ON THIS DATE in 1922, Irene Gut Opdyke was born. At nineteen in 1942, she began risking her life in order to bring food and provide shelter to Jews in World War II. Gut would have been justified in looing out for herself and ignoring the misery around her. Instead, the Polish woman who had been raped and left to die die by Russian soldiers, arrested by the Germans, and forced to labor in a Nazi munitions factory, took action to save Jewish lives, a decision she reached after watching soldiers shoot unarmed Jews in 1942.
The kitchen helper began her mission of mercy by sneaking food to near-starving ghetto residents in Radom, Poland. Transferred to the Polish city of Lwów with German Major Eduard Rugemer, Gut witnessed the depths of Nazi depravity when a German officer tossed a Jewish baby in the air, shot it, and then shot the baby’s mother. After a move to Ternopil in western Ukraine, Gut became bolder, giving extra food and blankets to Jewish workers she met in the hotel laundry room; later she smuggled several of them out of the ghetto and into a nearby forest.
When the seventy-year-old Rugemer made her his personal housekeeper, Gut sheltered a dozen Jews in the basement of the house. Rugemer eventually discovered the deceit and informed Gut that he would turn them in unless she became his mistress, and she succumbed to his blackmail. “It was a small price to pay for the many lives,” Gut told theLos Angeles Times in 2003. “I saw people in need, and I saw I could help them.” The arrangement between Irene and Gut lasted until early 1944, when the major and other Germans fled the advancing Soviet army.
Following the war, Gut lived for a time in a Displaced Persons camp and then in Soviet-occupied Poland before some of the people she’d aided helped smuggle her into West Germany. She eventually settled in the U.S. In 1992, Gut published In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.