There are times when it is painful to be identified with the Christian church.

Recently, reading the remarkable story of Irene Gut Opdyke in her book, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, I found myself feeling deeply ashamed of my faith .

Irene Gut was seventeen-years-old when she was arrested, repeatedly raped, and left for dead by the Russians soldiers who had occupied Radom in Central Poland where she had been studying as a student nurse.

Three years later, in a desperate attempt to protect the eleven Jews she was hiding in the home of the German Wehrmacht major for whom she worked, Irene Gut became her boss’ unwilling mistress.

One day struggling, with her guilt about this relationship, Irene stopped at a church near Chopin Street in Ternopol in western Ukraine, to make her confession.  Irene describes what happened:

a priest was saying mass for the first Sunday of Advent, the season of penitence. There were several people waiting to enter the confessional, and while I waited I whispered the Our Father under my breath. At last, my turn came, and I pulled the carved wooden door shut. Beyond the screen was the shadowy profile of the confessor. 

I mumbled my way through the first few sins that came to my lips – stealing food, lying, wishing the deaths of my enemies – and as the priest began to mutter, “Te absolvo,” I interrupted him. 

“Father, there is something else,” I said, and when he nodded I drew a deep breath. “Father, I have become the mistress of a German officer in order to preserve the lives of my Jewish friends.”

“My child, this is a mortal sin,” he said without hesitation.

I frowned, and leaned closer to the screen. “But Father, if I don’t do this, eleven people will lose their lives.”

“If you do this, it is your immortal soul that you will lose. They are Jews.”

There was a strange shifting in my head, as though a switch had been thrown. I pulled away from the screen, suddenly aware of the chill rising from the stone floor. From beyond the confessional, the murmuring chant of the celebrant at the altar was like the buzz of a fly beside my ear. There were dry coughs and shuffling footsteps from the congregants, and a piercing odor of wet wool and unwashed bodies. 

I looked at the profile of the confessor again through the screen, “Father, I cannot throw their lives away. Even for my own soul.”

“Then I cannot give you absolution.”

(Opdyke, Irene Gut. In My Hands: Memoirs Of A Holocaust Rescuer. with Jennifer Armstrong. NY: Anchor Books, 1999, p. 192.)

*************************

It is hard to know what part of this story is the most offensive: the priest’s disgusting antisemitism, or his utter lack of charity, grace, compassion, and human decency towards a desperately vulnerable young woman.

Irene Gut was twenty-years-old when she was forced into a sexual relationship with seventy-year-old Major Eduard Rügemer. She was utterly alone in the world and responsible for the lives of eleven Jews. Had their presence been exposed, they would certainly have all  been executed along with their protector. And yet confronted with this helpless, courageous, compassionate young woman, all the priest could see was a depraved woman having sex outside of marriage.

How did the teachings of Jesus ever get reduced to such a parody? How could a human heart become so twisted and mean?

The startling miracle of Irene’s story is that despite the church’s utter failure and complete abandonment of its call to love, she did not lose her faith in the God of love this church was intended to embody. Instead Irene writes,

I shouldered open the door [of the confessional] and burst out into the aisle of the church, walking quickly to put the confessional behind me. But I placed myself in God’s hands all the same. God had saved my life so many times that I had to believe there was a reason. And I was sure I knew what that reason was: It was to save my friends’ lives. The price I had to pay for that was nothing by comparison. I had not received consolation from the priest, but I had God’s blessing. I was never more sure of anything. 193

Her faith surpassed that of those who were ordained to be its representatives. May God forgive the church that failed Irene so miserably, and bless the memory of her faithful life of loving compassion.

*************************

nb: to be fair to the church, on 9 June 1995, Irene Gut Opdyke was honored with a special commendation from Pope John Paul II.

Irene Gut Opdyke’s daughter, Jeannie Opdyke Smith, will share her mother’s extraordinary story at the University of Victoria on Thursday, October 22 at 7:00 pm in Clearihue C112.

Advertisements