Wrote of aiding Jews in World
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
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
"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
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
© 2003 The Washington