Irene Gut Opdyke, honoured as a Righteous Among the Nations for her actions during the Holocaust, died in 2003. Since then, her daughter, Jeannie Smith, has told her mother’s compelling story to audiences around the world. Smith will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Choices event, November 1.
Jeannie Smith was just 14 when she learned that her mother, Irene Gut Opdyke, had risked her life in Nazi-occupied Poland to save the lives of 12 Jews.
Opdyke never told her story until, one day, a college student conducting a survey on Holocaust denial randomly called and asked if she thought the Holocaust was fabricated by Jews to get sympathy.
“He sure found out what my mother had to say on the matter,” Smith recalled in an interview with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. “And for the first time in my life, so did I.”
Smith will tell her mother’s inspiring story at the 10th annual Choices event of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa Women’s Campaign on November 1.
Opdyke, a 19-year-old nurse at the time of the occupation, would smuggle food into the Tarnopol Ghetto before eventually being forced to work for Nazi officer Major Eduard Rügemer as a housekeeper in his villa. When she found out that the Jews living in the ghetto would soon be deported to concentration camps, she frantically searched for a place to hide them, realizing in the end that the only place she could conceal them was in the cellar of Rügemer’s villa, right under his nose.
By the end of the war, Opdyke was wanted by both the Soviets and the Germans and had to be smuggled out of the country. She finally found refuge in the United States.
In 1982, Opdyke was recognized and honoured by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for her tireless effort in preserving the lives of the persecuted at all costs. Opdyke would go on to give speeches around the world about her experiences as a rescuer and the need for bystanders to get involved, until she died in 2003 at the age of 85.
When her mother died, Smith was thrown into the world of public speaking. As Opdyke’s only child, she felt it was up to her to continue telling her mother’s story.
“Public speaking was never on my list of things to do. I was the kid who threw up before presenting my book report in school,” Smith confessed. “But, if my mother did all of those courageous things, surely I could find the courage to stand up and talk about them.”
Smith has travelled around the world, speaking to audiences of all ages and backgrounds about the importance of standing up for the persecuted and doing what’s right, even when it’s difficult.
In 2009, Smith helped produce “Irena’s Vow,” a Broadway play that told her mother’s story. At the end of the play, Smith would take the stage to say some final words and then introduce Roman Haller who was born in hiding during the war to Ida and Lazar Haller, a couple Opdyke was hiding.
Smith says she’ll continue giving speeches about her mother’s heroism to illustrate that everyone has the power to make a difference.
“We cannot be apathetic,” she said. “To make a choice to do nothing is to choose the side of the perpetrator every time.”
Choices, notes Chair Jackie Barwin, “is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Hundreds of women from diverse backgrounds and perspectives in Ottawa’s Jewish community have come together for the last 10 years to enjoy a special evening schmoozing with friends and acquaintances while celebrating women who lead by example having made life-altering choices that impact their lives.”
Choices will take place Tuesday, November 1, 5:30 pm, at Kehillat Beth Israel. For more information, or to register, contact Judy Toombs at firstname.lastname@example.org or 613-798-4696, ext. 305.