By Skip Kozakewicz, Reflector Editor
On Sunday, March 19, at the University of Richmond, Jeannie Opdyke Smith, daughter of Polish Holocaust rescuer Irene Gut Opdyke, shared the story of her mother’s incredible journey of courage and resilience in saving a dozen Jews during the Holocaust.
More than 200 people attended the special program as part of UR’s School of Professional & Continuing Studies Community Conversation series in recognition of its 60th Anniversary. The program was co-sponsored by UR’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond and Virginia Holocaust Museum.
Jamelle Wilson, Dean of School of Professional and Continuing Studies, University of Richmond, welcomed attendees and recognized a number of people including Holocaust Survivors present. Community leader Richard November also was recognized for inspiring the special program. Virginia Holocaust Museum Executive Director Samuel Asher next introduced the guest speaker.
Her one-hour remarks focused on the theme: “The Choices We Make” and how her mother, then a teenager, made a significant choice to save Jews “on the spur of the moment.”
As she recounted her mother’s sacrifices over many years, Jeannie Opdyke Smith frequently wiped away tears describing in detail about her mother’s terrible ordeal while doing the impossible. When Germany invaded Poland, her mother, just 17, was in nursing school. The school was turned into a makeshift hospital with students taking care of the injured Polish people from the frequent bombings and ground attacks.
Two weeks later, Russia invaded and Poland ceased to exist. Her mother soon joined the Polish Partisans and went into the forest to escape the Germans and the Russians. One day while being a lookout, she was captured by Russian soldiers and beaten and left for dead. She was found by another group of Russian soldiers and taken to a Russian hospital where she became a prisoner after she recovered.
However, her mother escaped and set out hoping to locate her parents and four sisters in western Poland. While hiding in a vacant building, she saw a large group of people being herded down a street by German soldiers. She followed and was horrified when the soldiers began firing into the crowd, killing men, women, children and even babies.
Her mother was captured by the Germans and forced to work in the laundry and cafeteria in a camp. Since she understood and could speak German fluently, she heard German soldiers talking about killing 12 Jews who were working in the laundry with her. Without much hesitation, she talked with the Jews and smuggled them out of the camp.
Since she could speak German and was young and attractive, a German major made her his housekeeper at a villa outside the camp where he took up residence. So, she soon smuggled the 12 Jews into the villa where she gave them food and safe shelter. Over several years, she would hide the Jews in various places in the villa to keep them away from German soldiers and the major. Unfortunately, the major came back to the villa early one day and discovered several of the Jews. To keep him from turning her in and saving the Jews, she became his mistress. Nearly a year later, she escaped along with her 12 Jewish friends back to the forest where they stayed until the end of the war.
Her mother eventually came to the U.S. and did not share her secret life during the war of saving the Jews with her daughter until Jeannie was 14 years old. Although she had not spoken of her ordeals during the war to anyone except her husband, she knew it was time to speak out.
“All these years I’ve kept silent. I’ve allowed the enemy to win,” her mother was quoted before one group of teenagers.
Her mother then spent the rest of her life sharing her incredible story with numerous groups and organizations, authoring books, doing untold number of media interviews – always imploring people of all ages to do the right thing.
Jeannie Updyke Smith concluded her remarks, “One person can make a difference. As my mother lived that life of love, she changed the course for 12 Jews.”
The audience then gave her a standing ovation and many community members came forward to speak with her for mother than 30 minutes.
The following are more photos from the program, courtesy of the University of Richmond including Survivor Halina Zimm presenting the speaker with a special plaque for her appearance.