Irene Opdyke

Wrote of aiding Jews in World War II

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2003; Page B06

Irene Gut Opdyke, 85, an acclaimed memoirist who wrote of becoming the mistress of a German officer during World War II to save 12 Jews she hid in his villa, died May 17 at a nursing facility in Fullerton, Calif., near her home in Yorba Linda. She had liver disease.

Mrs. Opdyke settled in the United States in 1949, married, raised a daughter, did interior decoration in Southern California and was quiet about her war experiences until a college student called one day. He was conducting a survey about whether people thought the Holocaust really happened.
"That put me on fire," she said. "How could anyone say that? I was there."

In 1982, she was recognized by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, as "Righteous Among the Nations," the designation for gentiles who aided Jews during the war.
That acknowledgment and the 1999 publication of her book, "In My Hands," launched her national speaking career. She appeared on television shows and spoke to student and civic groups.

She told audiences she had lived enough for several lifetimes before she was 25.

She was born into a Catholic family in her native Poland and was away at nursing school when the Nazis invaded. She joined the Polish underground and hid in a forest, where a truckload of Russian soldiers came upon her, beat her, raped her and forced her to work in one of their hospitals.
She escaped and vowed to find her family.

Instead, she was captured at church by the Germans, who put her to work at a munitions plant in Poland. She fainted from the tough work, and an elderly SS officer, Eduard Rugemer, smitten with her appearance, helped her attain lighter duties in a German mess hall.

From her new job, she looked directly into a Jewish ghetto. She said she saw Nazi soldiers grab a baby from its mother's arms, throw it skyward and shoot it "like a bird."

"That night in my girlfriend's, I threw a tantrum against God, saying, 'I don't believe in you,' " she told the Associated Press.

She went with Rugemer to Ukraine, working as a housekeeper for him and overseeing a laundry staffed by Jews. When she heard the Jews were to face certain death, she hid 12 of them in Rugemer's villa and brought them food and clothing.

By accident, Rugemer discovered them.
"He got white, shaky and ran to his office where the telephone was," she said. "I knew he would call the head of the Gestapo. I ran after him, I cried, I kissed his hand, I pleaded, I prayed."
He stomped out of the house and returned drunk. He pulled her to his lap and said the Jews could stay, if she would provide sexual favors.

"It was a small price to pay," she said.
She met her husband, William Opdyke, when he was working for the United Nations in displaced persons camps after the war. He died in 1992.

Survivors include a daughter, Jeannie Smith of Woodland, Wash.; four sisters; two grandsons; and three great-grandchildren.

In the 1970s, when Mrs. Opdyke began speaking out more, a local rabbi helped her earn recognition by Yad Vashem.

Then came her book, written with Jennifer Armstrong, and rave reviews.

Lori Tsang wrote in The Washington Post, "Opdyke tells her story in a voice that reflects the clarity and conviction of a woman to whom acts of heroism and courage are simply natural human responses to inhumanity."

Mrs. Opdyke told The Post she was motivated less by grand courage than simple decency.
When she lectured, all she asked from the audience was a hug.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company