Righteous Gentile Honored in Sydney.

May 13, 2010 by Henry Benjamin
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Sydney’s Israel’s Independence Day celebration witnessed the posthumous award of Righteous Amongst the Nations to Irena Szumska-Ingram, a Polish woman who saved the life of a Jewish doctor whom she was later to marry.

H.E. Yuval Rotem, Premier Kristina Keneally, Robin Margo, Dor Shapira, Vivienne and Christopher Ingram pic Henry Benjamin

Bernard and Irena

Irena Szumska-Ingram was working as a clerk in Tarnow, a Polish city near the Slovakian border and home before the WWII to 25,000 Jews.  In September 1939, the Germans burned down the town’s synagogues and in June, 1942 , 13,500 members of the Jewish community were sent to the Belzec extermination camp. Those remaining were herded into a ghetto. In September 1943, the 10,000 Jews living in the ghetto were transported to the Auschwitz and  Plaszow concentration camps. At the end of the war, only 700 Jews returned to Tarnow and most of them eventually emigrated to Israel.

In 1937, Szumska-Ingram had fainted in her office  and Dr Hellreich was called to attend to her…marking the beginning a lifelong relationship.

When the deportation of Jews began, she hid him in the apartment she shared with her mother and sister. But Hellreich decided to return to the Ghetto and was sent to work as a doctor in the labour camps. When the final transportations started and his life was seriously threatened yet again, Irena Szumska-Ingram hid him once again…this time with a friend in the outlying countryside where Dr Hellreich continued to work.

At the end of the war,, Dr  Bernard Hellreich married ther woman who had saved his life and in 1948 the couple moved to Australia, settling in the NSW city of Newcastle.

The State of Israel grants the Righteous Amongst the Nations Award only to those whose stories have been verified by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Authority.

Dr Bernard Hellreich was very keen to nominate his wife for the award, granted to non-Jews who directly helped to save Jewish lives during WWII…but she did not want to be nominated.

Irena Szumska-Ingrim died  in 2003 at the age of 84 and three years later, her husband submitted the nomination. Five days before his death in 2008, he signed the papers and Yad Vashem advised the State of Israel that Szumska-Ingram’s nomination had been authorised.

Ambassador Yuval Rotem toasts HM the Queen and Australia

Last night, before 550 people celebrating Israel’s 62nd Independence Day anniversary in Sydney’s Amora Jamison Hotel, on behalf of the State of Israel,  Premier Kristina Keneally presented the medal and Israel’s Ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem presented the certificate to Irena Szumska-Ingram’s children, Vivienne and Christopher Ingram.

Vivienne receives the award from Premier Kristina Keneally

Dor Shapira, the Political Affairs Attache at the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, said: “In Bernard’s testimony, he recounted how Irena risked her life for him. They shared everything they had…food, clothing and money. There was never a financial agreement and Bernard said that Irena’s contribution to his survival, both emotional and physical was invaluable. For whatever reason, in performing her acts of bravery and selflessness from when the war began until it ended , she endangered her life for him daily.”

In a quote from his book “Unfinished Symphony”, Bernard Hellreich wrote: “Irena was a person of  exceptional beauty and courage. Defying the odds, she decided to swim against a strong current of Nazi hatred . Without her, I would have been destroyed, crushed, forgotten. She gave me my life.”

In her address, Vivienne Ingram said: “My mother’s heroism is the stark reminder of the infinite power of the individual to make a difference in the face of impossible odds. She defied the Nazi juggernaut with her only weapon…love.”

In 1989 the Ingrams’  friend Marian Julebioski was honoured as Righteous Amongst the Nations at Yad Vashemin 1989 and Bernard and his daughter Vivienne travelled from Newcastle to Israel to attend the ceremony.

Vivienne Ingram told J-Wire: “The Germans had my father in an open camp in a village named Hlubozek…and my mother could freely visit him there. One day, the camp commandant tried to rape her and she fled with my father to the village of Jaslo where Marian was simply told by my mother that my father had to be hidden. One of Marian’s friends gave my father his identity papers and my father then assumed this new persona. The Germans started to make life uncomfortable so Marian

Chris and Vivienne with their late mother's awards pic: Henry Benjamin

made arrangements for my parents to move to an impoverished village called Czermna . She remembered a woman pulling a cart because she could not afford a horse. He said he was a medical student as his ID conflicted with his medical practising certificate. Another one of my mother’s boyfriends was persuaded  by my mother to give my father his ID so he spent the rest of the war in that village as a medical student under an assumed name. When I went to visit that village 50 years later, a woman gave me a huge bowl of eggs as she remembered being treated by my father when she was six.”

The award is a medal, certificate and Irena’s name recorded on the mount of remembrance in Jerusalem.

The certificate is bordered with the well-known words “Whoever saves one life is as though he had saved the entire world”.

The function was addressed by Robin Margo, the President of NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Frank Levy, president of the State Zionist Council of NSW, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally and Israel’s ambassdor to Australia, Yuval Rotem.

For the 550 who had attended the function, the story of Irena Szumska-Ingram served as an emotional reminder they had been celebrating the 62nd anniversary of Israel’s independence…the country that had risen from the ashes of the Holocaust and which, to this day, acknowledges those who extricated Jews from the cruels jaws of the Nazis’ death machines.
Chris and Vivienne Watson have donated the medal and the certificate to the Sydney Jewish Museum.

L-R Christopher Ingram, HE Yuval Rotem, Vivienne Ingram, Premier Kristina Keneally, Robin Margo, Dor Shapira, Frank Levy pic: Henry Benjamin

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