If you ever get a chance to hear Jeannie Opdyke-Smith tell her mother’s story don’t miss the opportunity. Jeannie is a powerful story-teller; her account of her mother’s years in Poland as a rescuer of Jews from Nazi tyranny is a riveting narrative.

Jeannie Opdyke-SmithJeannie introduces her story asking her audience to identify the major groups that were in play in that horrendous period of European history known as the Holocaust. There are four groups:

1. the tragically large group of innocent victims, including at least six million Jews and more than five million others who died at the hands of the Nazis

2. the large group of perpetrators  and their supporters responsible for the atrocities that caused such unimaginable suffering during the Second World War

3. the by-standers – by far the largest group who stood by and did nothing while the atrocities of the Holocaust unfolded. There were many reasons for people to remain mere by-standers to these atrocities: fear, self-protection, ignorance, antisemitism, indifference

4. up-standers – this was by far the smallest group of non-Jewish people who stood by the Jews helping them in whatever ways they were able. They were motivated by compassion, shared humanity, and the desire simply to do the right thing

She went on to say, “No matter who you are today, you are a by-stander; you have the choice every day to be an up-standard. If we want a different world we all need to make different choices.”

After this introduction Jeannie gave a gripping almost hour-long monologue recounting the extraordinary details of her mother’s life as a young woman in Poland sheltering a group of Jews and moving them eventually to freedom and safety.

At the end of her talk, she concluded with a stirring call to embody love and forgiveness in whatever way we can. She said, “My mother was motivated by a love that cares enough about another human being to say, ‘Your life matters.'”

She said, “If you want power and influence greater than any army can ever give, you only need to mix love and forgiveness. When you live with love and forgiveness, you get back in ways you could never have imagined.

“When you live with an attitude of love, your life has deep worth and value that you are able to share with others.”

“Hate is a disease. It takes real courage to love. And we need to always remember that, my mother’s life demonstrates the important truth that one person can make a real difference. So choose a life of love and forgiveness; you always have that opportunity, no matter what your circumstances may be. You are free to choose.”

After Jeannie’s address and a question period, two local second generations survivors spoke briefly.

The first speaker, Robert, urged the audience to avoid politicizing the Holocaust. These events are not to be used to score political points or to drive a political agenda for the benefit of one group over another.

The second speaker, Richard Kool, pointed out that, even though second generation survivors often were not told the stories of suffering by their parents, they knew the stories in a different way. Even without the actual details, they knew about the sadness in their family history.

Kool went on to make four suggestions:

1. we need to understand that Jews are not the only people who have suffered. Many other groups have suffered and continue to suffer. We must not diminish their tragedy in order to raise up the tragedy of the Holocaust.

2. in moving into the period in our history where there are no longer any first generation survivors, we must look to religion to allow us to ritualize these tragedies. We must develop liturgies than can enable us to go into those dark places and then come out into the light.

3. we need to move beyond our victim identity. There are Jews who say, “We must never forget and we must never forgive.” But this is to perpetuate our identity as victims and to lose the ability to move on from the tragedies of the past.  We have to learn to live from another place, from a new identity.

4. we are the generation that needed to mourn. But our children need to put these things behind them. They need to put the mourning away and do something new.