As part of the administration’s effort to address issues of race and discrimination, Jeannie Smith was invited to speak at Lake Oswego High School on Nov 16. Her message was a powerful one, telling students about her mother, Irene Opdyke’s, struggle to survive as a young, Polish girl in the Holocaust. Opdyke’s story portrayed the horrors of the aggressors, the Nazis, but also how bystanders were at fault as well. “For evil to exist all it takes is for good people to do nothing,” Smith says. “By choosing to ignore it, you help spread it.”
Smith encouraged students to speak up when they witness acts or words that victimize students, as her mother did for her Jewish friends by taking action and sheltering them. “You have no idea what one small drop of kindness will do,” said Smith.
Senior Zach Albertson commented, “It was just intense and painful, but you couldn’t help but admire her mother’s strength and love for her friends. I found Jeannie’s talk to be a reminder that our actions do matter, [and] that while the world is sometimes a terrible place it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Sophomore Emmy Markgraf agreed, saying, “What really impacted me was how these racist beliefs, despite efforts and progress over the past decades, still are very prevalent. It also struck me how these speeches unfortunately continue to be necessary in order to reaffirm the idea that these racist beliefs are terrible. I really found that I need to make a more conscious effort to dissolve the prejudices that still exist both in me and in our society.”
Jeannie Smith is part of a new generation of Holocaust Speakers who share the experiences of their parents. Smith is also a member and speaker for the Oregon & Washington Holocaust Speakers Bureau, the Anti-Defamation League’s Bearing Witness Program and a national speaker for the Jewish Federation of North America. She speaks at schools, churches, clubs, camps and other various organizations across the US, Canada and UK to share her mother’s story. Her speech is now a tribute to her mother’s actions during the Holocaust that saved so many other lives. Opdyke was honored as the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. She also published an autobiography in 1999 titled In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer. A play titled Irena’s Vow opened on Broadway in 2009 in remembrance of Opdyke’s story and Katy Carr, a British songwriter, released a song inspired by Opdyke called Mala Little Flower. Opdyke’s action have left a strong legacy and a resonating message which Smith was able to bring to Lake Oswego High School.