Part of the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District was transformed into a giant mural honoring local hero Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish nurse who during World War II engaged in heroics straight out of a spy movie to rescue Jews from the Holocaust before eventually settling in Southern California after the war. The mural – a project from Artists 4 Israel – was painted in response to a dangerous surge in anti-semitism in Los Angeles and around the world. It is intended to inspire unity and rally those resisting hate with an impossible-to-miss image.
Irene Gut Opdyke is not Jewish and, as such, is called a “righteous among the nations: for having helped save Jews during the Holocaust. The most famous of such were people like Oscar Schindler and Kurt Waldheim.
The mural was unveiled Sunday at Art At The Rendon (2055 E. 7th St. Los Angeles, CA 90023) which donated a 60-foot exterior wall to the project.
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“The power of art lies within its ability to spark ongoing dialogue and discussion on subjects that demand closer examination,” says Cindy Schwarzstein, the Rendon’s Director of Programming, Projects and Community Partnerships. “Ultimately, behind the many eyes that view and experience art there is a connectedness that can be cohesive and uniting.”
Irene’s daughter, Jeannie Opdyke Smith attended the reveal as did rock legend Gene Simmons of KISS, who said, “Always remember, Hitler started with words. Left unchecked, hate speech grows and infects the planet like the cancer it is, I know, my mother was 14 years of age when she was in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.”
The gigantic painting is the work of Andrew Hem, a Vietnamese artist who resonates deeply with those that Opdyke saved. “I was saved by a hero like Irene,” says Hem. “My family came to America as refugees and a family took us in until we got on our feet. We didn’t speak a word of English, and they still took us in.”
Hem has joined forces with other top urban artists around the world to participate in the “Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project.” Together they are painting building-sized murals honoring the heroes who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. So far murals have been created in Greece, Portugal, and New York City with more planned as funding is secured.
Irene Gut was 20 years-old and studying to be a nurse when the Nazis invaded Poland. In the chaos of the War, she had to quit school and become a maid in a hotel frequented by high level Nazi officials. When she saw a German soldier kill an infant, she decided she would use what little she had to save lives. She began smuggling Jews out of the ghetto and stealing from the hotel kitchen to feed them in the forest. Her daring went to a whole new level when she was hired by Wehrmacht Major Eduard Rügemer to be the housekeeper for the Nazi’s seized estate. Irene hid 12 Jews, including a pregnant woman, in the basement. When she was discovered, the young woman agreed to become the Nazi commander’s mistress in exchange for the lives of the Jews. All the Jews Irene hid survived the Holocaust, including the baby of the pregnant woman. Irene visited some of their descendants in Israel before she passed away in 2003.
The Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project is an initiative of the non-profit, Artists 4 Israel in partnership with the Combat Antisemitism Movement. The goal is to inspire a new generation to fight the latest resurgence of an ancient hatred. Faced with amazing visuals like the Opdyke mural, people naturally take out their smartphones to grab a photo. Each mural is embedded with a QR code that opens a short video that tells the story of the heroic Rescuer.
The Rescuer in the mural is either a native citizen or came to live in that locale after World War II. “Learning that someone of your own nationality, ethnic background and beliefs stood up to antisemitism only a generation ago and won an honored place in world history is very empowering,” says Craig Dershowitz, CEO of Artists 4 Israel. “You realize that you might also change the world by standing up to hate.”
“This mission is becoming ever more urgent, as the number of Holocaust survivors with living memory of the Nazi atrocities dwindles with each passing year, and new forms of Jew-hatred are proliferating worldwide,” says Sacha Roytman-Dratwa, CEO of Combat Antisemitism Movement.
The location of the cities for the murals are chosen for either being the home of one of the Holocaust Rescuers or because the area has become a hotspot for antisemitism. Unfortunately, Los Angeles has become one of those places where antisemitism is surging.
The ADL reports Los Angeles Area anti-Semitic incidents rose 29% in 2021 and a staggering 217% between 2017 to 2021. In both California and the United States, incidents of hatred directed against Jews are becoming increasingly visible and mainstream and last week’s attack follows a now familiar pattern of first slurs then violence. After the hearing where alleged shooter Jaime Tran was charged with two hate crimes Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass made a statement, “When antisemitism crawls out of the shadows, make no mistake. Angelenos from every community stand united to stamp it out and ensure that justice is served because antisemitism has no place in Los Angeles and no place in our country.”
“We all need to come together and look out for one another,” says artist Andrew Hem who hopes learning the story of Irene Gut Opdyke will begin to change the city. “Our community could drastically be different if more people had the heart and courage of Irene.”