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For rescuer’s daughter, tale is life’s work

Jeannie Smith
Jeannie Smith

“From Darkness to Light,” the theme of the 2014 Connections brunch, raises the question of individual responsibility to others — a Jewish value — regardless of the risk. Jeannie Smith, the daughter of Polish Righteous Among the Nations rescuer Irene Gut OpDyke, will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Connections on Sunday, March 2, at 10 a.m. The event is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy and will be held at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. The Bryna Zehngut Mitzvot Award will be presented to a deserving Southern Arizona teen.

“My full-time job, my passion, has become telling my mother’s story across the United States, Canada and the U.K.,” Smith told the AJP from her home in Woodland, Washington. “When we believe that we’re all part of one human family, we discover that one person can make a difference.”

As a teenager she had no knowledge of her mother’s past. When she was 14 a random telephone call interrupted their family dinner in Yorba Linda, Calif. It was 1972. A college student was doing a report on the denial of the Holocaust. “My mom was so shocked that anyone could think the Holocaust didn’t happen,” says Smith. It was the first time she had heard her mother’s story as she spoke over the phone about hiding more than a dozen Jews in the basement of a high-ranking German official. She was his housekeeper in Poland during World War II.

“How does a young person come to think this?” her mother asked the student. “I recall looking at my dad,” says Smith. “He was the only one who knew what she had done” to protect Jews during the Holocaust, all of whom lived.

But Smith’s mother paid a price: The German official had come home to find a few of the Jews in hiding in the kitchen. The only way she could keep him silent was to become his mistress. He was in his 60s and OpDyke was barely 20, says Smith.

After that phone call, more than 40 years ago, OpDyke began speaking out. It wasn’t until Smith was married and in her early 20s that she fully realized, “my mom’s life was beyond the normal mom experience.” OpDyke often told her daughter, “‘Your head will tell you about danger but you must think with your heart.’ That’s how she lived,” says Smith.

Her mother was named Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Holocaust Commission in May 2003. OpDyke’s life story was told in the Broadway play “Irena’s Vow” and in her book “In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.”

When OpDyke died at age 85, also in 2003, Smith was working as an interior decorator. She never thought of herself as a public speaker. “I had no intention of telling my mother’s story but she had 60 talks lined up,” says Smith. “I took over.”

Now 56, Smith also speaks at schools about bullying and suicide prevention whenever she has the opportunity. “I learned from my mom that regardless of economic status or age, one person can make a difference. My message goes way past the Holocaust and genocide. I tell kids, ‘Hate is easy. It takes real courage to love,’” she affirms.

In horrible situations “the biggest groups are not victims or perpetrators. The bystanders are the biggest group. I tell people, particularly kids, ‘Be an upstander.’”

The cost for Connections 2014 is $36, with a $180 pledge to the 2014 Federation Community Campaign ($18 for students). RSVP by Feb. 21 to Karen Graham at 577-9393, ext. 118, or [email protected] or at www.jewishtucson.org. For more information, visit www.ireneopdyke.com. The Federation’s Young Women’s Cabinet Mitzvah Project requests that attendees bring non-perishable food items for the Community Food Bank.