By Mark Ellis
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.”