art honors

Downtown L.A. mural celebrates a woman’s rescue of Jews during the Holocaust

The newest mural in Artists 4 Israel's Holocaust remembrance project was unveiled on Sunday in downtown L.A.

A little more than a week after two Jewish men were targeted and shot near their synagogues in Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson neighborhood, a new mural in the city’s downtown arts district is reminding Angelenos that art can be a powerful tool of resistance against hate. 

The mural depicts Irene Gut Opdyke, a woman who saved a dozen Jewish people in Poland during World War II, and is the fourth in Artists 4 Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project, which celebrates the humanity and self-sacrifice of non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. The 60-foot exterior wall is visible to anyone who passes through the intersection at East 7th Street and Santa Fe Avenue, right near the 7th Street Bridge, where cars cross the L.A. River from Boyle Heights into the arts district.

Local artist Andrew Hem, the son of Cambodian refugees whose work has been shown nationwide as well as in Europe, painted the mural of Opdyke for the project. Hem previously worked with Artists 4 Israel on a mural addressing hate against the Asian American community, which the organization put up in Koreatown with the participation of the Korean and Israeli consulates, Artists 4 Israel CEO Craig Dershowitz told eJewishPhilanthropy in advance of the private unveiling of Hem’s mural Sunday afternoon at The Rendon, a downtown arts space. 

Artists 4 Israel, which uses art to fight the spread of anti-Israel bigotry and helps those affected by terrorism and hate, collaborated on the project with the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), a nonpartisan, global, grassroots movement to combat antisemitism. Jeremy Goldscheider, a producer and director with 20+ years of experience creating non-fiction content for film with clients ranging from the Jewish federation to Comedy Central, also partnered on the project.

Irene Gut had been studying to be a nurse when the Nazis invaded Poland, but had to quit school and become a maid in a hotel frequented by high-level Nazi officials. She smuggled Jews out of the ghetto and stole from the hotel kitchen to feed them in the forest. She was hired by Wehrmacht Maj. Eduard Rügemer to be the housekeeper for his villa, where she hid 12 Jews in the basement. When Rügemer discovered what she had done, he kept her secret but forced Gut to become his mistress in exchange for the lives of the Jews. All the Jews hidden by Gut survived the Holocaust; she visited some of their descendants in Israel, and died in 2003 in Fullerton, Calif., about 25 miles from where the mural now stands. Gut was honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1982, a moment that is captured in one panel of the mural. 

Gut’s is the fourth mural in the series — with other murals in New York City, Portugal and Greece — and, with the support of current and future funders, Artists 4 Israel plans to commission about 20 more over the next two years. Each mural costs between $50,000 and $75,000, depending on location, Dershowitz told eJP.

“Artists 4 Israel and The Combat Antisemitism Movement began this together,” Dershowitz said. “We did four [murals] as a proof of concept. And they have been more than successful in doing exactly what we wanted, which was pulling Holocaust education out of museums and textbooks and putting it into the street and getting tens, if not hundreds of thousands of eyes on it, as well as creating a sense of social obligation and pride in individuals in the community to stand up against anti semitism. Now that we’ve proven ourselves in four places, we want to help the community to move forward and do the rest of them. We have murals in France, Germany, Belgium, Colorado and Japan that are all ready to go as soon as we have the necessary resources.” 

The Portuguese mural, by artist Mr. Dheo, honored Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who issued thousands of visas to refugees fleeing Nazi Germany; in Greece, artist KLE painted Mayor Loukas Karrer and Archbishop Dimitrios Chrysostomos, who saved most of the community of 275 Jews living on the Greek island of Zakynthos from Nazi deportation; and in New York, artist Fernando “Ski” Romero depicted Tibor Baranski, who is credited with saving more than 3,000 Hungarian Jewish women, men and children from the Nazis during the Holocaust. All have been honored by Yad Vashem with the “Righteous Among the Nations” designation.

The images and stories are meant to inspire new heroes through civic pride and social influence; completed murals have a QR code so that passersby can directly visit a short documentary film about the hero featured in the mural. The shorts will be linked together as a docu-series and eventually, a full-length documentary that the producers hope will play at film festivals, in schools, over streaming services and in other outlets to expand the reach of the message.

“When you uphold, extol and champion heroes like this, this is how you roll back the scourge [of hatred],” said Elan Carr, former U.S. special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, at the Sunday unveiling.

Jeannie Opdyke Smith, Opdyke’s only child, shared some additional details of Opdyke’s life during the war, including suffering a gang rape by Soviet soldiers, witnessing a mass herding of Jews through the streets toward the edge of town, where they were shot at the edge of a pit, as well as the brutal shooting of a baby. Her mother’s Catholic faith was challenged, Opdyke Smith said, but “there was one thought that settled into her heart and soul, and it was this. That God gives us free will to be good or bad, to help and heal or hurt and harm, and that it was up to each of us to decide what we’ll do. And it was right then and there that she made a promise that if there was anything she could ever do to help, she would,” Opdyke Smith said. 

KISS rock icon Gene Simmons, who attended the event, started his remarks by introducing himself “in the language of my forefathers and a culture that goes back 6,000 years, hashem sheli Chayim, v’ani noladti b’Haifa.” He then spoke about Gut Opdyke, saying that she “risk[ed] all for a higher ideal. She is a better person than I will ever be. And it’s important to honor people like that because the world needs more love.”

Simmons poses with Jeannie Opdyke Smith, the daughter of Irene Gut Opdyke, and former Miss Iraq Sarah Idan (Photo: Esther Kustanowitz)

“Antisemitism is antihumanism. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ What a f—ing great idea. The idea that you could love someone who looks different than you are, talks differently with a different accent, or comes from a different place, that’s the only hope humanity has. Otherwise we’re going back to tribalism,” Simmons said, adding, “and back to chaos.” 

“Reaching out your hand isn’t so hard,” Simmons said. “Either we’re going to live on this planet and recognize the humanity of all of us, or antisemitism is the same as Islamophobia, gay hatred, hating african americans or anyone else, and it all begins with hate speech.” He urged people to use their phones to get images of people who hate up on “TikTok, or SchmikTok and all the rest.” 

“What makes cockroaches run away in the kitchen is when you turn on the light,” said Simmons, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. “Don’t let hatred spread,” he added. 

Simmons then brought up Sarah Idan, a Muslim attendee who was Miss Iraq at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant, whom he met for the first time at the event. She told the assembled of the blowback she received after taking a selfie at the pageant with Miss Israel Adar Gandelsman, which including death threats, online harassment and her family’s imminent departure from Iraq. “You’ve got to use your privilege, because there are so many people around the world who don’t have it,” she said. “Use your privilege and keep fighting.” 

“The purpose of this mural, and others around the world,” Dershowitz told eJP in advance of the event, “has always been to elevate these individuals, to model heroism, to prevent antisemitism, and to show the people that there’s two choices. There’s the choice of hate, and there’s the choice of love, and that the right people, the righteous people choose love. And we expect that they’ll do the same.”