What is it that gives a young woman torn from her family and in a strange country the strength to withstand the evil of a whole culture? From what depths of soul does the conviction come that one Polish teenage girl can stand up against the Gestapo of Hitler's Germany?
Irene Gut Opdyke spun her incredible tale of courage and heroism in the sanctuary of Salt Lake's Congregation Kol Ami during the recent United Jewish Appeal. It is a story Opdyke has told many times since the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem named her a "Righteous Gentile" in 1982 and planted a tree in her honor in the Avenue of the Righteous overlooking Jerusalem.Opdyke saved 12 Jews by hiding them in the cellar of a German major's villa where she served as his housekeeper. She was also responsible for saving hundreds of others when she alerted the Jewish underground to Gestapo plans to liquidate the nearby Jewish ghetto.
Opdyke has been speaking out about her Holocaust experiences ever since the day in the early 1970s when she heard of a group called "The Institute for Historical Review" in Costa Mesa, Calif., which claims the Holocaust never happened.
"It was almost like the Lord said to me, `I give you the time to raise your daughter - now you are not finished,' " Opdyke says of her "call." "How dare they say such things? I was there! I speak, I want to be a witness," she said angrily during an interview.
The 17-year-old known then as Irene Gut was away from home studying to be a nurse when Hitler and Stalin made a pact and divided up Poland. She was stranded in Radom, near the German border, when the Russians invaded from the east and the Germans invaded from the west. She and several other nurses fled to the Ukrainian forests, where three Russian soldiers brutally raped and beat Irene, leaving her to die.
Upon awakening in a Russian hospital, she remembers being temporarily blinded, and she screamed and cried out for her mother. Suddenly, in the midst of her terror, loving arms and a soft voice reassured her, and though she could not understand the language, "The voice was telling me that there was somebody that cared," she said of her Russian nurse.
Irene Gut embarked on a search for her family, but she was rounded up with other young people and sent to Germany to work. One day the streets were barricaded with barbed wire and she witnessed Jews being sent to their deaths for the first time.
"I saw sick old men, pregnant women, little children, babies - machine-gunned. And whoever was dead, they were the lucky ones, because the earth was shaking with the breath of those who were buried alive," Opdyke said, the terror as fresh for her as if it were yesterday. "I see it like in kaleidoscope before my eyes."
Opdyke said the massacre happened so fast she couldn't grasp what was occurring. "I didn't know what was happening. I prayed, `God, where are you?' And I made a vow: If the opportunity arises, I will help. In war, you don't make decisions, they are made for you," she said.
Opdyke was assigned to work in a munitions factory. But the chemicals made her ill and she fainted one day in front of a German major named Reugemer. Knowing that the Germans considered the Poles only a notch above Jews and that her life depended on it, Opdyke explained to him in her best high school German that she had just come from the Russian front and wanted to work, to give her another chance. She was given the job of serving lunch to the officers and secretaries in an officers' barracks. A dozen Jews were in charge of laundry at the barracks; they included a lawyer, a doctor, a tailor, a dressmaker and a nurse.
While serving the officers one day, Opdyke overheard the local head of the Gestapo discussing an unexpected raid. She passed the word to the Jewish laundry team and many people were warned. "I became the eyes and ears for the Jewish people," Opdyke said.
The day came when the total liquidation of the ghetto was planned. Her friends came back to her, "Irene, help!" they begged. "I told them I didn't know how, but I would," Opdyke recalled. "I knew if I don't help, they would be dead. I was desperate, I had no house, I did not have family. I could only pray. But like a miracle, a couple of days later the old major called me in and said, `I have a villa and you'll be my housekeeper.' "
Opdyke was overjoyed. She told her Jewish friends of the villa in Tarnopol, and in the dark of night, they slipped one by one through a window in the villa and down the coal chute into the cellar, where she hid them.
For three weeks the group lived in terror as Opdyke shifted them from the servants' quarters in the cellar to the attic, while the major had renovators fixing up the villa. She heard that a Jewish architect had built the villa knowing trouble was coming and that he had constructed a hiding place. "We searched and found a tunnel from the cellar to a hiding place, a room underneath the gazebo," Opdyke said. "Once again, we had our miracle."
The major had many parties, and one day Opdyke was terrified to see the head Gestapo officer walking outside for a tryst in the gazebo with his fraulein. The 12 Jews hiding in the room beneath the gazebo were talking and laughing unaware of the impending danger. Opdyke grabbed a bottle of wine and some hors d'oeuvres and called loudly "Herr Sturmanfuhrer, Herr Sturmanfuhrer!" as she approached with the food. Intent on romance, the officer had his jacket off and was immediately distracted by her intrusion. As he raged at her for disturbing him, the Jews became deathly still and Opdyke quietly slipped away knowing she had again saved her friends.
There was a hidden button by the front door that rang a bell in the servants' quarters in the cellar. "We had signals arranged - one ring meant be quiet, two be extra careful, and if I held the button down steadily, it meant quick, go hide!" Opdyke explained. One day at the ring of the front door, she peeked through a scratch in the painted-over glass in the door and found herself facing the black ribbon with silver skull of the "Death's Head Battalion" - the Gestapo.
"My feet were just trembling, but I sounded the alarm and raced to the bathroom and put my head under the water and wrapped it a towel," Opdyke said. She ran through the kitchen putting out cigarettes and camoflauging the presence of Jews who had fled without the usual precautions. She slowly opened the door and explained that she had been washing her hair and couldn't come any quicker. The angry Gestapo officer roughly shoved her aside and called for the major, saying, "We are coming here to search for the Jews," Opdyke remembers.
The major laughed and said he had no Jews and told Opdyke to escort them through the house. Halfway down the stairs to the cellar, the Gestapo officer abruptly told Opdyke he'd seen enough and left.
One of the most difficult dilemmas Opdyke faced was the day one of the two married couples in hiding came to her with a tragic request. Ida Haller discovered she was pregnant and was requesting a prescription to cause an abortion. The Hallers told her a baby would cry and give them away.
"But I witnessed the little children going to death. I told the Hallers, `no!' In the last minute there was a villa, in the last minute there was the gazebo. I said that you will be free before the little one is born," Opdyke said emphatically. The Hallers were moved by her unshakable faith - the pregnancy was not interrupted.
Opdyke had one more trial by fire before the eight-month ordeal was to end, however. One day while in town, she was pushed by Gestapo officers into the square where the Nazis were executing a Polish couple and their two children who had hidden a Jewish couple and their child. The entire town was forced to attend the execution.
"I closed my eyes so I wouldn't have to watch the hanging, but I could hear - I could see," Opdyke shuddered at the memory. She stumbled back to the villa knowing her life was likewise in jeopardy. She was so shaken, she neglected to lock the front door as she had always done before.
She began preparing a meal and the Jewish women came out to help her. Suddenly, the major walked in the kitchen and stared in disbelief - looking from one Jew to the other, shaking with anger. He stormed off to the library. Opdyke told her friends to gather enough food and water and to hide beneath the gazebo for three days.
"I said if I don't come back I am dead and they must escape," she said. She followed the major into the library and cried while he screamed obscenities at her. "I told him, `Let them go, I take the punishment, but I didn't have my own home to take them into,' " she said.
The furious major told her he'd decide what to do later and left. When he returned, he was drunk. Opdyke reminded him that the Americans and the Russians were near and that Germany might lose the war. He told her he'd had enough of murder but pulled her onto his lap. His small fit of conscience didn't prevent him from claiming a payment for his silence.
Shortly afterward, in March 1944, the major was ordered to evacuate the villa. Opdyke went into the forest and contacted the Jewish underground. She arranged for the transfer of her friends in hiding, and when they parted soon after in the middle of the night, they didn't even get to say goodbye.
Opdyke eventually ended up in a Jewish displaced persons camp and then emigrated to America in 1949. Six years later, she was approached by a man who said she looked familiar. He had been the U.N. representative who had interviewed her at the camp. Six weeks later, Irene Gut and Bill Opdyke were married.
The Opdykes settled in Yorba Linda, Calif., and raised a daughter. Irene Opdyke was a successful interior decorator, keeping her past locked up tightly until the day she learned people were denying the Holocaust. She's been speaking out ever since.
Life has not always been fair to Irene Opdyke. Her husband has fallen victim to Alzheimer's disease, and an unscrupulous deal by others cost Opdyke her business. But as she speaks to schools and church or service organizations nationwide, the love and faith that made her a heroine at 17 touches her listeners.
The young woman who wanted to be a nurse has spent almost 20 years witnessing the reality of the darkest side of man and trying to heal the wounds of racial hatred. It distresses her that some of the old enmity is still there between Poles and Jews.
Irene Opdyke received a letter a few years ago from a man living in Munich, Germany, who is alive because she had the faith and courage to oppose his abortion.
Roman Haller, now a father of two little children of his own, began his letter, "Dear Mother. . . ."
Denials add to pain of past
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The following organizations and individuals deny that Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis:
-The Institute for Historical Review, Costa Mesa, Calif.
-The Ridgewood Group, a German-American organization, was turned down for "equal time" by the Federal Communications Commission for a Holocaust rebuttal.
-The Kampfbund Deutscher Soldaten, West Germany, offered $7,000 to anyone who could prove that the Nazis ever gassed a single Jew. However, evidence from Jews, Poles or Germans opposed to Nazi principles was not acceptable.
-This past Easter, the Church of the Creator, a Georgia-based church, sent out order forms for a videotape by a "leading gas chamber specialist" that "thoroughly refutes the Holocaust gassing story." A message to the leaders of American Jewry said, "We say that your `gas chamber'-`extermination' story is a filthy, disgusting historical lie (obviously, not one Jew or anyone else, was ever `gassed' anywhere), a coarse and vulgar insult to anyone of even marginal intelligence or sophistication. . . ."
-"The Black Widow," Florrie Rost van Tonningen, 74, of Arnhem, the Netherlands, was found guilty in March of insulting Jews and inciting hatred against them by distributing pamphlets denying the slaughter of Jews by Nazis. She was given a suspended sentence in 1986 for distributing books denying the Holocaust. Her husband, a leader of the Dutch Nazi NSB party during the war, committed suicide before he could face trial after the war. Bitter debate was aroused when it was discovered she was using the state pension she receives because her husband was a former parliamentarian to finance a neo-Nazi group.
Days of Remembrance
"We must remember not only because of the dead; it is too late for them. Not only because of the survivors; it may even be too late for them. Our remembering is an act of generosity, aimed at saving men and women from apathy to evil, if not from evil itself. . . . When war or genocide unleash hatred against any one people or peoples, all are ultimately engulfed in fire."
-Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and chairman
of the President's Commission on the Holocaust
MONDAY, May 1, noon: Concert, "Zakhor: To Remember." Laurence Loeb, accompanied by by Jonathan Purvin, "Jewish songs of Eastern Europe." Intermission. Purvin and Ryan Selberg, cello, perform Block's "Schelomo." Tanner Room, Alumni House, University of Utah.
TUESDAY, May 2, noon: Governor's proclamation of Holocaust Memorial Week, remembering victims of the Holocaust; speeches by Gov. Norm Bangerter, Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis and clergy. Rabbi Frederick Wenger, with Cantor Laurence Loeb, will lead ceremonies, including a mourner's prayer and the lighting of a memorial candle by Holocaust survivor Isaac Rose. Capitol Rotunda.
WEDNESDAY, May 3, 1:10-4 p.m.: Workshop on Holocaust history (History 391R-30, 39R-30), taught by Ron Smelser, U. history professor. James White Jewish Community Center, 2416 E. 17th South.
THURSDAY, May 4, noon: Panel with visiting professor Henry Friedlander, Ron Smelser and others. Dumke Room, Alumni House, U. campus. 7:15 p.m. Lecture by Friedlander, "The Origins of Nazi Genocide." 101 Business Lecture Hall, U. campus.
FRIDAY, May 5, noon: "The Torah in the Camps," a lesson in memory of the victims by Harris Lenowitz, associate professor of Hebrew. Dumke Room, Alumni House, U. campus.
Holocaust Memorial Week is sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program of the University of Utah's Middle East Center, the office of the associate vice president for academic affairs, the U.'s department of history, Division of Continuing Education, Associated Students of the U. of U., liberal education and other organizations under grants from the United Jewish Council of Salt Lake City.