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Irene Gut Opdyke (born Irena Gut, Kozienice, Poland, 5 May 1922 – 17 May 17, 2003, California) was a Polish nurse who gained recognition for aiding Jews persecuted by the Nazis during World War II and for saving twelve Jews.



When Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939, 17-year-old Irena Gut went east with a retreating Polish military unit to care for the sick and wounded. She was captured by Soviet soldiers, who beat and brutally raped her. Later she was forced to serve as a helper in a Soviet field hospital. In 1940 she escaped in Radom, Poland, but was soon arrested in a roundup by the Germans and sent as a slave laborer to a munitions factory.

A 70-year-old German major, Eduard Rügemer, liked her and found her an easier job in the kitchen of a hotel for German officers. Though it has been erroneously claimed that Rügemer was an SS officer, he actually was a German Wehrmacht major charged with supplying munitions to the German front.[1][2] Rugemer personally despised the SS and their treatment of Jews.[3]

Gut witnessed the gruesome fate of Jews in German-occupied Poland. This prompted her to rescue some Jews who worked in the laundry room where she served as a maid in Rügemer's employ. She hid six of them under the gazebo in the very villa occupied by Rügemer, and another six in a forest at the outskirts of town.

One day, after witnessing the Nazis in the town square publicly hang a Jew along with the Gentile who had been hiding the Jew, Gut was so shaken that she forgot to lock the front door from the inside at the villa where she was hiding the Jews. She was caught off-guard when Rugemer unexpectedly walked in and discovered her in the kitchen with two Jews.[4] Gut begged Rugemer for their lives. He spared them and indeed, to the end of the war, helped Gut save them all.

Irena became Rugemer's mistress in exchange for his keeping the secret that she was hiding the Jews.[5] She wrote that Rugemer held an affection for Jews, in particular for the ones that they were concealing, many of whom referred to him as "Grandpa." [6]

Before the Red Army entered Tarnopol, she fled with the people that she was protecting into the forest. Paradoxically, in post-war Poland she was suspected of having collaborated with the Nazis. In 1949, with the help of an American United Nations envoy to Poland, William Opdyke, she left Poland for the United States.

After seven months in New York City, she met Opdyke again; they married and moved to California. Irene Gut Opdyke worked as an interior decorator in Yorba Linda, California, near Santa Ana. She was predeceased by her husband.

Decades later, she was prompted to tell her wartime story only after a college student phoned her at random asking her if she believed the Holocaust really happened.[5] Her book, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, published in 1999, became one of a few books quite well known by people about the holocaust.



On 9 June 1995, Irene Gut Opdyke was honored with a Papal Blessing from Pope John Paul II at a joint service of Jews and Catholics held at a Jewish synagogue in Irvine, California. The Papal Blessing had been obtained for her by Alan Boinus and by Monsignor Joseph Karp of the Polish Catholic Church in Yorba Linda, California. The Papal Blessing was the first recognition by the Catholic Church of her heroic efforts during the Holocaust.[7]


Opdyke's autobiography, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer (ISBN 0385720327), was published in 1999 with the help of Alan Boinus, who helped secure her publisher Random House and co-author Jennifer Armstrong.[8][9]

In 1998 Opdyke's story was the subject of a lawsuit when she sought to regain the right to tell the "authorized" account of her life story, which she had previously assigned in a lawful motion-picture option agreement. Copyright attorney Carole Handler represented Opdyke and worked with the parties to reach an agreement. The case was dismissed with prejudice.[10] In an ironic twist after the trial, all parties agreed that the promoter had done "nothing wrong." Mrs. Opdyke publicly acknowledged the promoter whom she had sued by thanking him in her book, In My Hands, and agreed to give him producer credit for the eventual "authorized" motion picture about her life story.


A play based on the book In My Hands, entitled Irena's Vow, opened on Broadway on 29 March 2009 to mixed reviews.[11] It was written by Dan Gordon and starred Tovah Feldshuh as Irena Gut.[12] It had earlier premiered off-Broadway at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City. After failing to find an audience, show producers decided to close the play on June 28, 2009.[13]

See also


  1. ^ "What's Wrong with This Spring's Broadway Plays," Time, Richard Zoglin, April 6, 2009
  2. ^ Into the Flames, The Life Story of a Righteous Gentile, Irene Gut Opdyke with Jeffrey M. Elliot, The Borgo Press, p. 72
  3. ^ Into the Flames, p. 94
  4. ^ Into the Flames, p. 139.
  5. ^ a b "Irene Opdyke".  
  6. ^ Into the Flames, p. 144.
  7. ^ "Pope recognizes Yorba Linda woman's WWII sacrifice," by Lori Haycox, The Orange County Register, June 10, 1995.
  8. ^ Random House Website
  9. ^ Armstrong's Website
  10. ^ "Holocaust Heroine Is Satisfied With Accord," Los Angeles Times, April 12, 2000.
  11. ^ "What's Wrong with this Spring's Broadway Plays" Time, April 6, 2009
  12. ^ Irena's Vow on Broadway
  13. ^ [1] "Irena's Vow' to close on June 28 Broadway play was struggling to find audience" Variety, June 25, 2009]

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