I’ve been on a kick lately that involves reading books about World War II. I’m not looking for military strategy and battle maneuvers, though. I’ve been on that kick before and I’m sure I’ll be on it again soon enough. For now, I want to read about the ordinary everyday people who survived the Nazi attack on Europe. So, with that in mind, I picked a book by a woman who is one of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations for rescuing twelve Jews and ensuring that they survived the war.
I did a research paper in college on rescuers and I remembered the name Irene Gut Opdyke from my research so, when I found that she’d actually committed her story to a book, in her own words, I bought it right away.
I was admittedly a little nervous when I started it because I saw that it was officially consider a book written for “children;” maybe the publishers meant teenagers? Either way, the book is one that should be read by everyone.
Irene Gut was a seventeen year old Catholic nursing student when World War II tore her native Poland in half. She ended up on the Soviet side while her family was on the German side. Treated brutally by the Soviets, she was hidden in the countryside until Hitler and Stalin made an agreement that families who had been split could cross the borders so she left her safe haven. At that point, her blonde hair and blue eyes were a blessing and the Germans treated her as one of their own.
When her family went to their native town, Irene and her sister, Janina, stayed where they were and got jobs. Irene’s was kitchen help in a hotel that served only Nazi officers and their staffs. The hotel was next door to the ghetto.
Irene started out by simply stuffing food she stole from the kitchen underneath the fence to try and feed even one person inside the ghetto.
In what seems like very little time but what she describes as a lifetime for her, she was the mistress of a Nazi major and hiding twelve Jews in the basement of the major’s house. I won’t say any more about what happened in between because that might make you not feel the need to read the story.
Suffice it to say, Irene ended the war as a resistance fighter hidden in the Polish forests. She was tortured again by the Soviets who took over that part of Poland. She escaped and, still a wanted woman, was disguised and sent to Germany and on to the Netherlands by the Jews who she’d saved.
Everything in this book was verified by Yad Vashem as they made her one of the Righteous Among the Nations. That makes the story all the remarkable. I knew she’d been given that title when I started reading but as I read, I couldn’t help but wonder how it could all be true. I hope the need for someone to have the bravery, courage, and love for all mankind that Irene Gut Opdyke had never arises again.
But I hope I would have half the bravery and courage she had. That might get me somewhere.