Irena Mirecki wasn’t born in Poland and she didn’t die in Poland. But for all of her 68 years, her heart lived in all things Polish.
The Polish American Congress, the Friends of John Paul II Foundation, social organizations, church groups, historical societies and scouting organizations all recognized her dedication and leadership to her heart’s homeland.
Mrs. Mirecki died Dec. 13 of coronary artery disease in her McLean home, her daughter Marta Mirecki said.
“You see, Irena ascribes to the ‘one-drop’ rule of Polish heritage,” said her daughter, a former naval officer and who now works as a chef. “If you have one drop of Polish blood, you are Polish. Not part-Polish, or one-eighth. Polish.”
Drop a Polish joke and Mrs. Mirecki would bristle — and have her say.
D.C. Council Member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) felt the heat when he used the term “Polack” in his attempts to reconcile with local Asian American advocates earlier this year.
Mrs. Mirecki’s husband, Ted Mirecki, went on camera with a local television station to demand an apology for Barry’s gaffe. It was his wife who helped fuel the anger.
“She was very involved in all those things,” Ted Mirecki said. “I would do the writing and the talking — she wasn’t always confident in her English — but she would find these things to write about.”
She was born Irena Pogodzinska on Dec. 11, 1944, in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, after her father and pregnant mother, Stanislaw and Paulina Pogodzinski, were arrested by German occupiers on suspicion of helping the Polish resistance. Her father was killed in an attempt to escape from a deportation camp before his daughter was born.
The widowed mother took her infant daughter to Poland after the war ended in 1945. They were forced to resettle in newly established Polish territory along the Czech border because her ancestral land was redrawn as part of the Soviet Union.
Mrs. Mirecki gained two brothers, a sister and a new name — Szymczak — in her mother’s remarriage. Life in postwar communist Poland was not easy, and the family was among thousands of others who persistently applied for an emigration visa. In 1962, the Szymczak family was allowed to leave for Chicago, joining the largest concentration of Poles outside Warsaw.
The parents and younger siblings went first. Irena Szymczak came alone a few months later, after graduating from high school. In Chicago, she joined a Polish scouting organization, enrolled in English classes and bought a Ford Galaxie.
There was one Polish tradition she abandoned when she moved to America — making the humble pierogi, a national dish of Poland. The little purses of stuffed dough were a way to stretch very little meat for several meals. But in America, the abundance of meat left the necessity for the humble pierogi behind.
In Chicago, Mrs. Mirecki worked at a Zenith factory soldering televisions, took chemistry courses and eventually worked for Sherwin-Williams as a chemist, testing the paints that would coat caskets and tanks.
Following her husband’s job transfer with Microsoft, the family moved to the Washington area in 1987, and Mrs. Mirecki became a leader in the local Polish community.
From Washington, she worked with church and other nonprofit groups to help launch numerous programs in post-communist Poland, including breast-cancer awareness and child literacy programs that emphasize parental involvement. She regularly traveled to Rome and had an audience with Pope John Paul II, the Polish pontiff.
“It wasn’t a big group of people and the pope,” Ted Mirecki said. “It was one-on-one.”
Mostly, they just talked about the things they loved about Poland.
Whenever Mrs. Mirecki traveled in the United States, whether to a Polish music festival in Arizona or to see a Polish art exhibit in Miami, she advocated, wrote letters and constantly worked to clarify misperceptions.
Her death reverberated throughout the Polish community. The Polish Embassy posted news of Mrs. Mirecki’s death to its Facebook page and the chargé d’affaires, Maciej Pisarski, wrote a long e-mail to the family, then attended the funeral.
She had four grandchildren, all of whom received traditional Polish outfits from her, learned some of the language and knew her as their “Babcia.”
In addition to her husband of 45 years, Mrs. Mirecki’s survivors include her two daughters. Joanna Mirecki Millunchick has carried on her mother’s love of the sciences as a professor of materials and science engineering at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Her younger daughter, Marta Mirecki, who lives on Capitol Hill, teaches hundreds of Washingtonians the art of the pierogi in her cooking classes, where she is known as Professor Pierogi.