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Around the Foothills

'You shall not stand by thy neighbor's blood. You shall not stand idle.'

April 21, 1988|DOUG SMITH

Irene Opdyke was never trained as a public speaker, and her English can be difficult to follow.

Yet, on the pulpit Friday night at Temple Sinai of Glendale, she demonstrated that good material is all one really needs to make a point.

Her point is a powerful one.

In an incredibly perverse way, Opdyke was blessed with good material. She was a Catholic teen-ager growing up in Poland when Hitler's army invaded. Her family was torn apart. She ended up as a housekeeper in a German major's villa. There she hid 12 Jews in the major's wine cellar and, in times of special danger, in a crawl space under his gazebo.

By leaking information about Gestapo plans, she is believed to have saved the lives of hundreds of other Jews.

Today, Opdyke lives in Orange County. Her story has been corroborated and she is recognized by Yad Vashem, the Israeli office for memorializing the Holocaust, as one of the righteous.

She was invited to Temple Sinai for its Yom Hashoah service honoring the six million Jews killed in Hitler's genocide.

The reformed congregation of Glendale's only temple put a strongly ecumenical flavor into the event, inviting pastors, priests and sisters from the area's Catholic and Protestant churches.

Some of those brought members of their own congregations. The combined audience filled the temple to capacity.

Pastor John Soyster, minister to the deaf at Salem Lutheran Church in Glendale, stood beside the pulpit throughout the two-hour service, translating the spoken word into sign language for the benefit of his own congregants in the audience.

His gestures, seemingly stylized to convey the poetic language of the liturgy, continued through Hebrew and English passages and from time to time their visual imagery stirred audible excitement in the pews.

Rabbi Carole Meyers sought the meaning of the evening in the Torah, which she read in Hebrew, translating to English as she went.

"For those of you who are following carefully and coming to service regularly know that we are nearing the end of Leviticus," the rabbi said, accentuating her almost constant smile in a lighthearted chiding of those who did not.

She said she would jump ahead a bit to Chapter 19, "that so beautifully demonstrates why we are here today."

From the scroll she read: "You shall not stand by thy neighbor's blood. You shall not stand idle."

That almost ethereal prescription assumed physical form with the introduction of the woman on the stage who had been thrust to the test and passed it.

Opdyke, wearing a simple turquoise dress, began haltingly.

"I was very young girl, still a teen-ager," she said, describing the Blitzkrieg, the collapse of the Polish army, her assignment to a munitions factory and the oppression of the Gestapo.

"After so many years, the pain and the memory is still alive," she said.

Heavily primped teen-agers in the audience squirmed as Opdyke described the first crystallizing event of her life. One night, she said she watched from a hiding place as a Gestapo officer ripped a baby from a mother's arms to the pavement and shot the mother as she leaped to recover it.

"I was scared," she said. "I was alone. I prayed. I wanted the opportunity to help."

In war, she said, "You don't make decisions; they are made for you."

Her opportunity came when she was made the major's servant. She began passing on to the Jewish factory workers information she gleaned.

When she learned that her friends were to be seized, she prayed for a miracle. It came when the officer acquired a villa and took her to it, unwittingly accepting her friends.

One day, they were careless. The major caught them in his kitchen.

He confronted her. "How could you do this?" he asked.

"My answer was, 'They are my friends,' " Opdyke said.

Expecting death, Opdyke said, she kissed his hands and asked him to forget. The major got drunk and let it drop.

There were more scrapes for Opdyke and her charges. But by war's end, they remained alive. In 1949, she reached America and soon married.

The next important event of her life came in 1975, she said, when her daughter got married. SHe found herself alone and feeling depressed.

She read an article suggesting that the Holocaust was a lie.

"That woke me up," she said. From that day on, she has been telling her story, she said, as much as possible to children.

As giant as her life seems to have been, Opdyke refused to paint it bigger than life.

She was young, alone and unaware, she protested. Had she been with her family, faced with the knowledge that she could cause their deaths, she might have done nothing, she said.

After the service, Opdyke stayed for a social gathering. Until 11, she spoke with each person who approached her.

Over and over she was asked how she had the courage.

"I was just so young," she would answer.

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