Remarks by Abraham H. Foxman
ADL National Director
Presentation of Courage to Care Award
To Irene Gut Opdyke
Washington, DC, April 19, 2009
Posted: April 21, 2009
Tonight is a special one for us – it is Erev Yom Hashoah. One of the tenets of Judaism is Zachor – to remember. And so tonight we remember.
We remember the darkest chapter in our modern history, when six million Jews -- including one and a half million children – were systematically slaughtered by Hitler and the Nazis for one reason only – they were Jews.
To remember them means their lives were important; that they walked on this earth and were part of our collective being. Please rise and join me in a minute of silence for the six million.
Zachor – to remember. We remember also those who stood up to say no to the Nazis; who in the face of unspeakable evil risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews.
To help another human being when to do so will only earn you scorn, contempt, and even threaten your life is to take a moral stand of incalculable value.
Those who defended and aided Jews and other victims of the Nazi onslaught merit our recognition and our eternal thanks.
They were individuals who followed the call of conscience, which is no simple matter. Known today as the “Righteous Among Nations,” what motivated this relatively small group of people is sometimes difficult for us to comprehend in the world as we now know it.
Difficult because it seems they possessed a moral courage to which most of us can only aspire.
Difficult to comprehend because they often risked everything, to help people who, for the most part, they may not have known at all.
Apart from their willingness to help others -- they do not seem to have much in common. They crossed gender, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic lines. They were Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Evangelical, Baptist, Lutheran, and Muslim. They were farmers, doctors, diplomats, peasants, and kings. They were simple people of faith or papal nuncios.
Irene Gut Opdyke was one of those who stood up and acted against great personal odds to save Jews.
During the early stages of the war, this Polish-Catholic girl joined the underground, but was captured by Russian soldiers who beat and raped her. She escaped her work detail only to be recaptured, this time by the Nazis.
An elderly SS officer, who took a fancy to Irene, used his influence to secure easier work for her in the Army mess hall. Because of its proximity to a Jewish ghetto, she became aware of the plight of the Jews.
Transferred to the Ukraine, the officer took Irene with him as his housekeeper. In this position she supervised the laundry duties of a workforce consisting of 12 Jews.
After learning of the definite plans to kill all 12, Irene resolved to hide them in the officer’s villa. She fed and clothed them until they were accidently found. Irene knew that she had to act quickly before the Gestapo was alerted.
Pleading and begging the officer, Irene told him that she would take punishment, even death, if their lives would be spared. He eventually promised that he would not harm them on the condition that she would become his mistress. She agreed.
In the chaos that surrounded the Soviet offensive, Irene and the 12 Jews were able to flee to the forest and survive.
In 1949 Irene came to the U.S., married and established a home in Southern California. In 1982 she was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
Just a few short weeks ago, the play, Irena’s Vow, retelling this amazing story and starring Tovah Feldshuh, opened to rave reviews on Broadway.
I stand here before you because of someone like Irene. I had the good fortune to be sheltered from the Nazis by a brave and decent woman who was my Polish Catholic nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi. She baptized me and raised me as a Catholic. But for her, I would not be alive today to bear witness.
I know first hand how essential it was to have the help of just one person who, at a moment of moral collapse, did not forget the essential principal of leading a moral life:
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
My nanny and Irene stood up to say no. Others did too, but too few. And we now know that whenever and wherever good people stood up to say no, Jews lived, Catholics lived, others lived. Imagine if there had been many more Raoul Wallenbergs, Oskar Schindlers, Bronislawa Kurpis and Irene Opdyke.
I want to take this opportunity once again to thank Eileen Ludwig Greenland for her generosity through the years in sponsoring the Courage to Care Award -- our tribute to rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust which has gone to nearly forty exceptional people since it was first instituted in 1987.
It is now my honor to present ADL’s Courage to Care Award to Janina Opdyke Smith, who will accept it on her mother’s behalf.