By Mark Ellis, Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service
POLAND (ANS – March 18, 2017) — She was only a teenager when Hitler’s Panzer divisions overran her beloved Poland, separating the young nursing student from her family, and launching her on a mission a Catholic girl with Aryan features might never have imagined — rescuing Jews from certain death.
“God blessed my hands to save many lives,” said Irene Gut Opdyke, shortly before her passing in 2003. Opdyke was honored by the Israeli Holocaust Commission in 1982 as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” a title given to non-Jews who risked their lives by aiding and saving Jews during the Holocaust.
Opdyke wrote a book about her ordeal, “In My Hands” (Random House), a riveting tale of heroism and survival under perilous conditions.
When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the 17-year old was several hundred miles from her home at nursing school in Radom, and could not return because her family lived close to the German border. “My little country was really bombarded,” Opdyke said. “Hitler knocked everything down,” she said. “The sky was black with them: row after row of German bombers, flying in formation over Radom.”
The bombardment threw the hospital where she studied into chaos. “We were out of food, we were out of sulfa drugs, we had no clean sheets, the electricity was out, and the wounded kept arriving,” she noted in her book. As the Polish army retreated from Radom, Opdyke volunteered to travel with them and assist with their medical needs. “I joined the Polish army to fight Hitler and send him back to Berlin,” she said.
“Unfortunately, Russia and Germany made a pact and they took my country from both sides,” Opdyke said.
Facing overwhelming opposition, she found herself hiding in the Ukrainian forest with 10 Polish soldiers and several nurses. “We needed clothing and food because it was bitter cold,” she said. One night Opdyke went into the town of Lvov on a bartering mission.
Beaten and left to die
As Opdyke walked down the road on a clear, moonless night, she heard a low, rumbling sound she didn’t want to hear. It was the sound of a Russian patrol approaching, and she bolted for the woods. “I ran for my life to the forest, but I was captured by three Russian soldiers and brutally violated, beaten, and left in the snow to die,” she said. “But I did not die.”
Found by another Russian patrol the next morning, her lifeless body was thrown in the back of a military transport vehicle and hauled to a prison hospital controlled by the Russians. As she slowly recovered her strength over the ensuing weeks, her prayers intensified. “I wondered if the Heavenly Father saw me, alone and defeated.”
Opdyke gradually regained her strength in the hospital, only to face another harrowing incident. A Russian doctor in the hospital crept into her bed in the middle of the night and attempted to rape her as she slept. After this ordeal, she determined she would escape from the hospital.
“A Polish doctor from the Ukraine helped me to escape,” she said. Opdyke slipped through a loose board in the fence surrounding the hospital grounds, and slowly made her way back toward her home in Radom. As a train she was riding crossed from Russian-controlled areas of Poland into the German sector, everyone was pulled off the train and placed under quarantine, ostensibly to prevent the spread of “Russian diseases.”
Men examined for circumcision
“The men, who had been separated from the women upon arrival, were being examined for circumcision; the circumcised men, the Jews, were taken away,” she recounted. “To where? Why? Would they be back? No one knew.
Two years after the start of the war, Opdyke finally reached her family in Radom for a joyous homecoming. But everything about life in Radom had changed. All the streets had German names. All Polish intellectuals and professionals had been taken away to prison camps, and many other men in the town had simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.
The restaurant where Opdyke once worked served only Germans now. Posters covered the city mocking the Jews, falsely accusing them of every sort of crime. Jews from Radom, as well as the surrounding countryside, had been forced into two ghetto areas, surrounded by barbed wire. “Some said that Hitler was planning to exterminate the Jews, but we thought that was simply too preposterous to believe.”
“Now we are like slaves, or worse,” her father told her. “We must step off the sidewalk and remove our hats if a German approaches,” he said. “And the death penalty is automatic for anyone helping the Jews.” Opdyke was baffled by this hostility toward the Jews, wondering why the Germans didn’t simply let them leave.
One night after Opdyke’s sisters went off to bed, she tearfully recounted the full story of her two-year ordeal to her parents, her voice dropping to a whisper as she told them of her rape. Then Opdyke’s father gently put his hand on her shoulder. “War makes men animals,” he said. “You must not let this ruin your life. God has plans for you. He did not let you die. He has plans for you.”
Only a few weeks later, the Germans came for Opdyke’s father. A ceramics factory her father designed was considered important for the war effort, and they wanted his expertise to make it function, so they took him away.
Then on a Sunday morning, while Opdyke worshipped in church, she heard the sound of heavy vehicles pull up in the square outside the church, doors slamming, and boots pounding up to the front doors. “Raus! Zum Strasse! soldiers shouted as the people were herded outside into the square. The parishioners were surrounded by Wehrmacht soldiers with their guns drawn.
“You will be transported to Germany to work for the Reich,” an officer shouted. “You Poles have been idle long enough.”
Photo captions: 1) Irene Gut Opdyke. 2) German tanks roll into Poland. 3) Polish villagers killed by Germans near Radom. 4) Sturmbannfuhrer Rokita. 5) Mark Ellis.
About the writer: Mark Ellis is Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net), and is also the founder of www.GodReports.com, a website that shares testimonies and videos from the church around the world to build interest and involvement in world missions. Previously, Mark co-hosted a TV show called “Windows on the World” with ANS Founder, Dan Wooding, aired on the Holy Spirit Broadcasting Network (http://hsbn.tv/), which is now co-hosted by Dr. Garry Ansdell, Senior Pastor of Hosanna Christian Fellowship in Bellflower, California.
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