Irene Opdyke was born in Kasinka, Poland (8 km from the German border) in 1922. Her father owned a factory that built electric poles and he was also an architect. Her mother was in charge of the home and cared for Opdyke and her four younger sisters. The family was considered upper middle class and they were Catholic. At one year of age, Opdyke's family moved from Kasinka to the town of Radom. Irene describes her early years as very pleasant. The family had many contacts with different nationalities and religious groups. Opdyke's father also had a Jewish business partner and the children of both families were best friends.
Prior to leaving for nursing school in 1939, Opdyke had no real knowledge of the situation in Germany and had only heard bits and pieces about Hitler. Immediately upon beginning her travels to school, Opdyke was thrust into the war effort. Germany had entered Poland and the hospital that Opdyke was sent to for training was overrun with wounded soldiers and civilians from all over the countryside. Cut off from any means of communication with her family back home, Opdyke had no choice but to band together with a group of Polish nurses and try to survive as best she could.
It was September 1939 and the Polish people were in a full retreat from the advancing German army. Opdyke and a group of approximately 200 people made their way to the Ukrainian forests after a three- week journey. Around Christmas time Opdyke and a small group of people went into the nearest town hoping to barter for food and supplies. While there the town was overrun by Russian patrols and Opdyke was brutally raped by three Russian soldiers. She was left unconscious in the snow, waking later on a transport truck en route to a Russian hospital. The people she was with were taken away as prisoners of war.
After recovering in the hospital Opdyke was forced to learn to speak Russian and was put to work at a hospital. A short time later, after a doctor attempted to rape her, she fled the hospital and was taken in by a "country doctor" who allowed her to pose as a cousin. For several months they traveled the countryside helping the poor and inoculating children against cholera and tuberculosis. Upon receiving word that Poles were once again free to travel the country, Opdyke got her travel papers and headed back to Radom. There she found her family all still alive.
The family was together for several months but then her father was taken away by the Germans because of his skills in running the factory. It was now September, 1941, and Opdyke's mother decided to take the three youngest daughters and to move them to be with their father. Opdyke and her other sister were left in Radom with their aunt. She would never see either of her parents again.
A short time later, Opdyke and her sister were sent to work in an ammunition factory in Radom. While working at this factory Opdyke noticed that each day, some people disappeared. It was her first introduction to the German's treatment of the Jews. After having problems completing the work in the factory, Opdyke was placed on kitchen duty as a waitress for a German officer and his crew. It was from the window of the kitchen she was working in that Irene first witnessed the Germans actually killing Jews in the street. That kitchen window happened to overlook the Radom ghetto.
Several days after that incident, Opdyke witnessed a death march of Jews from the Radom ghetto to the mass graves just outside of town. This event had a significant effect on her life and she was absolutely horrified at the atrocities which were being committed. When the German officer that Opdyke was working with left for Ternopolye (in the Ukraine), he requested to take his kitchen staff, including Opdyke, with him. At Opdyke's request her sister was also taken with the group.
At Ternopolye Opdyke continued to work as a waitress and her sister was put in charge of cleaning the officers quarters. It was here that Opdyke began to assist the Jews she was in contact with as much as possible. She and her friends started an "information system" that would warn the Jews of when the German raids were being planned. In addition to passing along information to the Jews, Opdyke also smuggled out food and travel permits that she took from the German officers. At the same time, Opdyke's sister was sent back to her aunt in Radom
By this time Opdyke had become very close with several of the Jews in Ternopolye and she learned of the Germans plan to ship all the remaining Jews from that area to concentration camps. As luck would have, it the General informed Opdyke that they would be moving to a villa in the hills of Ternopolye. Seeing this as an opportunity, Opdyke managed to smuggle twelve of her Jewish friends into the basement of the villa without the knowledge of the General. She did this with the explicit knowledge that anyone caught helping Jews would immediately be put to death.
There were several close calls at the villa but Opdyke managed to successfully hide the twelve Jews for close to nine months. At one point the General caught Irene with three of the Jewish girls in the kitchen and he was extremely upset. Opdyke was terrified that the General would call in the Gestapo but instead he got drunk and demanded that she sleep with him in order to maintain his silence. Against her will Opdyke had intercourse with the General in order to protect her friends.
Soon after it became evident that the Russians were going to take over the Ukraine and so the Germans began a mass exodus from the area. During the commotion of the retreat Opdyke managed to sneak out her friends who were disguised as retreating Germans. In March of 1944, the Ukraine was taken back by the Russians. Opdyke was forced to leave with the General and retreat to German-occupied territory in Poland. From there she was able to escape and she fled to stay with a partisan family in Poland.
In 1945 Russia took Poland and Opdyke was arrested because of her involvement with the partisans but managed to escape a few days later. She made it back to Krakow where she learned that her father had been killed by the Germans shortly after he was taken from Radom.
After the war Opdyke, extremely ill, was smuggled out of Poland and into Germany where she ended up in a hospital for close to two months. In 1948 she immigrated to the United States where she married five years later.
Close to fifteen years later Irene Opdyke was outraged by an article she read which denied the existence of the Holocaust. This event sparked a fire in her which prompted her to travel the country telling her story. Since 1980 Irene has been telling her story to groups all across the United States. Her talks are primarily to school groups.
In 1982, a tree was planted in her honor on the Avenue of the Righteous in Jerusalem and in the early 90s she wrote a book of her experiences entitled "Into the Flames." Opdyke's sisters also survived the war.
Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Date: April 25, 1995
Length: 1 hour 56 minutes
Format: Video recording
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