By the time Irene Pipes and her husband Richard were starting a family in 1949, the Jewish refugees had become fully assimilated Americans.
It had been only nine years since each had fled Nazi-occupied Poland with their families, who settled in New York. After meeting in college and getting married, the young couple was about to enter the Ivy League world of Harvard and Cambridge, and looked only to a bright future. They wanted nothing to do with the traumas of their past.
The only time their oldest son Daniel and his brother Steven heard Polish was when their family gathered with relatives and when their parents didn’t want them to understand what they were saying to each other.
“Polish was a secret language,” Daniel told the Jewish Journal in a conversation recalling his mother Irene, who died July 31 in Cambridge at age 98.
Richard, her beloved husband and companion for some 72 years of marriage, died five years ago. The career-long Harvard University professor was a scholar of Russian and Soviet history and an adviser to the Reagan administration on Soviet and Eastern European policy.
In ways Irene would never have imagined, she discovered a level of comfort and pleasure in her native Warsaw, Daniel wrote in a published remembrance. It was a transformation that began in the 1950s and continued for the rest of her life, said Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum and a prominent commentator on the region.
“She felt very much at home in her native town, delighting in the language, food, and high culture,” he wrote.
Over time, she became an early and influential champion of fostering Jewish-Polish relations and of the re-emergence of Jewish life in Poland.
Her advocacy included serving as president of the American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies since the 1990s and she played a leading role in the production of Gazeta, the association’s notable quarterly journal, Antony Polonsky wrote in a comment to Daniel Pipes’ remembrance. Polonsky is an emeritus professor of Holocaust and Jewish studies at Brandeis University and chief historian at Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
“She employed her considerable diplomatic talents to foster dialogue on difficult and divisive issues,” Polonsky wrote.
Her contributions to Polish-Jewish understanding earned her the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, noted Polonsky, who worked closely with Irene at the American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies.
Daniel Pipes realized only recently that his mother’s embrace of Poland stood out among some Jewish Polish refugees and survivors, who did not want to visit their native country having survived persecution against Jews and in some cases, the deadly Holocaust.
Over time, Irene began to spend one month every year in Warsaw, Daniel Pipes said. His father was a reluctant co-traveler, among those who would have preferred to spend less time there.
“She was appreciated there as someone who carried this pre-war, pre-fascist, pre-Communist culture,” he recalled about his mother.
There was also a touch of nostalgia, Daniel Pipes said.
Born Irena Eugenia Roth in Warsaw on Nov. 28, 1924, she recalled a happy childhood with her younger sister, Hanna, enjoying a financially comfortable lifestyle. When Daniel Pipes and his family traveled to Warsaw with his mother, she was eager to take them to the pastry shop cafe she had frequented with her grandmother years before.
She developed close friendships with college professors and people in the arts, including Krzysztof Penderecki, a prominent classical composer, and his wife, Elzbieta.
Her friendship with professor Józef Andrzej Gierowski, the rector of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, led to her keen interest in the university’s Institute for Jewish Studies. Nearly a decade ago, she established a research center on the history and culture of Polish Jewry and Polish-Jewish relations.
She her husband, Richard, and Daniel Pipes were guests at the launch of the center, with a two-day program in October of 2014 that included talks by Richard and Daniel, according to professor Michal Galas, the center’s director appointed from its founding.
Edyta Gawron, a professor at the Jewish Institute, recalled fond conversations she had with Irene over the course of her many visits to Krakow, with Irene speaking in fluent Polish about her favorite food and places she enjoyed visiting.
She was always eager to speak with young people taking Jewish studies classes.
“I think she admired their determination to commemorate the Jewish life in Poland,” Gawron said in an email.
Irene stayed up-to-date on current events in Poland, both her son and Polonsky said. Despite being saddened by the recent rise of populism there, she never lost her sense of hope for Poland’s future and in Jewish-Polish relations.
“She remained optimistic, convinced that people of good will would find common ground,” Polonsky wrote. “She will be sorely missed.” Θ