By Mark Ellis
She was only a teenager when Hitler’s Panzer divisions overran her beloved Poland, separating the young nursing student from her family, and launching her on a mission a Catholic girl with Aryan features might never have imagined—rescuing Jews from certain death.
“God blessed my hands to save many lives,” said Irene Gut Opdyke, shortly before her passing in 2003. Opdyke was honored by the Israeli Holocaust Commission in 1982 as one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations,’ a title given to non-Jews who risked their lives by aiding and saving Jews during the Holocaust.
Opdyke wrote a book about her ordeal, “In My Hands” (Random House), a riveting tale of heroism and survival under perilous conditions.
When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the 17-year old was several hundred miles from her home at nursing school in Radom, and could not return because her family lived close to the German border. “My little country was really bombarded,” Opdyke said. “Hitler knocked everything down,” she said. “The sky was black with them: row after row of German bombers, flying in formation over Radom.”
The bombardment threw the hospital where she studied into chaos. “We were out of food, we were out of sulfa drugs, we had no clean sheets, the electricity was out, and the wounded kept arriving,” she noted in her book. As the Polish army retreated from Radom, Opdyke volunteered to travel with them and assist with their medical needs. “I joined the Polish army to fight Hitler and send him back to Berlin,” she said.
“Unfortunately, Russia and Germany made a pact and they took my country from both sides,” Opdyke said.
Facing overwhelming opposition, she found herself hiding in the Ukrainian forest with 10 Polish soldiers and several nurses. “We needed clothing and food because it was bitter cold,” she said. One night Opdyke went into the town of Lvov on a bartering mission.
Beaten and left to die
As Opdyke walked down the road on a clear, moonless night, she heard a low, rumbling sound she didn’t want to hear. It was the sound of a Russian patrol approaching, and she bolted for the woods. “I ran for my life to the forest, but I was captured by three Russian soldiers and brutally violated, beaten, and left in the snow to die,” she said. “But I did not die.”
Found by another Russian patrol the next morning, her lifeless body was thrown in the back of a military transport vehicle and hauled to a prison hospital controlled by the Russians. As she slowly recovered her strength over the ensuing weeks, her prayers intensified. “I wondered if the Heavenly Father saw me, alone and defeated.”
Opdyke gradually regained her strength in the hospital, only to face another harrowing incident. A Russian doctor in the hospital crept into her bed in the middle of the night and attempted to rape her as she slept. After this ordeal, she determined she would escape from the hospital.
“A Polish doctor from the Ukraine helped me to escape,” she said. Opdyke slipped through a loose board in the fence surrounding the hospital grounds, and slowly made her way back toward her home in Radom. As a train she was riding crossed from Russian-controlled areas of Poland into the German sector, everyone was pulled off the train and placed under quarantine, ostensibly to prevent the spread of “Russian diseases.”
Men examined for circumcision
“The men, who had been separated from the women upon arrival, were being examined for circumcision; the circumcised men, the Jews, were taken away,” she recounted. “To where? Why? Would they be back? No one knew.
Two years after the start of the war, Opdyke finally reached her family in Radom for a joyous homecoming. But everything about life in Radom had changed. All the streets had German names. All Polish intellectuals and professionals had been taken away to prison camps, and many other men in the town had simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.
The restaurant where Opdyke once worked served only Germans now. Posters covered the city mocking the Jews, falsely accusing them of every sort of crime. Jews from Radom, as well as the surrounding countryside, had been forced into two ghetto areas, surrounded by barbed wire. “Some said that Hitler was planning to exterminate the Jews, but we thought that was simply too preposterous to believe.”
“Now we are like slaves, or worse,” her father told her. “We must step off the sidewalk and remove our hats if a German approaches,” he said. “And the death penalty is automatic for anyone helping the Jews.” Opdyke was baffled by this hostility toward the Jews, wondering why the Germans didn’t simply let them leave.
One night after Opdyke’s sisters went off to bed, she tearfully recounted the full story of her two-year ordeal to her parents, her voice dropping to a whisper as she told them of her rape. Then Opdyke’s father gently put his hand on her shoulder. “War makes men animals,” he said. “You must not let this ruin your life. God has plans for you. He did not let you die. He has plans for you.”
Only a few weeks later, the Germans came for Opdyke’s father. A ceramics factory her father designed was considered important for the war effort, and they wanted his expertise to make it function, so they took him away.
Then on a Sunday morning, while Opdyke worshipped in church, she heard the sound of heavy vehicles pull up in the square outside the church, doors slamming, and boots pounding up to the front doors. “Raus! Zum Strasse! soldiers shouted as the people were herded outside into the square. The parishioners were surrounded by Wehrmacht soldiers with their guns drawn.
“You will be transported to Germany to work for the Reich,” an officer shouted. “You Poles have been idle long enough.”
Opdyke found herself working in a munitions factory, and spent long hours on her feet packing ammunition into boxes. Due to exhaustion, malnutrition, and anemia, she fainted one day at her station. Because she spoke fluent German, she was transferred to the officer’s mess, serving three meals a day to German officers who gathered from all over the city. Occasionally, she overheard officers talking at meals about “the Jewish problem.”
One day as Opdyke was setting tables for a formal dinner, she happened to look out an upper-story window, which looked down on the Glinice ghetto. “I had forgotten the Jews, driven from their homes,” she recounted. Just then she heard the sound of gunfire, and was startled to see men, women and children running in the streets below her. Then there was the sound of police dogs barking, and bodies lying in the snow, darkened with blood.
‘Bad things happen to Jew-lovers’
A German officer came up behind Opdyke and could see she was visibly shaken. “Don’t speak of this to anyone,” he warned. “Bad things happen to Jew-lovers. Do you understand me? Very bad.”
In addition to her kitchen duties, Opdyke was placed in charge of the laundry facility, washing and mending officer’s clothes. The laundry used a dozen Jewish workers from a local work camp who were trucked in daily to complete their wash assignments. One of the Jewish workers had been a successful businessman, one was a former medical student, one a lawyer, another a dressmaker. One had been a nurse. “They worked in the laundry room as slave laborers, and I started taking care of them,” Opdyke recalled.
“At least we are better off here than in the ghetto,” one confided to Opdyke. “We are the strong ones, the ones who can work.”
“I’ll bring you food when I can,” Opdyke told them. “I can hide it in laundry baskets,” she said. “I’ll look after you.”
Their faces registered surprise. “You’re only a girl. What can you do?”
After Opdyke left them with her promise, she began to experience inner doubts. She was “only a girl,” but she reflected on the core of her inner beliefs. “I believe very strongly in God,” Opdyke said, as she recalled her feelings. “My father insisted we are not born for ourselves. We have to help when help is needed.”
Opdyke began smuggling food to her Jewish coworkers; later she arranged to hide six Jews in a wagon and transport them secretly to the forest where many Jews were choosing to hide. “Better to live like wild beats in the forest than wait for death in the ghetto,” one confided to her.
The final solution
One night her boss, Major Rugemer, was having dinner with Sturmbannfuhrer Rokita, the head of the SS in
Ternopol. As Opdyke worked around their table she was startled to hear the direction their conversation was taking.
“You must know by now,” Rokita told her boss, “the Fuhrer wants all the Jews exterminated. Once we finish with them, we’ll eliminate the Poles and their tiresome Catholic church.
“Of course, the Aryan types, like Irene, we’ll make good Germans out of them. But we must cleanse this land once and for all. We’re scheduled to finish with the Jews soon. By the end of July,” he said.
Stunned by the admission, Opdyke felt compelled to warn her Jewish friends. “I took it to the laundry room and shared with the Jewish ‘slaves’ and told them to warn the others,” she said.
Only days later, Opdyke’s boss was transferred to a villa in the surrounding countryside that became his headquarters, and when Opdyke surveyed her new workplace, she discovered a secret underground passage from the cellar of the villa, under
the back yard, to a gazebo. She decided this would be the perfect place to hide her twelve Jewish friends from the day of disaster. Ironically, the rightful owner of the house before the war had been a wealthy Jewish architect.
“These slaves were my friends,” Opdyke recalled. “I had to help them,” she said, knowing the penalties for helping Jews. “The sentence was death if you helped them.”
She followed a routine every day that allowed her hidden friends to come into the villa and shower, eat, and listen to news on the radio while her boss, Major Rugemer, was away supervising a weapons factory.
But one day he came home earlier than expected and caught Irene and her two Jewish friends in the kitchen.
“Clara and Fanka and I stood facing Major Rugemer like statues, and the major stared at us in utter astonishment. His face began to tremble with emotion, but without a word he turned on his heel and walked out.”
Irene ran after him. “Herr Major!” she cried out.
“What in God’s name have you done to me?” he shouted at her.
“They are innocent people; they’ve done nothing. Do not turn them in, I beg you!”
The major’s face was red with fury. “Enough! How could you deceive me, Irene?”
“Punish me, Herr Major. I take all the blame – but let them escape!” she sobbed, collapsing at his feet.
“Let me think; I must have time to think.”
The following night after dinner Major Rugemer came home drunk.
“When he opened the library door he stood swaying slightly, looking at me for a long time without speaking,” Irene recounted.
She asked if he wanted coffee and he said no.
Then the major grabbed her and pulled her close. “I’ll keep your g__damned secret, Irene,” he snarled. “I’ve wanted you for so long, Irene. Do you think I’ll keep your secret for nothing?”
Tears began to flow as he led her up to his bed chamber and she was violated.
The next morning she took a bath in water so hot it made her cry. This was worse than rape, she thought. I know I have to bear this shame alone. I can never tell my friends how I bought their safety.
As the Russians advanced on Poland the Germans retreated, Irene was able to smuggle her friends into the forest, where they escaped. Irene also ran away and joined a group of partisans living in the forest outside Kielce.
Finally Hitler and the Nazis were vanquished. “Poland was free, but I was tired,” she noted. “I had no more strength left for fighting. It was time for me to start looking for my family.”
Much later, as Irene reflected on her war experience she said, “The war was a series of choices made by many people. Some of those choices were as wicked and shameful to humanity as anything in history.”
Opdyke recognized she found help from above in her daring efforts. Throughout her ordeal, she “prayed and I
pleaded with God. I knew I couldn’t do it all by myself,” she said. “Somehow, with God’s help, I helped them.”
“This is my will: to do right; to tell you; and to remember. Z Bogiem. Go with God.”