Roman Haller owes his life to a 20-year-old housekeeper.
He was conceived in the basement of a home in Poland where his parents and 10 other Jews hid out during World War II. It wasn’t just any house. It belonged to a Nazi officer, and it was his housekeeper who smuggled the Jews to the basement and took care of them in secret.
Over two years, the young woman, Irena Gut, went to extraordinary lengths to keep the 12 people safe and ensure that Haller would get a chance at life.
After finding out about the pregnancy, his parents asked Gut to help them perform an abortion because a crying baby would endanger all of their lives. But she insisted they have the baby.
When the Nazi officer discovered the Jews in his basement sometime later, Gut made a harrowing bargain: She agreed to become his mistress in exchange for his silence.
“Irena Gut is like a second mother to me,” Haller, now 77, said in a phone interview from his home in Munich. “Without her, I wouldn’t be alive.”
In a remarkable twist, the Nazi officer also went on to play a significant role in his life.
Gut, who died in 2003 at the age of 81, was one of many non-Jews who risked their lives to save those targeted by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
They are the subject of a new campaign commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, which falls on Thursday.
The social media campaign — #Don’tBeABystander: Those Who Risked It All To Save A Life — is intended to highlight the heroism of people like Gut and inspire future generations. It was launched by the nonprofit Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as the Claims Conference, in partnership with Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
“One of the things we’re trying to convey is the power of the individual — that one person can make a difference,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which secures compensation for Holocaust survivors around the world.
“In Jewish tradition, there’s a teaching, ‘If you save one life, it’s as if you’ve saved the whole world.’ These stories are perfect examples of that.”
Schneider said there’s an urgency to educating people about the courageous acts of those known as “righteous rescuers” or “righteous among the nations.” Only about 150 who have been recognized by Yad Vashem are still alive.
“They could have just looked the other way,” Schneider said. “They didn’t have to risk their own lives for somebody else’s.”
Born to a Polish Catholic family, Gut was the eldest of five daughters. She was a 17-year-old nursing student living away from home when the Germans and Russians invaded Poland in 1939.
Gut joined a band of Polish resistance fighters hiding out in the woods. One day, she was alone on the outskirts of town when Russian soldiers spotted her and chased her down. She was gang-raped and beaten unconscious.
After recovering at a Russian-run hospital, Gut managed to reunite with her family. But a few months after her 19th birthday, she was rounded up and forced to perform hard labor at a munitions factory in Poland.
Gut, who was anemic, fainted one day at the feet of a German army major, Eduard Rugemer. He felt sympathy for the blond, blue-eyed teen and arranged a less taxing job at a soldiers’ mess hall about 280 miles away in the town of Ternopil, in what is now Ukraine but was then Poland.
The brutality of the Nazis was still coming into focus then. Rumors swirled about Nazis rounding up Jews and forcing them into death camps.
One Sunday in July 1942, Gut witnessed the horrors first hand: Nazi soldiers opening fire on Jews in the middle of a street. At one point, she saw a soldier toss a baby above his head and shoot it out of the air as if it were a clay pigeon.
“This was something you can never forget,” she said in a 2001 interview following the publication of her book, “In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.”
Gut began working in a laundry room in the soldiers’ quarters where she supervised and soon befriended 12 German Jews. At night, she’d serve food and drinks to the Nazi officers.
In the dining room one night, she overheard an SS commander say the Jews in the area would be cleared out within days. Gut knew this meant her friends in the laundry room would be killed.
She wanted to save them but how? Then came an opportunity: Rugemer told her he was moving to a villa outside of town and wanted her to be his housekeeper.
‘Like mice in a cheese shop’
Over the next few days, Gut managed to sneak the Jews into the basement of the villa, where the previous owner had created a secret tunnel that led to a bunker beneath the gazebo out back.
They all fell into a routine: Gut would see Rugemer off in the morning and then put the key in the door so he’d have to ring the bell to get back inside. Once he left, Gut would let the Jews out from the basement. They’d spend time in the house — often helping her to cook and clean — before descending back downstairs around the time Rugemer returned home.
“They were like mice in a cheese shop guarded by a sleeping cat,” Gut said in her book.
There were close calls — a Gestapo officer once showed up unannounced while some of the Jews were in the kitchen (Gut bought time by pretending she was in the shower and opened the door with her hair wet and a towel wrapped around her).
One small oversight put them all in jeopardy.
Gut was returning to the villa from a trip to town when she got swept up in a mass of people herded into the main square to watch the hanging of a Polish couple who were found to have been harboring Jews. The couple’s two children were also executed.
She returned home so shaken by the event that she forgot to lock the door behind her. Two of the Jews were in the kitchen with her when the front door swung open and in walked Rugemer.
He stared at the Jewish women and then stomped off to his office. Fearing he would call the Gestapo, Gut ran after him, kissed his hand and begged him to show mercy.
He stormed out of the house. When he returned later that night, reeking of alcohol, he grabbed Gut and told her the one condition on which he would stay silent about the Jews hiding in his basement.
She described their sexual encounter that night, the first of many, as “worse than rape.”
“I knew I had to bear this shame alone. I could never tell my friends how I had bought their safety,” Gut said in her book.
“Their honor would never allow them to hold me to this bargain.”
Weeks passed and the war continued to go badly for the Germans. As the Russians closed in on Ternopil, Rugemer prepared to flee and Gut presented the Jews with a plan: She would whisk them into the forest where they could wait out the war in a primitive hideout with Polish resistance fighters.
With Rugemer’s tacit consent, she smuggled them in small groups through the chaotic streets and dropped them off in the woods.
It was there, sometime in the second week of May 1944, that Roman Haller was born.
“I was born in the forest,” he said in an interview. “The date is not really clear.”
All 12 made it out safely.
Many months later, after the Nazis were defeated and Russia had seized control of the region, Gut made it back to Poland. She was hoping to find her family, but she received grim news instead: Her father had been killed and her mother and sisters arrested by the Soviet secret police.
“Because of me,” she wrote, “the dangerous fugitive partisan.”
Gut was devastated. She considered turning herself in to save her family. But she later found out they had been released and were in hiding. Gut was seen as a spy by the Soviets. She knew she could not seek out her family without putting them in danger.
With the help of Jewish friends, she ultimately made it to a displaced persons camp in West Germany. In late 1949, she arrived in the U.S.
She went on to marry an American, William Opdyke, a former United Nations delegate whom she had briefly met at the displaced persons camp. She bumped into him again after arriving in New York, and their relationship blossomed.
She changed her name to Irene Gut Opdyke. The Opdykes settled in California and Irene gave birth to a daughter, Jeannie, but she never talked about her heroic past.
Then one day when Jeannie was a teenager, she overheard her mother talking on the phone and soon realized it was not a typical conversation.
The caller was a college student, a Holocaust denier who was conducting a random survey for a thesis related to World War II.
“My mother got very emotional,” Jeannie Opdyke Smith said in an interview. “When she hung up the phone, she said she had allowed evil to win because she kept silent. That if people who knew better didn’t start speaking out, history would repeat itself.”
From that point on, Irene Gut Opdyke told her story everywhere she could — rotary clubs, synagogues, schools. Soon newspapers were writing glowing feature stories.
In 1982, she was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the “righteous among the nations.”
Back in Germany, Roman Haller grew up completely unaware of his parents’ experience during the Holocaust.
“My mother had nightmares,” he said. “It was not something she would discuss.”
It was also much later that he learned their story came full circle in astonishing fashion.
After the war, Rugemer returned to his native Nuremberg, but he was rejected by his wife and children and barred from their house. They found out that he had harbored Jews.
Somehow, this information reached Haller’s parents in Munich. They tracked Rugemer down and welcomed him into their home. The Jews who had lived in his basement were now providing sanctuary to the former Nazi officer.
Rugemer became a grandfather figure to Roman. The little boy called him “zaide” — a Yiddish term for grandpa.
“He stayed with us because of troubles with his family,” Roman Haller said. “This man was very dear to me.”
Haller and Opdyke met each other for the first time when she visited Munich for a documentary film project. The baby whose life Opdyke made possible was by then about 40 years old.
“It was very exciting for me to meet the woman who saved my life,” said Haller, who works to help Holocaust survivors as a senior representative for the Claims Conference in Germany.
In media interviews later in life, Opdyke said she got the most joy out of telling her story to children. She had a specific message for them: You can do what I did.
“Courage is a whisper from above,” she wrote in her book. “When you listen with your heart, you will know what to do and how and when.”