Poles in the UK and around the world are mourning the loss of one of their greatest patriots from the Second World War. Irena Renata Anders, who died on 29 November at the age of 90, was the widow of the Polish general Wladyslaw Anders and an actress and singer who not only captured hearts but marched alongside Polish soldiers.
Following the Russian-Polish military agreement in 1941, General Anders was released from the Lubianka prison and asked to form an army from the Polish soldiers being similarly released from gulags in Siberia. Irena, (using her stage name of Renata Bogdanska) was there as part of the "Polish Parade", a theatrical company keeping spirits high among the new army as it marched through Russia to the the shelter of the Middle East, all the way to the decisive victory for the Allies at Monte Cassino in 1944.
Under the leadership of General Anders the Poles, secured a hard-won victory on the Italian mountain. And it was Irena Anders who is said to have first sung "Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino" ("Red Poppies on Monte Cassino"), written in the midst of the fighting in honour of those who lost their lives. Her beauty was famed and her talent was well remembered by those who were there: Polish veterans recal her singing to them on the back of trucks as they moved across war-torn Europe.
Irena – who was born Irena Renata Jarosiewicz in 1920 near Olomouc in the present-day Czech Republic – continued to dedicate her life to Poland after the war, sharing her joy of singing in an extensive theatrical career and humbly accepting the duties of her role as unofficial "first lady" of Poland. She worked tirelessly to promote the advancement of the Polish people and culture. Her death is a closing chapter in the story of those Poles who fought their way back to freedom and democracy through battle and through song.
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