Public executions in Poland were warnings: Anyone
caught helping a Jew would be executed.
- The clandestine
Polish Rescue Organization
Physician Saves Jewish Family
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In My Hands: Memories of a student
nurse who rescued Jews.
By Irene Gut Opdyke
Village from Nazis
said, "Here We Are...Help Us"...And They Did. Jewish survivors meet
one of their teenage rescuers.
Karski - New York Times eulogy of the man who tried to stop
Honored by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
- a List of Countries
Gut Opdyke: She Hid Polish Jews Inside a German Officers' Villa.
Irene was a teenager
when the Nazi attack on Poland changed her life forever. She
was separated from her family, escaped twice from incarceration, and captured
and raped by Soviet soldiers. Her most difficult predicament was also
her noblest: she saved the lives of 16 Polish Jews, hiding some of them
literally beneath the noses of the German officers.
The actions of rescuers
during the Holocaust not only placed them into danger but also forced
them to seek help from unlikely sources. Young Irene Gut showed did not
plan to become a heroine. She found herself in a situation in which she
could help and utilized that situation. To say that her behavior was atypical
of the Polish community is a generalization that overlooks the complex
situation that existed in occupied Poland.
as a rescuer began ironically with her own capture by the Germans to serve
as a slave laborer. She had just returned to Radom, in Nazi-occupied
Poland, from Ternopol, under Soviet occupation, where her ill treatment
by the Soviet military had occurred. She was arrested one day while at
church in a lapanka, a roundup of Polish citizens. German soldiers
actually interrupted Mass and herded the parishioners into the streets.
Irene was selected for labor and loaded in a truck with other prisoners.
She was sent to work in a munitions factory, where she fell ill. A German
officer, Major Eduard Rugemer, felt pity for her and gave her a position
in the kitchen of a hotel for Nazis.
It was at the hotel,
which was located next to the Glinice ghetto in Radom, that
Irene observed firsthand the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. One day,
while setting tables, she heard gunfire. Looking through a window to observe
what was happening, she saw soldiers shooting the unarmed ghetto inhabitants
and turning attack dogs on them. Just as she was about to scream, Schulz,
the German chef, held his hand over her mouth. "Don't cry--they will think
you are a Jew-lover," he warned. It was after this terrible mass murder
that Irene began helping Jews. She would put leftovers in box and leave
them just inside the ghetto fence. She did this despite proclamations
that anyone caught aiding a Jew would be put to death.
In April of 1942,
Major Rugemer's unit was moved to Lwów. The month before the move
the Glinice ghetto was liquidated and bulldozed under. Radom had
been proclaimed "Jew-free." In Lwów, two things happened that set
Irene closer to her course as a rescuer. There she befriended Helen Weinbaum;
a Polish Catholic married to a Jewish man. Helen's husband, Henry, was
an inmate at a nearby Arbeitslager, a work camp. After receiving
word that the SS was holding all Jews from the Arbeitslagers and the neighboring
ghettoes in village, Irene, Helen, and Irene's sister, Janina, went to
the village to find Henry. There they discovered the SS rushing the Jews
out of houses and shooting those whom did not run fast enough. Elderly
Jews and women with children were their principle targets. Undoubtedly,
the most gruesome act that Irene witnessed was a German officer tossing
an infant into the air like a clay pigeon and shooting the child. He then
shot the grieving mother. The surviving prisoners were then marched out
of the village.
In another ironic
twist, the major's unit was sent to Ternopol, scene of Irene's
trials with Soviets. There Major Rugemer was commander of a factory, called
Harres-Krafa-Park (HKP). Irene resumed her work in the dining hall
and kitchen. In the course of her duties, Irene met Jewish workers in
the hotel laundry room. She began helping them by giving them extra food
and blankets, and recommending them for work in the kitchen. Schulz, the
chef, helped her provide these items, although he did not acknowledge
what he was doing. Unfortunately, some of the Jews began to disappear.
Irene's friend, Fanka Silberman, heard her family being taken away as
she hid. Two kitchen helpers, Roman and Sozia, were sent away after being
betrayed by a local girlfriend of the SS chief, Rokita. Irene overheard
rumors of another raid from Germans eating in the dining hall. It was
after these occurrences that Irene became an active smuggler and rescuer.
Irene drove six of
the Jews, including Henry Weinbaum, who had not been killed in the raid
and now had the dubious job of valet for Rokita, in a dorozka, a wagon,
to the forest of Puszcza Janowska. Once safe in the forest, her
contraband passengers escaped into its dark reaches. In the nearby town,
Irene met a sympathetic Polish Catholic priest, Father Joseph. Later she
met a Polish forester, Zygmunt Pasiewski , a former partisan, who would
help her care for two of the Jewish ladies, one of whom, Ida Haller, would
have a baby at his cottage.
The most ironic twist
was yet to come. As the liquidation of the ghetto drew near, Irene determined
to save her remaining Jewish friends. They hid behind a false wall in
the HKP laundry room on the night of the raid. The next night she led
to their next hiding place -- a heating duct inside Major Rugemer's apartment.
The ironies did not
end there. Major Rugemer decided that he would live in a villa in town.
He requisitioned the former home of a Jewish architect and appointed Irene
to oversee the work. The villa turned out to be the perfect hiding place.
Servants quarters were located in the basement and a bunker was accessible
beneath the yard.
transpired afterward could have been the plot of a commedia d'el arte.
A Nazi German officer -- a doddering old man--lived at ease without knowing
that Jews were hidden beneath his feet. At one point, Irene had to interrupt
the visiting Rokita, who was in-flagrante with a woman at the gazebo directly
above the bunker.
Finally she was found
out by Major Rugemer. He came home one afternoon and discovered Fanka
Silberman and Ida Bauer upstairs with Irene. He was angry but he was also
trapped: it would not look good for a Nazi officer to have had Jews hiding
in his own house. So Major Rugemer became an unlikely rescuer. However,
he did demand a price for his silence. Irene was forced to become his
When the advancing
Soviet troops approached Ternopol, Irene was able to take her charges
into the forest where they would be liberated. Through the efforts of
one young Polish woman, who found herself in an unusual situation, Fanka
Silberman, Henry Weinbaum, Moses Steiner, Marian Wilner, Joseph Weiss,
Alex Rosen, David Rosen, Lazar Haller, Clara Bauer, Thomas Bauer, Abram
Klinger, Miriam Morris, Hermann Morris, Herschel Morris, and Pola Morris
were saved from the Nazi deathcamps.
of Poles to Jews during this awful time continue to be an area of controversy.
Some Poles helped Jews; some Poles betrayed Jews; while others were mostly
concerned about their own survival. Certainly there was sympathy toward
Jews among the Poles and antipathy toward the Germans. Maria Brzeska,
in her book, Through A Woman's Eyes, describes the attitudes of
Polish villagers in this passage:
The peasants whom
the Germans reduced to the role of pariah gave their protection to the
most miserable of all pariahs: the Jews. And in this, as in many other
cases, they had often paid for their humanity with their lives. In the
little village of Sadowa in Wegrów County, a baker, his wife and
son were shot for giving a loaf of bread to a Jewish woman. In many cases
villages have had their inhabitants shot, their husbandries burnt down,
their people deported amid sneers and humiliation, just because they have
given Jews a loaf of bread, or shelter for the night, or have set plates
of groats in the forest for the homeless Jewish children whom the Germans
shoot like rabbits. Nonetheless, in village after village deliberate and
effective aid has been given, with the strong and helpful forest always
available if necessary.
Doctor Olga Lilien,
a Holocaust survivor, who lived with the Polowicz family in a village
near Tarnobrzeg during the war, gives an example of unity among
the Polish villagers. "A German came to the village looking for a fugitive.
He called the townspeople to a meeting to question them about the fugitive's
whereabouts. Suddenly he looked at me and said, 'Oh, but this is a Jewess.'
The head of the village said, 'Oh, no, she cooks at the school. She is
a very good cook.' Nobody said, 'Oh well, she is Jewish. Take her.' He
let me go.
The population of
the village was about two thousand. They all knew there was something
'wrong' with me. Any one of them could have sold me to the Germans for
two hundred Deutsch marks, but out of two thousand people nobody did it.
Everybody in that village protected me. I had very good relations with
There were many reasons
for Poles to deny aiding Jews. The Homars, for example, who hid Nechama
Tec and her family, asked their charges to leave as Polish Christians
and not reveal who had hidden them. When
judging the reactions of Poles to the Holocaust, it is important to remember
that the Poles themselves were under a constant barrage of terror and
of citizens in the streets were commonplace.
remembers vividly the bodies hanging and the sounds of the children
In many instances
Germans destroyed entire villages and murdered the inhabitants. The threat
of lapanki, such as the one Irene Gut was caught in, made all Poles
wary and each trip outside the home could be the last.
Over one million
Poles were deported to slave labor in Germany. Polish children lost their
lives to reprisal actions, transit in intolerable weather conditions on
trains or marches, malnutrition, and were even used for blood transfusions
for wounded German soldiers. The greatest threat to Poles who helped Jews
was the death penalty, which was not applied anywhere else in Nazi-occupied
A Polish couple and
their children, as well as the Jewish family they had been hiding, were
brought to a gallows in the town square. The crowd was not allowed to
leave the square, but instead, forced to witness the execution.
It was a warning
from the Nazis: Helping a Jew would be punished by death.
By: Curtis M. Urness,
Edited by: Terese