(February 22, 2023 / JNS) Artists 4 Israel is expanding its series of murals honoring Righteous Among the Nations. It’s doing so with a “kiss” this time.
The collective, which enlists artists to combat antisemitism and anti-Israel bigotry through their work, will unveil its fourth mural on Feb. 26 paying homage to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The downtown Los Angeles celebration honors Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic who saved 12 Jews from certain death, stowing them away in the basement of a Nazi commander’s home. (She died in 2003.)
The artist Andrew Hern created the 60-foot-by-15-foot mural for the city’s arts district. Guest speakers at the event include Jeannie Opdyke Smith, daughter of the heroic mural subject, and Elan Carr, former U.S. State Department special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism.
Gene Simmons, the Israeli-American rock star of the band Kiss, is scheduled to appear as a special guest. Born Chaim Witz, the singer comes from a family deeply affected by the Holocaust. His mother and brother were the only members of the family to survive the Shoah.
“We are excited to hear from Irene’s daughter, who will be sharing some little-known details of her mom’s harrowing story,” Craig Dershowitz, Artists 4 Israel CEO, told JNS.
The elder Opdyke, who was hired to work in a hotel kitchen by Wehrmacht Major Eduard Rügemer during the German occupation of Poland, secretly absconded food from the hotel, which served Naxi officials. She delivered the food to the Tarnopol Ghetto and to those she smuggled out of the ghetto.
After Rügemer hired her as a housekeeper in his villa, Opdyke brought 12 Jews to hide in the cellar. Rügemer discovered the secret but agreed to remain mum if she became his mistress (which she did).
When Rügemer fled ahead of Russia’s military gains in 1944, Opdyke and several Jews headed west from Poland—then Soviet-occupied—to Germany, which the Allies controlled. She met her future husband in a displaced persons camp and immigrated to the United States.
Opdyke kept her experiences to herself until 1975, when she heard a neo-Nazi claim the Holocaust was a hoax. She went on the public speaking circuit, which led to her memoir, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer. In 1982, Yad Vashem recognized her as a Righteous Among the Nations. Rügemer, who assisted some Jews in escaping and helped alleviate their situation during the war, received the same honor in 2012.
Opdyke received a papal blessing and traveled to Israel, where she met Roman Haller, a baby born in Rügemer’s cellar after Opdyke convinced his parents to carry the pregnancy to term. Haller would serve as director of the German office of the Claims Conference, which represents world Jewry in negotiating restitution for the victims of Nazi persecution. His parents took Rügemer in as a house guest after the war.
“We have Elan Carr providing the intellectual and community-minded credibility; Gene Simmons offering the brutal honesty and celebrity of his person; and Jeannie Smith representing the very people we are trying to honor,” said Dershowitz, CEO of Artists 4 Israel. “To place that inside a 1913-built dive bar in the downtown Los Angeles art district is the perfect clash of all the elements that describe Artists 4 Israel and which make us able to speak to all communities.”
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