Yom HaShoah speaker Jeannie Opdyke Smith came to Tidewater a little early to meet with a special group of women. Thirty local Lions of Judah (Jewish women advocates and donors of $5,000 or greater to the UJFT annual campaign) met for lunch with Smith to hear in an intimate setting the courageous and often heart-breaking story of her mother’s triumph over evil.
Smith is among a “new generation” of Holocaust speakers and educators—sons and daughters, whose parents were directly impacted by the horrors of the Shoah. Smith’s mother, Irene Gut Opdyke, was not Jewish. She was a Polish Christian who worked with the Partisans (fighting the Russians who had invaded Poland during the early part of the war). Later, while serving as housekeeper to a high-ranking German officer, Opdyke was instrumental in saving more than a dozen Jewish Poles.
Despite enduring unspeakable physical and mental horrors at the hands of the Russians and the Germans, Opdyke survived the war, moved to the States, married William Opdyke, and eventually began sharing her inspiring story with others. Opdyke felt that hate could only be defeated by goodness and kindness, and love. Her message: “One person can make a difference.” Opdyke’s life story is detailed in her published book, In My Hands—Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer. Her story was also briefly brought to the Broadway stage in a play called Irena’s Vow staring actress Tovah Feldshuh.
Opdyke’s story illustrates how small is the world in which we live. Her diminutive hand touched many lives. And the love she shared with those she encountered came back to her over and over again throughout her life. During her lifetime, Opdyke shared her story with thousands of people across the world, including several Jewish Federations. During one such engagement (at the New York Federation), she was made a Lion of Judah. Thereafter, she wore her iconic Lion Pin with pride whenever she spoke to groups.
Opdyke passed away in 2003 at the age of 85. Her only child, Smith, picked up the torch and began to run with it—continuing to share her mother’s story of survival, kindness, and love. Smith holds a very special place in her heart for the Jewish people and for the Lions of Judah—women leaders who advocate for so many of the ideals and institutions that were near and dear to her mother and to herself. A very emotional Smith thanked each of the tearful women in the room for continuing to do the work they do and for generously supporting the federation and its beneficiaries. “You may never know how many lives you touch with your kindness,” she said.
by Amy Zelenka, UJFT women’s campaign director