“My mother’s Holocaust story is different,” Jeannie Opdyke Smith told the overflow audience of 600 at San Buenaventura Mission’s O’Brien Hall. “She wasn’t Jewish. She was what we call a bystander. We are all in this group at some point during our lives. And if you see something wrong and don’t do anything, you have taken a side — the side of the perpetrator.”And to be on the side of the perpetrators of the Holocaust was something Smith’s mother, Irene Gut Opdyke, could not abide, no matter that she was a young Polish Catholic nursing student at a time when Hitler’s forces were rounding up and killing thousands of Jews of all ages — including infants — before her very eyes.That is why Irene risked her life, even endured rape and humiliation, to hide, protect and save the lives of a dozen Jews while she served as live-in housekeeper for a Nazi officer. Since her death in 2003, her story has been shared by her daughter.“Jeannie brings us a message of healing and love; of community and oneness,” said Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller at the March 12 talk co-sponsored by San Buenaventura Mission, the Jewish Federation of Ventura County and Temple Beth Torah. “And this might be the most important message we have heard tonight. It’s not a Catholic message or a Jewish message. We all own it because we are human.”In the middle of terrorThe daughter of an architect and a homemaker, Irene — desiring to help or serve others — was in her teens when she was sent to nursing school outside of her hometown. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, she found herself cut off from her school and family, and suddenly in the middle of all the horrors of war.On the run with a resistance group that included other medical personnel and wounded soldiers, Irene was captured, beaten and raped by a group of Russian soldiers and left for dead on the side of a road. She was rescued by another group of soldiers and, when strong enough, escaped into the forest.Being on the run, however, did not spare her from the terror of the Holocaust. She witnessed a “death march” of a group of Jews — of all ages, families, small babies — led by German soldiers, and saw many of them — including the infants — shot and killed in cold blood. This shook her deeply, and in prayer she realized that she had to do something — anything — to help stop the slaughter. German officers found her and took her to work at a training camp for officers, serving meals and doing laundry. She met a group of about a dozen Jews in a ghetto, and, with the information she gained listening to conversations in the dining room of the officers, she learned when raids were planned. She smuggled food and information to her Jewish friends, who pleaded with her to hide them. A German major then took Irene to work at his villa as his housekeeper. Irene discovered a basement with a hidden panel and passage to an underground room. She smuggled her Jewish friends into this hiding place in the German officer’s home, where she continued to hide and feed them for 18 months.But the major discovered what Irene was doing, and she pleaded with him not to turn her in; the result would be death for all of them, since anyone caught harboring a Jew was executed. The major agreed to keep her secret if Irene became his mistress. She agreed and her friends survived.One of the married Jewish women was pregnant, so she smuggled her friends into a place in the forest until the baby was born. She was not, she told the young mother, going to let the Nazis take another life.Eventually, Irene was caught and spent months in a concentration camp. While there she encountered one of the Jewish men she had hidden, who arranged with other friends to smuggle her out of the camp. Now a refugee, Irene lived in a village for three years. When a UN delegation came to the village seeking survivors, Irene was interviewed by a delegate named William Opdyke.She told her story, and was invited to go to the U.S. — to New York — where she made a new start. She got a job and five years later became an American citizen. One day, while shopping, who she should encounter but William Opdyke? They were married six months later. Irene became an interior designer and raised her daughter.A secret heroismFor a long time, her mother’s heroism was a secret to daughter Jeannie. “My mother put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the memories of that horrible time of her life,” Smith told the March 12 gathering in Ventura. “It wasn’t until I was 14 that I discovered Mom’s stories through a random call from a student who was interviewing Holocaust survivors. I learned that my mom was a Holocaust rescuer who put her life on the line for her friends.”That student caller, Smith said, “opened up the floodgates. Mom realized she needed to tell the story to everyone so that it would never happen again. She told her story in every state; her passion was to talk to children in schools. She would say, ‘One person can make a difference — it matters not what your age is or how wealthy you may be, because when you give you get back so much. Love and forgiveness can open the closed mind and soften the most hardened heart.”Irene’s heroism was certainly not forgotten by the Jewish community. When her husband William developed Alzheimer’s disease, it was the Jewish Federation that arranged for him to spend his last days in the Jewish Home for the Aged in Reseda. Since her mother’s death, Smith has been speaking at Jewish Federation meetings, various churches, schools and other organizations. “If my mother were standing here right now,” Smith noted, “she would say, ‘I am here today because I love you.’ “We are all part of one human family. When you love, love connects people and it radiates. And when you love, you get back so much.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0322/opdyke/{/gallery}