ACHUKA News Chat Teen/YA Fic Non-Fic Chap Pic
Profiles Media Educational Poetry Guides Notices Interviews Specials

Interviewed in London, January 2001

Irene Gut Opdyke
Irene Gut Opdyke was born May 5 1922 in a small village in Eastern Poland. She enrolled in a nursing school and in 1939, when the German army invaded Poland, volunteered to join a Polish army unit. She was subsequently captured, beaten and raped by Russian soldiers. Later she was forced to work in a German ammunition facotry and then as a waitress in a Nazi officers' dining room. Made aware of the German intention to exterminate the Jews, she determined to save as many as possible. From the small step of passing food under a fence she ended up hiding 12 Jews in the basement of a German officer's villa. She has told her story to American schoolchildren for over 30 years, but it is now available in this book, published by Corgi paperback.

The most arresting image in the book is of course the baby being thrown into the air and shot to the ground like a bird. Is that actually how you saw it happening?

Yes, yes, I did see horrible things. I was so young. To see children torn from their mothers' arms and thrown to the ground on their heads. I did see babies thrown in the air and shot like a bird. You know, raised in a nice home, with wonderful parents who taught us the ten commandments - to see that, and not to have parents or family around you to talk about it with or to cry on their shoulder, this was something that you can never forget. Ever.

Going back to that childhood upbringing and the custom of dropping the wax into water. How was that done exactly? Was it just a drop of wax?

Ah well, you melt a candle, and the water is very cold and as the wax is hot it naturally forms a second structure. Then you watch the shadow it forms on a wall. For me at that time it was a big huge ship with a cross, and you could see the waves almost and my grandmother said it meant for me a long, long voyage. It is a nice custom, although how my father met my mother, that's a nice custom too. The girls have a little boat with a candle and they let it go and the boys are standing around the corner some place and they catch it - and that's the way my father caught the boat of my mother.

And the contrast with what happens later is so great. You trained to be a nurse...

Well, I decided because we lived very close to the German border and we heard Hitler grumbling, you know, and I didn't have a brother. But I was the oldest one and I felt I wanted to do something so my desire was to be another Florence Nightingale. Unfortunately I never finished because my father sent me around 200km from home to school and Hitler was moving with the speed of lightning. You could see people killed, animals killed... It was very hard, I had to face the war without my family, without anyone. The Polish army had to retreat, and we were almost at the Russian border now and we found out that Hitler and Stalin had made a pact. They took my country from both sides. Poland was no more.

Later on, after your ordeal with the Russian soldiers, you were working in the ammunition factory...

Yes, I returned to the middle of Poland, where my school was... I was taken from the church. I went to early service and the church was surrounded by the Gestapo and they picked up all the young men and women. We did not know what they would do with us. They took us on the trucks. And I landed in a factory. I was at that point anaemic and very weak because I'd just returned from the Russian front, hiding in forests...

Did you hide the fact that you had nursing skills?

No, because they did not ask me at that point. They asked me if I was from a German family, because my maiden name was Gut. They asked me if I was German. I said no, I am Polish and I am Catholic.

The first thing you did to help the Jews was to leave a parcel under the fence of the Ghetto...

Yes. I could not understand anything like that. When I was young, a girl did not know much about politics. We were raised to be good wives and mothers. I could not believe it. To see children murdered! And I was raised in the Catholic faith, but you know when I did see that, especially the children, I turned against my Lord, against God, but there was an answer in my soul - that God gives us free will, to do good or bad. So at this point, I asked God, help me to help. I was ready to give my life to be able to help. To see things like that, and turn away - I could not do that.

Obviously it was very, very dangerous. How concealed was the place where you were hiding the...?

That was in the German major's villa, a big house. He had big parties, Gestapo coming. The Jews were in the cellar, before I found out that there was another hiding place. The villa was built by a Jewish architect. I don't know if he survived or not, I never met him. But anyway we did find it. A passage. You had to lie down and pull yourself. There were pieces of wood from time to time. The major was an older man. He trusted me. And I used his trust. I used him. To save the lives. Twelve people. Including one couple, who were married before the war. As soon as I was hiding them, the lady told me she was pregnant.

And then there's that period in the book when you're taking people out into the forest...

Yes, I met an old priest on the edge of town and another Catholic girl, Helen. And she took a job on a farm. So we had a horse and buggy. That helped a lot because we transported people, sometimes carrying hay. But I felt awful when I brought them to the forest and had to leave them there. I felt like the wicked woman in a children's story, abandoning them to the wolves.

After you become the major's mistress, you confessed to a country priest, and he wasn't at all sympathetic...

I didn't have anyone I could talk to about this. I certainly couldn't talk to the people I was hiding. So I was expecting... I don't know what I was expecting. Expecting they would say, well you had no choice, a human life is more important. But instead - it was a very young priest and there were no grey areas with him. He told me that I had to turn everyone out, that my mortal soul is more important than anything else. Well I could not agree with this. I remember after that, one night I was standing on a balcony, and I talked to God. You helped me to find a place. You put these people in my hands. I had asked God to help me to help. And he did. I felt better after that. But, you know, after the war, when I had come to the United States, I did not go to church. There was just something not right with me. And I married not in a Catholic church, but a Presbyterian, my husband's church.

I became an interior decorator. And I was doing the home of a professor, a director of schools, and we started speaking, and I told him my story for the first time. And he said, Irene, there was no guilt in you. And he told me about Ruth, from the Jewish history, you know. And it was like a stone dropped from my heart. But there was a time when I was lost.

So you then began to tell your story more widely...

Oh yes, I have been speaking about these events for almost thirty years now. I go from one school to another. I will go to the end of the world for the young people. And all I want to tell them is reach out to each other regardless of nationality, religion, colour or creed. We belong to one family, and I tell them, you are the future leaders, so learn to love each other, help each other. Otherwise, there'll never pe a peace.

After the War, did you meet up with the people you'd saved?

Yes, yes! I met them in Prague, right after the war. I could not find my own family, and the Jewish people helped me. It was their turn to help me. They smuggled me away from the Russians into Germany. I was one Catholic in a Jewish camp.

I came to the United States in 1948 and was interviewed by Mr Opdyke. We had six languages between us, but not one common. I spoke Polish, German, Russian and I learned a little Yiddish. And he spoke English and French. There was no romance at that point, but he said America would be very proud to have me. One day, much later, near the United Nations building, I stopped at a little cafeteria. The gentleman passing my table said, "I know you!" then started telling me my story. He was a widower. He invited me to dinner. Within six weeks we were married. And God blessed us with a little girl. I had family of my own!

Did any of the Jews you hid emigrate to America?

Yes, Fanka (Silberman). I was already speaking to schools and organisations when we met, and they invited her too. And in 1997 I was with ABC Prime Time, they took me to Israel, and I met some there. And I met Roman, the little boy, and Roman's son is in London. The older I get the more thankful I am to God for choosing me. And helping me. The title in my book, In My Hands, I really wanted it to be 'In His Hands'. I was so surprised when they told me they had put it In My Hands. But they explained to me, we are all in God's hands, but from time to time the Lord assigns...

© copyright 2001 ACHUKA