Queen Esther's story--and spirit--live on

Next up on the calendar is Purim, one of the most joyous holidays of the Jewish year. 

EstherAndIrene image

Next up on the calendar is Purim, one of the most joyous holidays of the Jewish year.

On Purim, we tell a familiar story for the Jewish people: An enemy wants to destroy us, a hero or two stop them and deliver us from danger, and we survive and thrive--and then we eat, as the old saying goes.

Yes, the evil against the Jewish people has replicated itself throughout our history and still endures in the present day.

But, alongside the hate, there are love, compassion, and courage in heroes, like Queen Esther and Mordecai, who are constants in our stories.

Heroes like the late Irene Gut Opdyke, who I was lucky enough to meet as a teenager; my family once hosted her in our home while she was on the road for a speaking engagement.

Irene's daughter Jeannie Opdyke Smith shared her mother's harrowing story on March 3 at a JUF-sponsored event at Am Yisrael in Northfield.

Irene was born to a Polish Catholic family. A nursing student at the start of World War II, she joined the Polish underground to care for the sick and wounded, and became separated from her family. Later, she was captured by the Germans and sent to work in a munitions factory in Poland.

At the factory, Irene-a pretty girl with Aryan features-caught the eye of a German officer who took a liking to her and employed her as a housekeeper at his villa in Ukraine. Her tasks included supervising the laundry service, carried out by a staff of 12 Jews.

When Irene learned of plans to kill the Jewish employees, she insisted on hiding them in the cellar of the villa, smuggling them food and clothing without the officer's knowledge.

The holiday of Purim grapples with themes of secrecy and disguise, concepts that play into Irene's story, too. Just as Esther masked her intentions to save the Jews of Persia from King Ahasverus in the Purim story, Irene kept the Jews a secret to save them.

Then, one day, the officer came home early and discovered the hidden Jews. Irene pleaded with him not to turn them in, bargaining to become his mistress if he would let them stay. She never told her Jewish friends how she kept them concealed.

In all, she hid them for nine months. When one of the hidden women became pregnant, Irene convinced the mother-to-be not to terminate the pregnancy. Toward the end of the war, she fled with the Jews to the forest, where the baby was born.

After the war, the state of Israel and Yad Vashem recognized Irene as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations," a list of 27,000 non-Jews from 51 countries, to date, who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Irene would eventually get married, give birth to a daughter, Jeannie, and settle in southern California. In 2003, Irene passed away. She was 86.

Today, Jeannie sustains her mother's legacy as part of a group of Holocaust speakers called 2nd Generation, who share their parents' firsthand experiences from the war.

Irene's lessons, told through her daughter, are as relevant today as they were during the Holocaust and in the Purim story. "Hate is easy," Jeannie explains, "but it takes real courage to love."

"But, alongside the hate, there are love, compassion, and courage in heroes, like Queen Esther and Mordecai, who are constants in our stories. "



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