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Obituaries

Irene Opdyke, 85; Hid Jews in Poland During the Holocaust

May 21, 2003|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Irene Gut Opdyke, who risked her life in World War II by hiding Jews in a cellar beneath a German major's villa -- a story of courage that decades later would make her an internationally known speaker -- has died. She was 85.

Opdyke was 25 and working as the major's housekeeper when, in 1943, she overheard that the Gestapo was about to sweep through a local Jewish ghetto in Poland. Concerned that the 12 Jews with whom she had worked in a laundry would be taken away, she decided to hide them in a cellar under a gazebo.

They remained a secret for eight months, when the major discovered the Jews. Then she bought more time for her friends by becoming the major's mistress. All of the Jews survived.

After the war, Opdyke immigrated to the United States, where she became a citizen, married and settled in Yorba Linda. For almost 30 years, she never spoke of her actions, even to her daughter.

Then, in 1974, when she filled in for a canceled speaker at her husband's Rotary Club, the story tumbled out.

A write-up about her speech in a local newspaper caught the eye of a rabbi, who persuaded Opdyke to tell her tale to the world. She agreed, embarking on a new career.

In the ensuing years, Israel honored her as a "Righteous Gentile"--one of thousands of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. She also has written two autobiographies and tirelessly recounted her story in thousands of synagogues, churches and schools throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.

"She became a moral compass to tens of thousands of children," said Haim Asa, rabbi emeritus at Fullerton's Temple Beth Tikvah, the rabbi who first urged Opdyke to take her story to others.

"It's an incredible story," he said. "At first, it pained her, reliving the intimate details of her life." But once she got a taste of public speaking, "She couldn't stop ... a star was born."

Despite failing health in recent years, Opdyke kept a busy schedule until she broke her hip April 12. She died Saturday from liver and kidney failure brought on by a long battle with hepatitis.

"She knew that eyewitnesses to the Holocaust were quickly dying off and that if she didn't speak out, it could happen again," said her daughter, Jeannie Smith. "She had a very thick Zsa Zsa Gabor accent, and her biggest fear was that people wouldn't understand what she was saying. But she was amazing, and her love for people and her message of love translated, and her story always got through."

Opdyke, who was born Irene Gut on May 15, 1918, in Kozienice, Poland, was a nursing student when Germany invaded in 1939. Opdyke fled but was captured by Russian troops (then allied with the Nazis), who beat and raped her. She spent a year recovering and working in a Russian hospital.

When she tried to return home, she was captured by German troops and forced to work at a munitions factory in Ternopol, in southeastern Poland. She was later recruited to be a housekeeper at an officers' compound.

About the same time, a German major had taken the petite blue-eyed, blond Opdyke to be his personal housekeeper, which presented an opportunity to hide her threatened acquaintances in the gazebo cellar.

"She told me, 'When stuff like that happens, you don't have time to think through what you are going to do. You've got to react,' " her daughter said. "She said, 'You have to think with your heart and not with your head.' "

When the major discovered the Jews, he gave Opdyke a choice: Sleep with him, or he'd turn them in. She became his mistress.

When she sought comfort from a Roman Catholic priest, he told her she was living in sin and should leave the major to save her soul.

Opdyke, a Catholic who would later be honored as a hero by the Vatican, went back to his bed.

"I was pretty. He was an old man," Opdyke said five decades later. "It was a small price to pay for the many lives.... I really didn't know them. But I saw people in need, and I saw I could help them."

In 1944, the major in Ternopol evacuated the villa and took her with him. The Jews were rescued by the Polish underground. She ended up in a camp for displaced people.

After the war, Opdyke was interviewed by a United Nations worker in the camp. When she immigrated to New York City in 1949, she met the worker again while having lunch in the U.N. cafeteria. Six weeks later, she and William Opdyke were married. He died in 1993.

"As I grew up, I heard about my aunts and her childhood in Poland -- all the good stuff," her daughter said. But not the rest.

"She told me that when she came to the United States ... and saw the Statue of Liberty, she said, 'I'm here in a fresh country to make a new start.' To do that, she had to put up a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on her memories."

In the 1970s, Opdyke, who was working as an interior decorator, became aware that revisionist historians were questioning whether the Holocaust happened. Enraged, she agreed to speak to her husband's Rotary Club as a substitute speaker.

Over the years, she was reunited with several of the people whose lives she saved.

"All I want to do in my life is bring people together regardless of their race or religion or creed or sex," Opdyke told a reporter in 1993. "We need to learn never to hate again. The children need to learn that."

She is survived by her daughter, who lives in Woodland, Wash.; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at Chapman University's Memorial Hall Auditorium in Orange.

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