Irene Gut was a young Polish nurse who saved the lives of thirteen Jews during the Holocaust at great personal expense. One of five daughters in a prosperous and devout Catholic family, Irene was born in 1922 in Kozienice, Poland. Her father was an architect and factory owner, and Irene’s childhood was a happy one. Her closest friends were the children of her father’s Jewish business partner.
Irene was a beautiful, bright and kind-hearted girl, and in 1939 she enrolled in nursing school in central Poland. Soon after, the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland. The details are vague, but Irene was captured by Russian soldiers and mistreated before she was able to escape and return to her hometown. The troubles were just beginning, however, and her father was arrested by the Germans, most likely for his Catholic faith. Irene and her sister went to Radom, Poland to live with an aunt, and they were conscripted by the Germans to work in an ammunition factory.
The Nazi invasion caused terrible difficulty and disruption for Irene and her family, but she didn’t realize the full horror of the situation until 1942, when something happened that completely changed her life. Irene witnessed a Nazi soldier murder a Jewish baby on the street. Deeply shaken, she resolved to do what she could to help Jews.
Irene’s opportunity came after the pretty Polish girl caught the eye of Major Eduard Rugemer, a German officer who took her with him to Tarnopol, Poland (modern-day Ukraine) and put her to work as a waitress in the officer’s club. Tarnopol’s population was 40% Jewish, and when Irene arrived the local Jews were wearing yellow stars and being forced into a squalid ghetto. Irene befriended a group of twelve Jews, and began passing them information about raids and arrests she overheard in her job as a waitress. She smuggled food and travel permits to her Jewish friends in the ghetto.
One day, Irene overheard plans to liquidate the ghetto and send all the Jews to death camps. Irene was determined to help her Jewish friends, but didn’t know what she could do. A miracle occurred soon after, when Major Rugemer moved to a large villa and made Irene his housekeeper. Astonishingly, Irene brought the twelve Jews – one of whom was pregnant – to the villa in the dead of night, and found a secure hiding place for them in the basement. Irene knew she was putting her own life at grave risk but she was willing to die to save her friends. She provided them with food, medical supplies, and everything else they needed to stay alive.
For months, the Nazi officer had no idea that Jews were hiding in his own basement. Then he found out, which would mean certain death for the hidden Jews and their rescuer. Irene begged and pleaded with Major Rugemer not to turn the Jews in, and he agreed, on one awful condition. He would allow the twelve Jews to remain in his basement if Irene provided him with sexual services. Her refusal to accede to this repulsive request would have been understandable, but this heroic young woman was wiling to undergo the worst kind of degradation to save her friends. For months, Irene was Major Rugemer’s mistress, while the Jews in the basement had no idea what she was doing to keep them safe.
In 1944, the Russians advanced on Poland and the German army started to retreat. Irene and the hidden Jews took the opportunity to flee from the Nazi’s villa and hid in the forest. The Gestapo was still powerful, however, and Irene was arrested, but managed to escape right before the Red Army liberated the area. That May, Ida Haller, the pregnant Jewish woman whose life had been saved by Irene, gave birth to a baby boy. When she saw the healthy infant, Irene felt that her own terrible sacrifices had been worth it.
After the war, Irene spent time in a displaced persons camp, where she met William Opdyke, a United Nations Relief Agency worker. They got married in 1949 and immigrated to the United States, where they had a daughter. Irene didn’t speak about her heroism until 1975, when she heard a neo-Nazi claim the Holocaust never happened. Inspired to set the record straight, Irene wrote a memoir, “In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.” In 1982, Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem honored Irene as Righteous Among the Nations.
On June 9, 1995, Irene received a papal blessing from Pope John Paul II, and an invitation to have an audience with the Pope. As a lifelong Catholic, Irene said, “This is the greatest gift I can receive for whatever I did in my life.”
Irene traveled to Israel in 1997 to reunite with Hermann Morks, one of the twelve Jews she saved, for an American TV show. While in Israel, Irene met with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and other dignitaries. Perhaps the most emotional part of her visit was meeting Roman Haller, the baby she helped save. He had grown up to become director of the Claims Conference, an organization that represents world Jewry negotiating restitution for victims of the Nazis.
Startlingly, the Haller family never knew of Irene’s painful personal sacrifices on their behalf, and they were deeply thankful to Major Rugemer for sheltering them. They actually took the German officer into their home as a house guest, and Roman Haller considered the now-former Nazi his “Zeide” (grandfather)! Rugemer was also honored (posthumously) as Righteous Among the Nations, and his 90 year old son accepted the award.
Irene passed away in California in 2003. A few years later “Irena’s Vow,” a play based on her book, opened on Broadway. British songwriter Katy Carr released a song inspired by Irene called “Mala Little Flower” in 2012.
For her remarkable courage in saving thirteen lives (including baby Roman), we honor Irene Gut as this week’s Thursday Hero.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our weekly newsletter.