Jeannie Opdyke Smith addressed three audiences in the region last month, sharing with pride the story of her mother, Irene Gut Opdyke, who, as a young Polish-Catholic woman, suffered enormities and risked her life to save Jews — literally under the feet of the Nazis.
Irene Opdyke, whose story inspired the Broadway play Irena’s Vow (with Tovah Feldshuh portraying the protagonist), was the oldest of five sisters who grew up in western Poland. Just weeks after her enrollment in nursing school, Smith said in her appearance at Beth Chaim, her mother noted that “the sun was gone, airplanes were flying, dropping bombs everywhere — Hitler had invaded.”
She said her mother’s wartime experience and survival, like that of many, combined terrifying brutality, serendipity, and raw courage.
After joining a volunteer Polish army unit, Opdyke went into hiding in the Ukrainian forest. She was taken prisoner by Russian soldiers, who raped and beat her. Later arrested in a roundup of Poles, she was sent to work in a munitions factory, where she fell ill.
During her recovery, Smith said, her mother witnessed atrocities against Jews and “yelled” to the heavens, “My God, where are you? How can you let something like this happen? I don’t even believe you’re there.”
Opdyke, said her daughter, came to realize that “God gives us free will to be good or bad, to help and heal or hurt and harm, and it is up to us to decide.” She vowed to do anything she could to aid Jewish victims.
When Opdyke was reassigned to serving meals and overseeing the laundry room in a hotel housing Nazi officers and soldiers, working with her were 12 Jews from the nearby ghetto.
Although in great danger, Opdyke helped them and other Jews by sneaking food into the ghetto. One day she heard that all Jewish workers would be “sent away.” Her Jewish friends begged her for help.
She prayed for a miracle, said Smith, and soon heard that the commanding officer, Major Eduard Rugemer, would be taking a villa, and that she was to become his housekeeper.
She convinced Rugemer she could handle on her own the extensive preparations necessary for his entertaining, so she could provide a refuge for 12 of her Jewish friends in the villa. During the day, when Rugemer was gone, they would help Opdyke with her work; at night, they hid in an underground space off the cellar. “Every night the major came home amazed” at the work Opdyke had managed to accomplish by herself.
When one of the women in hiding, Ida Haller, became pregnant, not wanting to risk the lives of the others, she asked Opdyke to bring her supplies for an abortion.
Opdyke refused, saying, “We’ve already seen so many innocent people murdered. Hitler is not going to have this baby.” Smith added, “They agreed that they all would live together and die together.”
Death was indeed all around. One day, Opdyke witnessed the hanging of a Polish-Christian family with two small children who had hidden a Jewish family. “They hanged the children first and made the parents watch,” Smith said.
Opdyke was so shaken that day she forgot to lock the villa door; Rugemer walked in unexpectedly and spotted three of the Jews.
In response to her pleas that he punish her and spare her friends, Rugemer demanded, “You have to be mine any time I ask and willingly,” said Smith. Opdyke agreed.
With the Soviets approaching, she and the 12 Jews were able to escape and join the partisans in the woods, where, six days later, Roman Haller was born.
Opdyke eventually landed in a displaced persons’ camp, where a UN representative interviewed her and invited her to immigrate to the United States, which she did in 1948.
Five years later, when she was dining in a New York restaurant to celebrate becoming a U.S. citizen, the UN delegate who had interviewed her sat beside her. Six weeks later they were married.
At first, said Smith, her mother put a “do not disturb sign” on her memories. She herself first learned about her mother’s war experiences at age 14, when Opdyke told the story to a college student conducting a survey related to Holocaust denial. Smith said, “Tears streaming down her face, she hung up the phone and said, ‘All these years I have kept silent about what hate can do. When you don’t talk about these things, history will continue to repeat itself. I am willing now to go anywhere and talk to anybody about this.’”
Opdyke’s autobiography, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, was published in 1999, and in 1982, she was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations; she died in 2003.
Opdyke’s story, said Smith, is also about love and forgiveness. “The love that is required for something like this never to happen again is love that says, ‘You are worthy of my time; we are part of one human family.’”
Smith asked the audience of 20 at Beth Chaim, “Do you want to have power and influence, more than any army or weapon? A combination of love and forgiveness are the only things that will soften the hardest of hearts and open the most closed minds.”