Legacy of heroism serves as tribute to Carol Pavlofsky
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
The first time Jeannie Opdyke Smith heard her mother’s story, she was 14.
“One evening in 1972 the phone rang while we were having dinner and my Mom got up to answer it,” Smith recalls. “On the other end of the line was a college student doing a phone survey for a report at school and the topic was The Holocaust Never Happened, that it was just propaganda for the Jews to create sympathy. And it just shocked her so much that she started telling this story and I was sitting at the dinner table the first time I heard it.”
Her mother, Irene Gut Opdyke, hung up the phone, crying. She told her daughter, “All these years I kept silent, I’ve allowed the enemy to win. If we who are firsthand eyewitnesses, if we don’t start speaking about it, history will repeat itself.”
A Polish nurse who hid Jews during the Holocaust, Opdyke began to speak about her experiences. Israel’s Yad Vashem would name her Righteous Among The Nations and she would receive the Israel Medal of Honor, the Jewish state’s highest honor.
Her story is part of the permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and in 1999 Alfred A. Knopf published her memoir, In My Hands, Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.
In 2008 Tovah Feldshuh brought Opdyke’s story to life in the play Irena’s Vow by Dan Gordon, first off-Broadway and then on Broadway the following year.
Smith will share the story of her late mother’s life at a Jewish Federation program on June 19 in memory of Carol Pavlofsky, a longtime fund-raiser for the Federation and mentor to generations of Jewish women in the Dayton community.
Between 1979 and 1997, Pavlofsky raised more than $24 million for the Federation in her roles as director of the Women’s Division and
the annual United Jewish Campaign. She died in May 2013 at the age of 84.
Women who gained formal and informal leadership development training from Pavlofsky over the years still refer to themselves as “Carol’s Girls.”
Smith, who grew up in Southern California and now lives in Washington state, began speaking about her mother after Opdyke’s death at the age of 85 in 2003.
“I had no interest in talking publicly,” Smith says. “I’m kind of an introvert and it just never would have happened.”
When Opdyke died, Smith opened her mother’s appointment book to find that she had nearly 60 speaking engagements lined up. She started calling the venues to cancel the talks.
“But there were too many that were very close and they just felt like they couldn’t be cancelled, and asked me if I could do it,” she says.
“That was the last thing I wanted to do but I did, and I’ve been doing it ever since. So now it’s my joy and a passion and my full-time job, too.”
She and her mother were good friends with Dan Gordon, who wrote Irena’s Vow.
“She got to see the script but she never did get to see the play performed,” Smith says.
During the run of the play, Smith says she was on stage every night following each performance, to lead a Q&A with the audience.
Smith’s message is that one person can make a difference. “Sometimes we wait for an eclectic group to have power but one by one we can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Her mother’s story, she adds, isn’t a specifically Jewish story; it’s for all people.
“We currently have history repeating itself over and over again,” she says. “In Rialto, California this week, there’s a school that told 2,000 eighth graders to do an essay deciding whether the Holocaust was propaganda or not. They were to do interviews and read papers to decide. And they were shot down by the Anti-Defamation League.
“So history keeps repeating itself and it’s not a Jewish story. It’s a people story, it’s an everybody story. If we’re going to keep stuff from happening, the rest of us, the non-Jews, the people that are everyday people, we just have to stand up when we see hate in every form.”
An Evening Remembering Carol Pavlofsky, with Jeannie Opdyke Smith, Thursday, June 19, 7 p.m. at the Boonshoft CJCE, 525 Versailles Dr., Centerville. $18 per person. R.S.V.P. to Alisa Thomas, 853-0372.
To read the complete June 2014 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.