed occupiers. And later she walked against the emerging narratives. Finally, she decided to go even against herself. This last struggle perhaps proved to be the most difficult, because it lasted at least forty years, virtually non-stop.

Prof. Norman Davies: – Everyone’s identity is fluid, or potentially fluid. It is a mixture of what we are or were, and what we try to be. And Irena went through the mill of identity-testing several times over. Was she Polish or Jewish or Italian or what? She was all of those things, and more besides. Lastly, Irena Gelblum’s lives display the triumph of the human spirit, such as few mortals achieve. She came through terrible ordeals to be herself, to possess her own distinctive voice, and to be an inspiration to others.

Irena Gelblum