Downtown Arts District Fights Antisemitism with Beauty
LOS ANGELES, CA — A dangerous surge in antisemitism in Los Angeles and around the world is being fought with aid from an unexpected source – graffiti artists who have formed a global task force to fight hate and promote cross-cultural unity. LA has become just the latest area where an atmosphere of building hate speech culminated in physical attacks as two Jewish men were shot last week while leaving prayer services.
To inspire unity and rally those resisting hate in an impossible to miss image, part of the dynamic Downtown Los Angeles Arts District has been transformed into a giant mural honoring local hero Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish nurse who during World War II engaged in heroics straight out of a spy movie to rescue Jews from the Holocaust before eventually settling in Southern California after the war.
The private unveiling is on February 26th at 4pm at Art At The Rendon (2055 E. 7th St. Los Angeles, CA 90023) which has donated a 60-foot exterior wall to inspire the millions who drive through downtown LA every year. “The power of art lies within its ability to spark ongoing dialogue and discussion on subjects that demand closer examination,” says Cindy Schwarzstein, the Rendon’s Director of Programming, Projects & Community Partnerships. “Ultimately, behind the many eyes that view and experience art there is a connectedness that can be cohesive and uniting.” 
The mural unveiling will be accompanied by a private reception in an original neighborhood dive bar built in 1913. The space is often used as a backdrop for Hollywood movies and provides a unique environment for this special event. The evening will include live music with food and drinks provided by community sponsors Topo Chico and Angel City Brewery. 
Irene’s daughter, Jeannie Opdyke Smith, will reveal what gave her mother such courage. Special guests, including Rock legend and multi-hyphenate businessman Gene Simmons of KISS, will briefly share why, again, there is a need to stand up to fight antisemitism and all other forms of hate. “Always remember, Hitler started with words. Left unchecked, hate speech grows and infects the planet like the cancer it is,” says Simmons. “I know, my mother was 14 years of age when she was in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.”
The gigantic painting is the work of Andrew Hem, a Vietnamese artist who resonates deeply with those that Opdyke saved. “I was saved by a hero like Irene,” says Hem. “My family came to America as refugees and a family took us in until we got on our feet. We didn’t speak a word of English, and they still took us in.” 
Hem has joined forces with other top urban artists around the world to participate in the “Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project.” Together they are painting building-sized murals honoring the heroes who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. So far murals have been created in Greece, Portugal, and New York City with more planned as funding is secured. 
Irene Gut was 20 years-old and studying to be a nurse when the Nazis invaded Poland. In the chaos of the War, she had to quit school and become a maid in a hotel frequented by high level Nazi officials. When she saw a German soldier kill an infant, she decided she would use what little she had to save lives. She began smuggling Jews out of the ghetto and stealing from the hotel kitchen to feed them in the forest. Her daring went to a whole new level when she was hired by Wehrmacht Major Eduard Rügemer to be the housekeeper for the Nazi’s seized estate. Irene hid 12 Jews, including a pregnant woman, in the basement. When she was discovered, the young woman agreed to become the Nazi commander’s mistress in exchange for the lives of the Jews. All the Jews Irene hid survived the Holocaust, including the baby of the pregnant woman. Irene visited some of their descendants in Israel before she passed away in 2003.
The Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project is an initiative of the non-profit, Artists 4 Israel in partnership with the Combat Antisemitism Movement. The goal is to inspire a new generation to fight the latest resurgence of an ancient hatred. Faced with amazing visuals like the Opdyke mural, people naturally take out their smartphones to grab a photo. Each mural is embedded with a QR code that opens a short video that tells the story of the heroic Rescuer. 
The Rescuer in the mural is either a native citizen or came to live in that locale after World War II. “Learning that someone of your own nationality, ethnic background and beliefs stood up to antisemitism only a generation ago and won an honored place in world history is very empowering,” says Craig Dershowitz, CEO of Artists 4 Israel. “You realize that you might also change the world by standing up to hate.”
“This mission is becoming ever more urgent, as the number of Holocaust survivors with living memory of the Nazi atrocities dwindles with each passing year, and new forms of Jew-hatred are proliferating worldwide,” says Sacha Roytman-Dratwa, CEO of Combat Antisemitism Movement. 
The location of the cities for the murals are chosen for either being the home of one of the Holocaust Rescuers or because the area has become a hotspot for antisemitism. Unfortunately, Los Angeles has become one of those places where antisemitism is surging.
The ADL reports Los Angeles Area antisemitic incidents rose 29% in 2021 and a staggering 217% between 2017 to 2021. In both California and the United States, incidents of hatred directed against Jews are becoming increasingly visible and mainstream and last week’s attack follows a now familiar pattern of first slurs then violence. After the hearing where alleged shooter Jaime Tran was charged with two hate crimes Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass made a statement, “When antisemitism crawls out of the shadows, make no mistake. Angelenos from every community stand united to stamp it out and ensure that justice is served because antisemitism has no place in Los Angeles and no place in our country.” 
“We all need to come together and look out for one another,” says artist Andrew Hem who hopes learning the story of Irene Gut Opdyke will begin to change the city. “Our community could drastically be different if more people had the heart and courage of Irene.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *