'We are getting old. For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.'
One day in 1943, Irene Opdyke heard a knock at the door of the Polish villa where she was a housekeeper. Careful as always, she looked through the peephole. On the other side was a black velvet band with a shining, silver skull--the symbol of the Nazi Gestapo.
She wasn't ready.
If the Gestapo officer were to find the Jews sitting just then in the kitchen, it would mean death. Death for her and the 12 Jews Opdyke had been hiding in the cellar, and death for the German major for whom she worked. He was a loyal officer who was unaware of the Jewish safehouse below and for months had been entertaining high-ranking SS and Gestapo officers in the villa.
To buy hiding time, Opdyke ran to the bathroom, stuck her head under the faucet and returned slowly to the door. Rubbing her head with a towel, she apologized to the angry officers and explained that she hadn't heard them because she had been washing her hair. After a heart-pounding search that stopped just short of the cellar door, they left.
The daily terror of the war years was so intense, Opdyke said, that she wanted only to forget it for decades afterwards. But she exhumed her stories a few years ago when groups such as the Institute for Historical Review, which recently obtained a Costa Mesa address, started denying that the Holocaust ever happened.
"We are getting old. For the dead and the living, we must bear witness," said Opdyke, 67, who lives in Yorba Linda. If the Holocaust did not exist, she asks, "why did I put my life in danger?"
Sometimes the retelling makes her cry, tremble or nearly shout with anger. Sometimes it seems to her that the Polish Catholic girl who defied the Nazis to save at least 12 other lives was someone else.
Named 'Righteous Gentile'
As a result of her speaking out and the efforts of a dedicated rabbi in Fullerton, a memorial museum to the Holocaust in Israel called Yad Vashem has included her as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations of the World." Rabbi Haim Asa of Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton said he believes Opdyke is Orange County's only "Righteous Gentile"--one of an estimated 5,000 non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save the Jews during the Holocaust. In 1982, an olive tree was planted in her honor along the Avenue of the Righteous overlooking Jerusalem.
In 1984, she participated in a nationwide conference held by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council to sort out how and why an estimated 5,000 Europeans "remained human in an inhuman society"--helping to save Jewish friends, neighbors or even strangers while the vast majority did not.
On May 9 her story aired over public television on "Courage to Care," a documentary focusing on four such World War II "rescuers." (The program was nominated for an Academy Award this year as Best Documentary Short.)
Opdyke was 19 when Hitler's troops invaded Poland in 1939 and started her real-life drama that contains more danger, romance, coincidence, unlikely heroes and villains, sorrow and happy endings than would be allowed in fiction. "It would make a terrific movie," said Opdyke, who has begun writing her memoirs.
Her name then was Irene Gut--the German word for good. She had just started studying nursing in Radom, miles away from her home town of Koziance near the German border, where she had lived with her four younger sisters, her architect father and her mother--a gentle woman who took in stray or wounded animals.
Suddenly, she found herself alone in the middle of war, unable to return home. With Germans invading from the west and Russians invading from the east, "it was a nightmare," she said. She joined with other nurses and fled to the forests of the Ukraine. There she was raped and left unconscious and bleeding by three Russian soldiers.
After recovering in a Russian hospital, she went to work in an infectious diseases hospital in the Ukraine. After a year, she embarked on a fruitless search for her parents, living for a while in a church.
One Sunday after a service, German soldiers surrounded the church. They separated the young men and women from the others and transported them to Germany to work in factories and fields. "The Polish people in Hitler's eyes," Opdyke recalled, "were only a notch better than Jews."
On the way to the munitions factory where she was assigned, Opdyke witnessed a death march. It was the first time she realized what had been happening to Jews. "I saw a soldier pull a little baby from the arms of his mother and throw him away on the ground. The screams of her, I never forget," Opdyke said. "I felt I want to jump up and take him by the throat and squeeze that monster. But I was scared. I could just stand there and cry. That night, I prayed."