- Published: January 27, 2011
Irene Landkof Jerison died peacefully at home in Los Angeles, Calif. on Jan. 6. She was 84.
Born November 20, 1926, in Lodz, Poland, Irene was the only child of Abram Landkof, a physician and city councilman, and Lina (Lola) Dubowska Landkof, a dentist. Irene wished to be known for her posi-tive accomplishments, not merely for her membership in the small fraternity of Holocaust survivors. However, she believed emphatically in sharing her experiences, hoping to promote tolerance by reminding the world of the depths humanity can reach when overcome by hatred of the despised “other.”
Irene led what she described as a privileged childhood, first interrupted by the loss of her father when she was only 10, then brought to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War II and the German occupation of western Poland in September 1939.
Irene and her mother survived over five years’ imprisonment, slavery and starvation in the Nazi ghetto of Lodz. She narrowly escaped deportation to the Auschwitz death camp when a friend dragged her off the wagon she had climbed into in a fruitless effort to save her grandmother. With the liquidation of the ghetto, Irene and her mother were transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. After three weeks in Ravensbrück, they spent the last six months of their captivity in a slave-labor camp in Wittenberg, Germany, from which they were liberated by the Red Army in late April, 1945. They made their way back to Poland, first on foot, then in a requisitioned horse-drawn farm wagon, and finally by troop train. Despite the horrors she endured and the worse horrors she witnessed, she always emphasized the good she found in people of all backgrounds: the German camp foreman who risked his life to smuggle in a newspaper and a couple of eggs; the Russian soldier who helped her and her small group of fellow survivors escape the front and begin their return to Poland.
Irene began learning English through illicit lessons while imprisoned in the ghetto, hoping to immigrate to the United States after the war. She remained in Poland for only a short time after her liberation. During a year and a half in London, England, she studied for and passed a high-school equivalency exam, also finding time to write a short war memoir, in English, which was published in the Watertown, S.D. Public Opinion in 1946. Her first short story was published in the same newspaper a year later, after she arrived in the United States.
Irene’s education resumed with enrollment at the University of South Dakota. She soon transferred to the University of Chicago, where she earned a master of science degree in sociology, her only formal degree. While in Chicago she met the love of her life, Harry Jerison, whom she married in December, 1950. She and Harry moved to Yellow Springs in 1953, where he took a position at Antioch College.
Irene flourished in the diverse environment of Yellow Springs. An early member of the Writers’ Group, she was encouraged to submit a longer short story, “The Season of the Hats,” to the Atlantic Monthly, which published it in 1960. Irene continued writing as long as she was able, publishing numerous travel and opinion pieces in magazines and newspapers. She became active in the League of Women Voters, serving as president of the Greene County League and vice-president of the Ohio League. In the latter capacity she testified before a committee of the Ohio Assembly.
Political activism came naturally to her. As a girl, she participated in her first civil rights action, a student protest against anti-Semitic rules imposed before the war by Polish universities. While a resident in Yellow Springs she organized marches in support of school levies. She remained active in education after moving to Los Angeles in 1969, becoming one of the founders of Crossroads School, now a leading private school in Santa Monica.
Miserable wartime experiences notwithstanding, Irene embraced the rough-ish life and became an avid camper. She managed family camping expeditions all over the United States and in Canada, Europe and Mexico, including a 1966 trip from Paris to Moscow and back in a VW camper. Any little inconveniences accompanying travel in a tiny camper, behind the Iron Curtain, with three children aged six to fourteen, merely added color to the stories she would write and tell in later years. Travel didn’t have to be inconvenient to be fun, though. Harry’s academic life and her later travel-writing career helped support more comfortable visits to interesting destinations around the world. While based in Los Angeles, she and Harry had several lengthy sojourns in Cambridge, Oxford and London, England, Tuebingen, Germany and Florence, Italy.
Irene had a remarkable gift for language. While living in Italy she sometimes found herself on the receiving end of torrents of Italian delivered by interlocutors who couldn’t detect an accent, even though she had only a very limited command of what was perhaps her eighth or ninth language. She conducted her entire writing career in her fourth language, English, never allowing the least speck of suspect grammar to see print under her byline. In addition to articles and short stories, she translated numerous scientific and other texts from French, German, Polish, Czech and other languages into English. With Harry’s help she translated her Russian great-uncle Zalman (Jim) Vendrof’s Yiddish short stories and published the collection, When it Comes to Living, in 2004.
Through loving, devoted care from Harry, their daughter Elizabeth and her family, and several remarkable caregivers, Irene was able to remain comfortably at home throughout her slow decline. In addition to Harry and Elizabeth, she is survived by Elizabeth’s husband, Mike, and their sons Nico and Brendan of Los Angeles, Calif.; her son Jonathan, his wife Susan and daughters Hannah and Emily of Bethesda, Md.; her son Andrew, his wife Deborah and their son Alexander of Yellow Springs; and Andrew and Deborah’s son, Benjamin Whitmer, his wife Brooky Parks and their children Madeline and Jacob of Denver, Colo. She also leaves nieces, nephews and cousins in the United States and Israel. Friends wishing to contribute to the Alzheimer’s Association in her name may do so at tiny.cc/IreneJerison.