Irene Gut Opdyke's Message of Hope, Courage, and Love
Irene Gut Opdyke has the kindest eyes I've ever seen. And my eyes fill with tears when I think of what her eyes witnessed nearly 60 years ago. It's not every day one can meet his or her hero. These days it seems hard to even find a hero, but I'm glad I've found mine, and I'm even gladder that yesterday I spent over two hours with her in her home. At first glance, it's hard to imagine this demure, 5-foot, white-haired woman outwitting and triumphing over formidable Nazi officers, Russian soldiers, and anyone else who stood in her way. But, as Irene says with her charming Polish accent, ''With God's blessing, everything is possible.''
I am not about to give away any of Irene's story. Her unforgettable book, In My Hands, tells it much better than I could ever attempt to. But I would like to introduce you to one of the most courageous and inspirational women alive on this planet. Irene was a mere 17 years old when World War II began, a good Polish Catholic girl who was studying to become a nurse. By the time she was 23, she had become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, and a defier of the SS and the Nazis. Although she witnessed incomprehensible cruelty, was separated from her loving family, and experienced the degradation of being raped and later exploited by a Nazi Major, these experiences only served to strengthen her.
Irene credits her parents as her greatest inspiration. She has memories of her kind and giving mother feeding gypsies and anyone else who needed a helping hand. Both of her parents taught her that we are born on this earth to give help when help is needed. That simple philosophy has guided Irene throughout her life. It was this philosophy that caused her to begin hiding food under a fence one day, and it was this philosophy that later caused her to hide 12 Jews in the basement of a Nazi Major's home.
Irene's actions are no less passionate or full of urgency today. Several years ago, Irene became very ill. But rather than stay at home and focus on her illness, she is now traveling more than ever. She says she is ''racing to the end'' to carry out her mission: To help people understand that we are all one human family and that we must live together and help each other by reaching out in love.
At one point during the War, Irene cried out to God, ''Where were you? Why did you not help?'' She was awakened with the answer in her soul that we all have been given free will. We are able to choose which road we take in life, be it good or evil. That clicked with Irene, and she asked God to help her to help. Ultimately, she took a vow that for the rest of her life she would travel and speak, primarily to young people, because they are the future leaders of our nation.
Irene brings her young audiences a message of hope and love, and she encourages them to take a stand for peace by having the courage to say, ''Stop it!'' to any form of prejudice or cruelty. She says that Hitler taught the German youth about hate, and that it was hate that created the Holocaust. Irene would now like her turn teaching our youth about love, because she feels the only way to fight hate is with love. Irene speaks from her heart, and she says that several minutes into her talks, you can hear a pin drop. After she has finished speaking, even the toughest teenage boys have been known to wait in long lines for one of her hugs -- sometimes they even go through the line twice.
I asked Irene if she has a favorite quote or saying, and this is what she shared with me: ''What is courage? Courage is a whisper from above and when you listen with your heart, you know what to do and when.''
It is Irene's courage that has made her my hero -- not only the courage she displayed some 60 years ago, but the courage she displays today. She has forgiven her enemies because as she says, ''To be able to stay alive, you have to be able to forgive, because when you hate, it hurts you. Leave the punishment to the 'highest court' and then move on with your life.'' She has chosen not to be a victim, but to live out the rest of her days in loving and joyful service to others -- right down to the little mouse on her porch that never goes without water as long as Irene is there. Despite the trauma Irene has endured, her heart is wide open, and she listens to it.
My hope is that you will listen to the words in her book and that her life will inspire you as much as it has inspired me. And as you read this newsletter, take joy in knowing that Irene is with her four younger sisters in Poland for their second reunion since the Holocaust.
If you would like information regarding having Irene Gut Opdyke speak at your school or organization after she returns from Poland, you may e-mail Sally at email@example.com.