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“She gave me life”: How Irena Szumska-Ingram saved her Jewish husband

In November 2009, Irena Szumska-Ingram was honoured posthumously with the Righteous Among the Nations award for saving the life of Bernard Hellreich – the man who would later become her husband. 

Bernard was introduced to Irena while working as a doctor during Nazi occupation. He would describe her as “hopelessly beautiful.” 

Image: Bernard Hellreich and Irena Szumska-Ingram, 1950. From SJM Collection.

On 22 June 1941 Germany began its offensive against Russia. With Tarnopol in the grips of chaos, many of their Jewish friends and colleagues fled east, but Bernard remained with Irena.

The arrival of the Nazis, heralded a massive anti-Jewish massacre, during which time, Irena sheltered Bernard in the home she shared with her mother and sister. 

When the Tarnopol Ghetto was established, Bernard was appointed as a doctor for the new labour camp at Hluboszek. He was granted permission to come and go from the ghetto to gather medical supplies. 

As conditions deteriorated and deportations began, Irena arranged false documents for Bernard, including a birth certificate and passport, under the name of her ex-boyfriend. 

On 1 April 1942, Bernard walked out of the ghetto to begin a life in hiding as a Christian under a fake name. They headed for Nowy Sacz and then for a village called Czermna, where they would spend the next two-and-a-half years. As the village gained increasing German scrutiny, the couple moved to neighbouring Swiecany.

Finally, on 14 January 1945, the arrival of the Russian army put an end to Bernard’s “nightmare of being hunted, hated and degraded.” 

Upon his return to Poland after the war, Bernard discovered that his father had been murdered in Belzec and that his sister Etka, stepmother and her two sons, Munio and Izio, had all been killed. Only his younger brother, Mietek, survived.

Dr Bernard Hellreich married the woman who saved his life, and in 1947 the couple moved to Australia, settling in Swansea near Newcastle, where he became the only resident doctor. 

In his autobiography, Unfinished Symphony, he wrote of his wife: 

“Irena was a person of exceptional beauty and courage, of fascinating personality… Without her, I would have been destroyed, crushed, forgotten – another abstract, anonymous addition to the list of millions of victims of the Holocaust. She gave me life.”

 

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