During the question-and-answer period following a performance of the recently closed Broadway play Irena's Vow, Holocaust survivor Roman Haller was asked what had happened to the German Wehrmacht officer who is portrayed in the play. Haller's answer drew gasps from the audience.
"He became my zeide," Haller replied.
How did a World War II German major become the grandfather of a four-year-old Jewish boy born during the Holocaust?
Haller, now 65, made the story of his relationship public when he appeared on stage in New York recently to answer questions from the play's audience.
Irena's Vow is a true story about how Irena Gut, a Polish Catholic nurse, saved the lives of 12 Jews, including Haller's parents. Without her efforts, Haller would not have been born. Gut hid the Jews in the basement of Maj. Eduard Rugemer's living quarters in the eastern Polish city of Ternopil, now in Ukraine. Forced into labor by the Nazis, she was serving as the German officer's housekeeper. Rugemer did not know that Gut was hiding Jews in his house.
Gut had kept the Jews hidden for almost two years without arousing his suspicions. The Jews stayed in the basement whenever Rugemer was in the house, but during the day when he was at work, they would come out of the basement. Gut made sure they had enough to eat and attended to their needs.
One day Rugemer came home early and discovered the Jews in his living room. On that same day the Germans had held a public hanging in which three Poles were executed for having hidden Jews. All residents of Ternopil were required to witness these executions to make clear the fate that would befall any Pole who hid Jews.
Gut was so unnerved after the hangings, which she too had been forced to attend, that she forgot to lock the door to the major's house from the inside, allowing Rugemer to catch Irena and the Jews by surprise when he unexpectedly returned early from work.
Rugemer, who was in his 60s, found the 19-year-old Gut attractive. She consented to become his mistress in exchange for his promise to let the Jews live and not condemn them to the death camps. From that moment, both Rugemer and Gut risked death for hiding Jews. Gut never told the Jews the price she had paid for the major's silence.
"They would not have allowed her to do this to save their lives," said Jeannie Opdyke Smith, Gut's daughter, 51, who currently lives in the state of Washington.
While in hiding, a Jewish couple, Ida and Lazar Haller, discovered they were expecting a baby and asked Gut to help with an abortion. Gut refused. "If the baby dies, Hitler wins, and he has killed enough children already," Gut says in the play.
Gut had witnessed a gruesome event that made her vow to do all she could to prevent further killing. What she had seen was a Nazi officer tossing a Jewish baby into the air like a clay pigeon and then shooting it. "I asked God to help me help," she says in the play. "I was ready to give my life to help." She was determined that this baby should live.
On March 4, 1944, Gut smuggled the Jews to a primitive hideout in a nearby forest where they would be safer than in Rugemer's house. The German lines were crumbling as the Russian troops rapidly advanced and the fighting intensified. The Jews remained hidden in the forest until the Russians gained control of Poland. It was here in the forest that Ida Haller gave birth to a baby boy.
Roman Haller answered this way in an e-mail response to a question regarding the date of his birth: "The date of my birth is May 7 till May 10. The date is uncertain. I was born in the forest."
The date of his birth is uncertain because there was no calendar in the forest where his parents were hiding.
After the war, the Yiddish-speaking Hallers moved to Munich, a city that had been flattened by heavy allied bombing. They invited Rugemer to live with them because he had protected them from the Gestapo in Ternopil. When the war was over, Rugemer had returned to his native Nuremberg, but his wife and children rejected him, barring him from the house, because of his affair with Gut and his complicity with her in sheltering the Jews. "When the Hallers took Rugemer into their home, it became a wonderful picture of the circle of forgiveness," said Opdyke Smith during a phone interview.
Roman was four years old when Rugemer joined the Haller family. The former Wehrmacht officer soon became a favorite of the little Jewish boy. During a recent trip to New York, Haller, speaking English with a pronounced German accent, described his memories of the major: "I loved him. We used to walk down the streets together. He would hold my hand. I used to call him zeide. He would play with me. I used to ride on his back. It was like riding a horse. I picked out his gray hairs. I would say, 'You have gray hairs and I will take them off.' He laughed. I could [do] anything I wanted with him."
Rugemer was the grandfather Haller never had. One of his grandfathers had died before the war and the other perished in the Holocaust.
"Sometimes he would go away and I was very sad when he went," said Haller. "I remember him standing at the door when he was leaving and saying, 'I will come back.'"
RUGEMER SPENT his final years with the Hallers. Roman's parents did not tell him when the major became ill. Rugemer died when the little boy was eight. "My parents always wanted to protect me from bad things," said Haller. "They went through such bad things in their lives. That's why they never told me he died."
Haller, an impeccably dressed man with brooding eyes, is director of the German office of the Claims Conference, which represents world Jewry in negotiating restitution for the victims of Nazi persecution. He has written a book about his childhood in Munich, Davidstern und Lederhose: Eine Kindheit in der Nachkriegszeit (The Star of David and Lederhosen: A Childhood after the War), published in 2001.
The family that Rugemer joined was tormented by memories of the Holocaust. Haller remembers his mother screaming during her many nightmares: "The Gestapo is coming." But she never talked to her son about those war years.
The Hallers had originally planned to emigrate from Munich to the US, but were hesitant about making such a major move, partly because they did not speak any English. They eventually became resigned to staying in Germany. "I must say they were in such conflict about staying in Germany," Haller said. "They called it the land of the murderers."
In another book, Haller has written about Jewish Holocaust survivors who had trouble deciding whether or not to leave Germany. The book, Und Bleiben Wollte Keiner (No One Wants to Stay), was published in 2004.
Although the Hallers did not know it, Gut had married an American, William Opdyke, and lived in Fullerton, California, with her husband and their daughter, Jeannie. After the war, the Hallers had lost track of the woman who had saved their lives and made it possible for their son to be born.
Gut had fled from Poland to Germany. She needed to leave Poland because the Soviet secret police were seeking her arrest. Gut had connections with the Polish underground, and the Russians regarded the members of this underground as opponents of the new communist regime. The Soviets considered Gut to be a spy for the capitalist West.
Gut's Jewish friends dyed her hair black and gave her forged documents identifying her as a Jew so that she could get to Germany, where she was placed in a displaced persons camp. This is where she met her husband, an American who was helping to process refugees bound for new homes in other countries. Although a rabbi at the camp introduced them, Opdyke, like Gut, was not Jewish.
Haller calls Gut his "second mother," saying that Gut always referred to him as "my dear son," never as "Roman." Haller did not meet Gut, the woman to whom he owes his life, until 1984. "She wanted me to be born and to live," he said in a somber voice.
Haller admires the courage of both Gut and Rugemer. "Irena and the major would have been killed first, even before the Jews, if the Gestapo had found out they were hiding us," he said.
WITH A new life in America, Gut Opdyke did not talk about her prior life. Her daughter, Opdyke Smith, says that when she was a child growing up in California, she knew nothing about her mother's harrowing war experiences. She never heard her mother's story until 1972, when a phone call changed everything.
The caller, a Holocaust denier, was doing a phone survey for a college thesis arguing that the destruction of European Jewry was a fiction.
"I was 14 years old and when my mother came back to the dining room she was visibly shaken," said Opdyke Smith. "My mother then told us the whole story."
Gut Opdyke's husband asked her to tell the story to his Rotary Club. From that time until her death in 2003 at 81, Gut Opdyke dedicated herself to telling her story at schools and churches. "If people who went through the Holocaust don't speak up, it will be repeated," she warned.
Gut Opdyke's story was reported in the local newspaper following the talk to her husband's Rotary Club. After reading the story, Rabbi Haim Asa of Fullerton, California, said to his wife: "We have a Righteous Gentile living in our neighborhood." He contacted Gut Opdyke and, convinced her story was true, spearheaded an effort to have her named one of the Righteous among the Nations. In 1982, she was honored at Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile who risked her life to save Jews during the Holocaust.
In putting together the documentation demonstrating that Gut Opdyke was a Righteous Gentile, Rabbi Asa managed to locate the Hallers in Munich, which eventually led to a tearful reunion between Gut Opdyke and Ida and Lazar Haller, whose son Roman had been an infant when last they were together.
When contacted by Yad Vashem about a proposal that Rugemer be named a Righteous Gentile for having saved Jews, Irena Gut Opdyke refused to support the recommendation.
"My mother paid a hefty price for his silence," said Jeannie Opdyke Smith.
Rugemer was not named a Righteous Gentile.