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Thursday, 25 September 2008

Standing up for human dignity

Standing up for human dignity Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit was posthumously awarded by President of the Republic of Poland Mr Lech Kaczyński to Mrs Irena Gut-Opdyke. The Order was received by the daughter of Mrs Gut-Opdyke, Mrs Jeanne Opdyke. The ceremony was attended by the First Lady Mrs Maria Kaczyńska and Secretary of State in the Chancellery of the President Mrs Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka.

By virtue of a decision of President of the Republic of Poland Mr Lech Kaczyński, the decoration was posthumously awarded to Mrs Irena Gut-Opdyke in consideration of her heroism and unrivalled courage shown in the efforts to save lives of Jewish people in World War 2, and also in consideration of her meritorious services in defence of human dignity and human rights, and the promotion of cooperation and friendly relations between Poland and the United States and the State of Israel. 

Secretary of State in the Chancellery of the President Mrs Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka read a letter of the President of RP:

“Dear Rabbi Arthur Schneier,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to convey my sincere respect, appreciation and esteem to your congregation and the Jewish community of New York. I also wholeheartedly congratulate Rabbi Arthur Schneier on his accomplishments during more than forty years of indefatigable struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights. I regret that I could not attend this ceremony personally, but the thoughts I am about to share are heartfelt ones.

I am writing this letter to you from Warsaw, which as many of you know was for centuries the spiritual hub of the Jewish diaspora, and it was Poland where most of the world’s Jews had lived. The War changed all that. Now the heart of the diaspora beats in New York, but it is still the heart that once beat in the vibrant Jewish communities not just of Warsaw, but of Jasło and Krosno, Lublin, Kraków, Lodz, Częstochowa and thousands of other communities.

And today it beats again in some of them.

The fact that our Chief Rabbi of the Republic of Poland today is a New Yorker symbolizes how strongly our destinies are intertwined. So is the fact that the former chief Rabbi of Israel, Meir Lau, a native of Piotrkow spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw last year.

When President Shimon Peres visited Warsaw for the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising this past April, his words were broadcast simultaneously to millions of Poles and Israelis.

And when I am privileged to recognize the achievements of custodians of Poland’s national heritage, I am very conscious and proud that most of these awardees are Polish Catholics who devoted their lives to the preservation of Jewish heritage and have found inspiration in Jewish culture and tradition.

While Jewish civic and religious life in Poland today is small, it is vibrant and growing. For the past two years, it has been my pleasure to join with representatives of the Polish Jewish community and light the Chanukkah candles in the Presidential Palace, which is something that never happened previously in all the history of our country. This year, for the first time in Poland in 70 years, a group of rabbis were appointed in the Warsaw Yeshiva.

Not a month passes by without at least several events highlighting Jewish history and heritage in Poland today. In Kraków, the Jewish Culture Festival has been held yearly for the past 18 years, and is the largest such event in Europe. In Warsaw, at least three big festivals inspired by Jewish Culture are held every year. Similar events are unfolding across the country, as young local leaders have begun to restore Jewish cemeteries and document other materials and symbols of Jewish culture. An art school project that originated in Czestochowa has now become a nationwide competition for new art inspired by Jewish culture.

I believe that the events I have just described to you signify something that is meaningful and relevant to Jews in America and around the world. I believe these events are important aspects of the process by which Poland – which is already Israel’s most faithful ally in Europe – is slowly and painfully shedding its communist past and emerging as a modern, democratic open society. We are today a country with a young, entrepreneurial society and a rapidly developing economy. We are a member of the European Union and a defender of smaller nations that seek democracy, but are threatened today by the aggression and imperial ambitions of their neighbors. We are a nation determined to overcome its own weaknesses and shortcomings. We are the land where Solidarity was born.

Finally, there is one more critical issue that binds us together, perhaps even more than anything I have mentioned so far – and that is the more than six thousand Poles who have been awarded the title of Righteous among Nations. Today, I am honored to bestow one of Poland highest honors to one of them. For over half of the century, the people of Poland were not able to publicly honor and celebrate their true heroes -- those who fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, those killed in the forests of Katyn, members of the democratic opposition of the seventies and eighties, and - last but not least - those who risked their lives to save their Jewish countrymen from the Holocaust. I have taken it upon myself as President of the Republic Poland to correct this wrong by honoring the forgotten heroes during annual events held in the presence of thousands of onlookers and millions more television viewers.

However, this is the very first time that a high Polish state award has been bestowed in a Jewish house of worship. I thank you all for being part of this important moment and hope that it will help further connect us to one another and to our common past.

With high regards,”

*** 

Irena Gut-Opdyke was born in 1918 in Kozienice, and died in 2003. Upon the outbreak of the war, when German and Soviet units occupied the territory of Poland, Irena started cooperation with the underground movement. She was captured by Russian troops and forced to work in the Red Army. She managed to escape, only to be captured later by the Germans and forced to work in a munitions plant. An SS major arranged her transfer to Lvov and made her his housekeeper. Subsequently, she had to follow the major to Tarnopol where she was made a tram leader in a laundry where Jews from the ghetto nearby were employed. The laundry itself was located on the premises of a forced labour camp. Irena Gut was helping the Jewish workers by supplying them with food and by other means. Using her influence, she arranged a number of passes thanks to which the Jews could shop on the Aryan side. In July 1943, when the Germans began the liquidation of the ghetto, Irena gut helped many Jews to find a save shelter. She managed to persuade the commander of the camp to take the rest of the workers to the woods where they could prepare some dug-outs and find refuge. She also hid 12 persons in the laundry and in major’s Villa. In March 1944, soon before the advance of the Red Army, Irena Gut was arrested by the Gestapo. She escaped but she found herself in a Russian camp for POWs and was charged with collaboration with the Polish underground. She was released from the camp by a group of Jews whom she had rescued and then accidentally met in the camp. After the war, many of the rescued Jews left for Israel. Irena Gut was staying in a camp for displaced persons in Germany when she first met her future husband, an American officer William Opdyke. Together with him, she left for the United States. In 1982, Mrs Gut-Opdyke was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
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