Irene Opdyke ( 5 May 1922, Kozienice, Poland – 17 May 2003) was a Polish nurse who gained recognition for aiding Jews persecuted by the Nazis during World War II and for saving twelve Jews.
She was born Irene Gut on May 5 1922, one of five girls, into a Catholic family in a small village in eastern Poland. The family moved from Kozienice to Chelm and then to Radom where she enrolled as a nursing student.
In 1939, when the German army invaded Poland, Irene Gut volunteered to join a Polish army unit and went with it into hiding in the Ukrainian forest. But she was taken prisoner by Russian soldiers who raped her and left her in the snow to die. She survived, escaped and was briefly reunited with her parents and her four younger sisters at Radom in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In Nazi-occupied Poland Irene Gut, as she then was, hid 12 Jews, including a pregnant woman, in the basement of the villa where she was employed as a housekeeper. Gut was hired by Major Eduard Rügemer to work in a kitchen of a hotel.
It was at the hotel, which was located next to the Glinice ghetto in Radom, that Irene observed firsthand the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis.
In April 1942, Irene Gut witnessed a gruesome event which would transform her. Walking down the street, she saw a Nazi officer tossing an infant into the air like a clay pigeon and shooting him. This shocked her to the core. “To see children murdered! And I was raised in the Catholic faith . . . I turned against my Lord, against God. I asked God: help me to help. I was ready to give my life to be able to help. It was after this terrible event that Irene began helping Jews. She would put leftovers in box and leave them just inside the ghetto fence. She did this despite proclamations that anyone caught aiding a Jew would be put to death.
She would take food from the hotel and smuggle it to the local ghetto When Rugemer was away, the Jews would sneak upstairs and help Irene Gut with the housework. They hid in the basement where they had found a secret room.One day she was forced to watch the hanging of a Catholic family and a Jewish family they had ried to help, distraught by this she had forgotten to lock the door., the Major returned home early and discovered Fanka Silberman and Ida Bauer upstairs with Irene. “He got white and shaky,” Irene Gut Opdyke later remembered, and he ran to phone the head of the Gestapo. She chased the major, cried and pleaded and then agreed to become his mistress in exchange for letting the Jews remain in the basement.
In addition to looking after them, Irene Gut – aided by an old priest and another Catholic girl and using a horse and buggy – smuggled others to the nearby forest to escape.
It was deeply upsetting for her to leave the Jews on their own in the forest. “I felt like the wicked woman in a children’s story,” she said, “abandoning them to the wolves.” But she always returned to bring food and blankets, obtained by raiding the German Warenhaus.
In early 1944, Irene Gut herself and her Jewish friends left the villa and fled to the forest where they stayed until the Russians gained control of Poland.
She met her husband William Opdyke after the war when, as a worker for the United Nations, he had interviewed her at a camp for displaced persons. Some years later, they ran into each other again in New York City and married on November 14 1956.
In 1982, she was recognized and honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
On 9 June 1995, Irene Gut Opdyke was honored with a papal blessing from Pope John Paul II at a joint service of Jews and Catholics held at a synagogue in Irvine, California. The blessing had been obtained for her by Alan Boinus and by Monsignor Joseph Karp of the Polish Catholic Church in Yorba Linda, California. The blessing was the first recognition by the Roman Catholic Church of her heroic efforts during the Holocaust.
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