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Frank Gray

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If you go
Who: Jeannie Smith
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: University of Saint Francis Brookside Ballroom, 2701 Spring St.

Sharing her mom’s stories of Holocaust

Smith

It was 1972 and Jeannie Opdyke, now Jeannie Smith, was 14 years old and eating dinner with her parents when the phone call came.

Smith’s mother, Irene Gut Opdyke, answered the phone. It was a college student calling people at random for a paper he was writing. Did she believe that the Holocaust was real or was it propaganda drummed up by Jews to create sympathy for themselves?

Smith said her mother was shocked that someone would actually believe that the Holocaust never happened, especially someone as young as the caller. So her mother opened up on the caller, telling him the things she had seen and things that had happened to her during that period and how she had managed to save at least 13 Jews, actually hiding them in the basement of a mansion a German officer had taken over as his home.

If the young caller was shocked, one can imagine how shocked Smith was. Her mother was an interior decorator. Smith had never heard these stories before.

That moment changed everything. Her mother, Smith said, who for nearly 30 years had uttered not a word about her experiences, decided that not to speak up would allow evil to win. Oddly enough, her husband was a member of the Rotary Club, and that week the scheduled speaker canceled, so he invited his wife to speak about her experiences.

That started a full-time career, speaking about what she had witnessed, that lasted more than 30 years. It led to a book, “In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer,” published in 1999, and a Broadway play.

Then, in 2003, Irene Gut Opdyke fell ill and died unexpectedly at 81. When Smith, who lives in the state of Washington, looked at her mother’s date book, she realized that she had 55 scheduled speaking engagements.

Smith, by then in her 40s, knew her mother’s story well. So she picked up the mantle and has been telling her mother’s story since, emphasizing that throughout history and today, people have the capacity to make a difference.

At 7 tonight, Smith, who has been speaking to high schools in northern Indiana, will appear at Brookside Ballroom at 2701 Spring St. on the University of Saint Francis campus. The address is open to the public, and there is no fee for admission.

Smith refers to the call that day 42 years ago a “divine phone call” that came at “the perfect time.”

It made her mother realize that even though the Holocaust was a relatively recent event, young people were falling for claims that it had never happened, Smith said.

The message that individuals can make a difference is relevant today, “Especially with bullying,” Smith said. “We’re all in a bystander position, but we can make a difference. The largest group is always bystanders.”

As far as the experiences of her mother, who was named Righteous Among the Nations by Israel in 1982, “She felt she was put where she was supposed to be.”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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