Human rights advocate Irena Kirkland died January 24 at her home in Washington. She was 81.
An outspoken advocate for democracy in the Soviet bloc during the 1980s, Kirkland and her husband, Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president from 1979 to 1995, were renowned for their dinner parties, where such democracy-activist luminaries as Alexander Solzhenitsyn regularly shared a table — and a sounding board — with Washington insiders. She was a board member of the not-for-profit International Rescue Committee, working on behalf of refugees around the world. After her husband’s death in 1999, she helped establish the National Labor College’s Lane Kirkland Center, which opened in 2006. In January, the Prague native was awarded the 2007 Gratias Agit Award by the Czech Foreign Ministry for her work on democracy, human and worker rights, and refugee assistance.
As a young child, Kirkland — born Irena Neumann — was thrown out of school in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1943 her family was transported to Theresienstadt, and in 1944 she and her twin sister were transported to Auschwitz, where they were two of only 200 from their convoy of 2,500 to escape the gas chambers. After the war, she returned to Prague, enrolled at Charles University and became involved in the Social Democratic Party. In 1949, with the Communist Party’s rise to power, she once again found herself thrown out of school; this time she was arrested and interrogated before escaping to Israel. After living briefly in London and Paris, she arrived in America in 1952. Her marriage to Hollywood film producer Henry T. Weinstein ended in divorce, and a chance 1973 meeting with Lane Kirkland — the two had crossed paths in Paris more than a decade earlier — at a New York restaurant resulted in the couple’s marriage.
Kirkland is survived by her twin sister, Alena, of Geneva.