The Path to Courage: Irena Gutowa’s Story

Coming up soon is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, so my post is dedicated to one of my own heroes, rescuer Irene Gut Opdyke. About twelve years ago, I had the honor of co-authoring the war memoir of this amazing woman. Irene (Irena Gutowa) was born in Poland, and was a teenager when World War II began. I won’t retell the entire journey here. Let me paraphrase it by saying that even though she had been separated from her family and was essentially without resources or any power, she saved many Jews from the Holocaust. She worked as a waitress and then a housekeeper, and hid Jews in the basement of her Nazi boss’s house and smuggled others from a nearby work camp to the forest.  When Poland was “rescued” by the Soviet Union she joined the Polish partisans. Eventually she emigrated to the U.S. and married, and lived the American Dream. For many years, that dream meant putting the war and all its horrors behind her. However, prompted by rumors that people thought the Holocaust was an exaggeration, she began telling her story. She spent the last fifteen years of her life tirelessly traveling the United States to speak about what she had witnessed. Her favorite audience was high school students, and they always adored her.
What drew me to her story in the first place was not just the drama, but her youth at the time of her story. As a writer for children and teens, I felt compelled to learn from her how a young person in her circumstances became a hero. “You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis all at once. One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence,” was her reply.

The moral courage she demonstrated with each choice she made, step by step, beggars belief. Yet, she often indicated to me that doing nothing would have been harder than acting, even though her actions put her in constant danger.  Her path was always clear to her, even though it was incredibly perilous.  As I wrote the other day in my retelling of the Norse myth of Fenrir the wolf, doing the right thing often pushes us into danger, and physical courage must hold hands with moral courage.
So how does it work? What kind of childhood did she have that she could show such courage when the crisis came? What were the steps that made this her path? 
This was what I tried to tease out during our interviews with so many questions about what her life was like before the war.   What opportunities did her parents provide for her to learn courage? What example did they set themselves? The answer may surprise you. Or maybe not. The lesson that her parents offered to her again and again was compassion in action. Irena and her sisters were raised to offer help to anyone less fortunate than themselves. The social, emotional, spiritual and moral courage her parents showed by taking food to the sick, rescuing wounded animals, inviting lonely neighbors to dinner, or advocating for better treatment of outcasts were exemplary. They never looked away when they saw pain or need.
On top of that, Irene had an extremely loving family. She spoke constantly of how much she loved her mother and father and how much she admired them and wanted to honor them, and of how close her relationship to her four sisters was. If Lisa is right, we have in Irene an example of how secure attachment may well have helped to lay the foundations of courage. Ironically, it was because she was separated from her family during the war that Irene said she was able to act as she did. Putting her family at risk might have held her back. Putting herself at risk never did.
So her first choices, her first steps on this heroic path, were natural ones when you look at  her childhood as the starting point. Had there been any anticipation that such a crisis was looming? No, not to her family of educated, middle class Poles who lived with a comforting assumption of “civilization.” But the foundation for courage had been laid, and when the crisis did come Irene made her first small choice in response, and took her first small step of witness and rescue. Then the second choice, the second step, was obvious, and the third and so on, until she was doing what many people can’t imagine doing.  As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  We rarely can imagine ourselves at the end of the journey, but we can imagine ourselves taking one step. 
We cannot know what the future will bring us, but of some things we can be certain: challenges will stand in our children’s way when we may not be able to protect them, despite our strongest parental impulses to shield them, as a tree shelters the birds among its branches. Some of those challenges will be outright crises, be they natural disasters or human ones. I am mindful that many of the readers of this blog are living through crisis right now – political,  medical, environmental or financial – and I am humbled to think they feel we have something to offer them. My prayer when my head hits the pillow each night is to protect my daughter from all harm. My vow when I rise each morning is to protect her by giving her the tools she needs to build courage, so that when I am not able to shelter her, she will have the kind of courage that Irene had.
Irene died several years ago. I hope that the tree planted in her honor in Israel lives for many many years, giving shade, being a support, providing shelter. She was a great hero.

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