THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Wednesday, April 26, 1995 TAG: 9504260042 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY ESTHER DISKIN, STAFF WRITER LENGTH: Long : 175 lines
FROZEN BETWEEN THE curtains of an upstairs window, an 18-year-old Polish Catholic girl watched the mad hunt of Nazi soldiers chasing Jews through the street.
She saw a soldier throw a baby in the air and ``shoot him, like a bird.'' Another pulled an infant out of a mother's arms and flung the child to the street. She hid her eyes, but heard above the gunshots the screams of children, ``Mama, mama!''
The streets of Radom, Poland in 1942: Irene Gut Opdyke, a witness to the barbarism, said no to the killing. When Opdyke talks of it now, 53 years later, her mind places her back at that window and she weeps. ``It is fresh, like a kaleidoscope,'' she said.
In that moment, Opdyke made the decision to stop watching and began to act. In the days ahead, she would save the lives of a dozen Jews, by hiding them in a German major's villa where she served as a housekeeper. She would steal food from his table to feed countless Jews in hiding.
``There is always a second when the moral choice is made,'' Eli Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author, has written. ``Even in (those) times, when the dictatorship, police, the terror were unprecedented. . . it is possible for the human being alone to say no to death.'''
An estimated 6 million Jews died during World War II in the streets, forests and concentration camps of Europe. Opdyke repeatedly risked her life to reduce the death toll, and will tell what she did as part of the region's annual Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance.
Opdyke, now in her early 70s and living in Yorba Linda, Calif., will speak on a program with historian and former U.S. Rep. G. William Whitehurst at 2 p.m. Sunday at War Memorial Museum in Newport News.
Rescuers of the Jews are at the center of the region's Holocaust remembrance this year. On Thursday at the Harrison Opera House, there will be a free performance of ``Letters from Leokadia,'' a play about a Polish woman who raises a Jewish baby as her own child.
The ``White Rose'' project is a fund-raiser to buy books about the Holocaust for every middle and upper school, and every public library in South Hampton Roads. The project, which has received more than $6,000 in donations, is named for the ``White Rose'' German resistance group, whose leaders were executed for distributing leaflets protesting Hitler's policies.
For years, the heroism of rescuers has been overshadowed in worldwide remembrances of the Holocaust, which have focused mainly on Jewish suffering and Nazi atrocities. Last year's success of ``Schindler's List,'' a movie about a German businessman who saved 1,200 Jews by putting them to work in his factories, has helped spur interest in the rescuers.
Yet, there is growing debate about directing attention to the rescuers. Some argue that the number of non-Jewish rescuers, estimated between 50,000 and 10 times that, pales in comparison with the number of killers and bystanders. Some worry that focusing on the bravery may detract from the enormity of tragedy.
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, suggests that people avoid talking about the rescuers for another reason: We shrink from the moral test.
``At times, people sense a certain discomfort in confronting acts of goodness, so they detach themselves from them,'' he wrote. ``The example of good people challenges our moral self-image. Wouldn't we rather be free of the implied obligation which the rescuers' example imposes on us?''
Opdyke's example came from her parents. She grew up in the comfort of an upper-class Polish household, in a small town close to the German border. Her mother, she said, often took care of the gypsies - nomadic outcasts who camped in the woods - and called the doctor when they were ill.
``I was not taught hate,'' she said. ``I was raised that we are not alone in the world, that we are all sisters and brothers.''
As a teenager, she left home to study at a nursing school in Radom, a city about 200 kilometers away. In September 1939, while she was walking from her dormitory to the hospital, Germans began bombing the city.
``There were so many wounded, screaming, yelling,'' she said. ``It was hell on earth.'' Within a month, Poland was defeated and partitioned between the U.S.S.R. and Germany.
She spent the early years of the war in flight from the invaders. Alliances were sometimes confused: She was beaten and raped by three Russian soldiers, only to find refuge in a hospital run by the Russians.
By late 1941, she was back in Radom, packing ammunition in boxes at a factory. She was weak and often fainted while working on the assembly line, once taking a tumble in front of an aging German major, Eduard Rugamer, who supervised the work.
Noticing her blond hair and blue eyes, Rugamer pulled her aside and asked whether she was of German descent. Too stunned to lie, she told him she was not, but her beauty and ability to speak German enchanted him enough to give her a job serving meals at the officers' mess hall.
Her new proximity to the German military brass changed her understanding of the war, and of the extermination planned for the Jewish people.
She witnessed a Nazi raid on the weakest members of the Jewish ghetto, old people, pregnant woman and young children. It was a nightmare, she said, that changed her life. ``I asked, `God, where are you?' I was raised in the Catholic faith. I could not believe God was not doing something.''
For a time she was angry, and could not bring herself to pray. But she came to believe that free will was part of God's answer.
``It is up to us to choose the road we take, to be with the people who do good, or people who do evil or don't do anything,'' she said. ``I asked God to give me the chance to help.''
At the officers' hall, she was promoted to supervisor of the laundry room, where she developed a close friendship with 12 Jews from the labor camps who worked there.
She began helping them in small ways: leftover food, spare blankets and other basics purchased with rationing tickets that she begged from the German officers for ``her family.'' Then she grew bolder. She convinced the cook to help her get some wood and a hammer, which the laundry room workers used to construct a small hiding place, behind a wall of shelves.
While serving dinner to the officers, she spied on the conversations, particularly those between Rugamer and Sturmbannfuhrer Rokita, the chief of the local Gestapo force. When Rokita talked about an upcoming raid on the ghetto, she spread the word to her friends and others working in the underground resistance.
The pace of the raids increased. One night, she heard Rokita tell the major to find replacements for all his Jews. ``I heard him say that the end is coming: There would be no more Jewish people working,'' she said. ``He told the major, `The Polish and Ukraines will show how to work.' '
But Rugamer was mainly planning for his own luxurious living. By the spring of 1943, he had seized a family's villa in Tarnopol, a village in Poland near the Russian border, and sent Opdyke there to serve as his housekeeper.
She went with a dozen secret guests: In the basement servants quarters of the villa, she hid several of her Jewish friends from the laundry room and others she had met. Rugamer used the villa mainly for parties, evenings of raucous drinking and sexual carousing, so Opdyke spent many days alone.
The Jews hidden in the basement helped her prepare for the parties. Rugamer assumed she hired local villagers to help, but was still amazed. ``He thought I was a magician. He could not believe it,'' she said. ``I told him, `My mother taught me. Just give me a few days to get ready.' ''
The terror grew. At the market, the Gestapo forced Opdyke and other villagers to watch a public hanging of a Jewish couple and the Polish rescuers who had tried to help them. ``There is no way I can tell you how it felt,'' she said.
Shaken by the sight, she forgot a step in her routine. She always locked the door to the villa's kitchen, so that Rugamer or his guest would be forced to knock and give the Jews time to slip back into the basement. That day, she forgot to pull out the key.
As she and four of the Jewish women chatted and prepared the food, Rugamer walked through the door. ``I still can see his chin shaking, his eyes with unbelief,'' she said. ``We were all frozen like statues. He turned in silence and walked to his office.''
She chased after him, pleading. When he shouted at her, ``How could you do it?'' she did not give him an excuse. ``I said, `I know only one thing. They are my friends. I did have to do it.' ''
By evening, the drunk and passionate German major had a deal in mind: He would keep her secret, if she became his lover. ``It was a small price to pay for so many lives,'' she said.
Rugamer never asked her another question about the people she had hidden, but the security of his villa only lasted a few months. In March 1994, Rugamer fled to Germany. Opdyke and her Jewish friends were on their own, hiding in shelters and temporary camps set up by resistance fighters.
In 1945, the army of the U.S.S.R. invaded Poland and drove out the Germans. Opdyke was briefly reunited with her mother and sisters - her father had been killed by Russian soldiers - but she kept moving, to Bavaria and eventually to the United States.
She tried to leave her past in silence. She got a job in a garment factory. She learned English, got her U.S. citizenship. She married and had a daughter.
In 1980, she picked up a newspaper with an article about people who claimed that the Holocaust had never happened. Something in her snapped. ``That put me on fire,'' she said. ``How can they say it never happened? I was there.''
She began to speak, at schools, club meetings, churches - anywhere anyone would listen. She was given the Medal of Honor from Israel, the nation's highest award. She published her autobiography, ``Into the Flames.''
She packs her schedule with speaking engagements, refusing to surrender to health problems or the emotional toll of repeatedly recalling the terror. Silence is her enemy.
``This is my mission, '' she says. ``Speak now. Time is short. Soon we will not be here.'' ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
Opdyke, left, from 1939, is in her 70s today.