Community remembers those lost and honors those making a difference at Holocaust Remembrance event

by | Apr 22, 2016 | Featured

Jeannie Opdyke Smith

Jeannie Opdyke Smith

Wednesday, May 4, 6:45 pm, Temple Israel

Choosing the most powerful and meaningful moment of Tidewater’s annual commemoration of Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance, is difficult. This year, there will be an abundance of these moments.

Each part of the event will be rich with meaning.

Whether it’s the guest speaker who is returning to speak to the community by popular demand, or the poignant candle lighting ceremony remembering those senselessly killed and honoring those who fought to save lives; the prayers, or the hope for the future during a presentation of student and teacher awards, the evening is emotional and relevant.

The Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, a volunteer-run group of community members dedicated to Holocaust education, plans and presents the event.

For this year’s special guest, the Yom Hashoah committee chose to bring back Jeannie Opdyke Smith, one of the keynote presenters at the Commission’s 12th Annual Educators’ Conference last July.

Smith is part of a new generation of Holocaust speakers who share the life stories from their parents’ first hand experiences. Smith is the daughter of the late Irene Gut Opdyke who received international recognition for her life-saving actions during the Holocaust while working for a high-ranking German official.

“When the participants of the Educator’s Conference heard Jeannie portray the incredible story of her mother’s bravery in saving the lives of Jews in WWII , it was clear that the whole community needed to hear Irene Gut Opdyke’s story as well,” says Joan London Baer, a co-chair of the conference.

“Jeannie’s dedication and devotion to telling the story proves that ‘one person can make a difference.’ Her presentation will touch your heart and impact your life,” says Baer.

Vivian Margulies, Baer’s conference co-chair, describes Smith’s performance as unforgettable.

“When Jeannie tells her mother’s story, you can hear a pin drop. The story grabs your attention right away and her presentation keeps you mesmerized,” says Margulies.

Smith is a member and speaker for the Oregon and Washington Holocaust Speakers Bureau, a regular speaker for the Anti-Defamation League’s Bearing Witness Program, and a national speaker for the Jewish Federation of North America.

“What I love about my mom’s story (forget that she’s my mom)—is you have people like Schindler who had an amazing story, but he had a factory and he had influence.

“Here, you’re talking about a girl out of high school who didn’t even have her parents or her home or anything. It takes all of our excuses away,” Smith says. “It takes mine away.”

Irene Gut Opdyke was named by the Israeli Holocaust Commission as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. She was presented with the Israel Medal of Honor, Israel’s highest tribute, as well as a special commendation from the Vatican, and her story is part of a permanent exhibit in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Following her death in 2003, Opdyke’s honors continued. Posthumously, she was presented with the Commanders Cross—the Polish Medal of Honor—and the Courage to Care Award by the Anti- Defamation League.

Opdyke’s 1999 book, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer relays the detailed account of her life during WWII . Her life story was told on Broadway in the nationally acclaimed play, Irena’s Vow, staring Tovah Feldshuh.

Opdyke’s story, and her decisions to risk her life to save others, were the basis for some of the questions students were asked to consider when preparing the literature and art pieces they submitted for the Holocaust Commission’s Annual Elie Wiesel Writing and Visual Arts Competitions.

A record number of entries were received this year. Student winners and outstanding educators will be honored at Yom Hashoah; winning artwork and judges’ choices will be displayed before and after the event.

“The number of entries is always exciting to see,” says Gail Flax, one of the competition committee co-chairs. “The quality of their works affirms the purpose of the competition and honors the survivors and their stories.”

Phyllis Sperling, co-chair of the arts competition, says the quality of the artwork submitted was outstanding.

“This year’s Elie Wiesel Visual Arts and Multimedia Competition showcased a large number of high quality artistic entries. We were impressed not only by their creativity but the insightful messages the students conveyed through their poignant artists’ statements,” says Sperling.

Deb Segaloff, writing co-chair, who oversees the fairness of the judging— ensuring there’s no bias by eliminating any identification of names or schools—could see the entries this year had great depth.

“Every entry, whether essay or poem, manifested that each student thought about ‘a hero’ who inspired them personally to wrestle with the idea of being an upstander even in the most oppressive times,” says Segaloff.

Yom Hashoah is free and open to the public. For more information, visit www., email info@holocaustcommission. org, or call 757-965-6100.

by Laine M. Rutherford