Her parents were living in Berlin when she was born. Poland was still occupied by the Russians, and many Poles (like Marie Curie and her sister) had emigrated to other countries in Europe, looking for better opportunities. During World War I, they left Germany for Finland. After the war was over, Poland had succeeded in gaining its independence, and the family returned to their homeland.
After graduating from high school in Poland, Irena moved to Paris to study humanities. It was there that she met her first husband, Azis Zangehan, the son of an Iranian prince. The couple moved to Persia, where Irena stayed for two years. Sadly, Irena wasn't able to travel to Poland to visit her family and became very homesick. Eventually, her husband helped her secretly travel to Tehran, where she was able to meet with Polish diplomats who, in turn, helped her leave the country and return to Poland.
After spending time in Warsaw, she eventually returned to Paris, where she met her second husband Jerzy Olgierd Iłłakowicz. They married in 1934, and their daughter Ligia was born in 1936. The young family enjoyed a bit of peace while paying attention to the reports coming out of Germany and preparing for the worst.
The worst came in September 1939 when, within 3 weeks, both the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland. In October, both Irena and Jerzy joined the resistance movement. To protect them from arrests by the Gestapo, she assumed a new name -- Barbara Zawisza -- and she and her husband lived in different locations.
Irena was assigned to a branch responsible for conducting military, economic and information reconnaissance. She was the perfect candidate for this type of work as she spoke seven languages: Polish, French, English, Persian, Finnish, German and Russian. She went to Berlin, where she was a part of a small organization spying on the Germans.
Sadly, over several months in 1941 and '42, her network was destroyed by the Germans, with on-going arrests of activist. Irena herself was arrested by the Gestapo on October 7, 1942. They took her to Pawiak, a prison that was being used to interrogate resistance members, and to process Jews and others for removal to concentration camps. Irena was tortured, but refused to give up any info. Her resistance colleagues, hoping to spare her more torture, sent her a vial of cyanide, but she refused to use it.
Her husband managed to bribe a guard to put her in a group of prisoners being transporter the Majdanek concentration camp. While there, a group of Polish resistance fighters were able to rescue her dressed as Gestapo officers with a forged warrant for her to be brought to Warsaw for further interrogation.
Instead of retiring from spywork, she returned to the resistance, this time working to gather intelligence on Soviet plans to send parachuters into Poland. On the night of October 4, 1943, she received a summon for a meeting that seemed too important to miss. She decided she had to go despite her suspicions. Tragically, it was a set up and she was brutally murdered.
Because she was undercover when she was killed, she was buried with her false name, and her husband and mother had to disguise themselves as cemetery workers in order to attend her funeral. It wasn't until after the war that her mother was able to have a plaque with her real name placed on her grave.
In 1944 Irena was posthumously promoted to second Lieutenant for her bravery during the war.
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