Irene Gut Opdyke: She Hid Polish Jews Inside a German Officer's Villa

Last Updated: Friday, September 15, 2017

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.

Irene's activities 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.

What 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 mistress.

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.

The relationships 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 them."

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 deprivation.

Irene remembers vividly the bodies hanging and the sounds of the children choking.

Public executions of citizens in the streets were commonplace.

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 Europe.

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.