Irene Bessette was born in 1924, in the heart of the predominantly Jewish section of Warsaw, Poland. Irene had a sister two years older than her, and both her parents were dentists at the time.
Irene was 15 years old when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. Soon after, Irene’s school was bombed and she was unable to receive a formal education elsewhere, because the Jews were no longer allowed to congregate together. Irene was, however, able to join a small study group that met privately, so that she was able to continue her education as much as she could.
In 1940, the ghetto that had once been the neighborhood that Irene lived in, was sealed. For the next two years, Irene and her family learned how to live in constant fear of the Germans patrolling their every move. After Hitler invaded Russia in 1942, the liquidation of the ghetto began and Irene and her family found themselves transported to a transfer area by the name of Umschlagplatz. Wanting to leave the ghetto, Irene and her sister were smuggled into Zakrzowek to join their mother.
A short time later, Irene had to make a risky trip back to Warsaw to obtain false identity papers for everyone back in Zakrzowek. When Irene had completed her journey there and back, she discovered that her family had fled Zakrzowek, but was able to find them hiding and together they made their way back to Warsaw. Once in Warsaw, Irene and her family lived a life of constant moving from one hiding place to the next.
In 1943, Irene and her sister made it to Lorraine and worked as slaves on a farm. At the farm, Irene met Jozef Borys, whom she married. She had a son, Richard, a few weeks before that part of Lorraine was liberated by the Russians, and through the entire time, Irene managed to keep her Jewish identity a secret.
When Irene and her sister learned that their parents had also survived the war, they returned to Warsaw in 1946. Irene divorced Jozef and returned to France, where she worked on obtaining her teaching license, and then a law degree at the University of Bordeaux. As a displace person, Irene could not work in France, so instead, she went to Morocco where her sister was. When Morocco was liberated in 1995, Irene followed her sister to New York, where she was able to receive her masters in library science and eventually an American law degree.
Irene ended her degree in Kingston, Ontario, at Queens University Law School, where she became the first female professor. There, she met Gerard Bessette, a Professor of French and Quebec literature whom she ended up marrying. In 2008, Irene Bessette returned to the United States again to be in the same town as her son, in Portland, Oregon.
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