Fighting Antisemitism with the Beauty of a Holocaust Hero

After days of unrelenting storms, the sky cleared to unveil LA’s newest mural — a giant work of art that captures the brave spirit of Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish nurse and gentile who, during World War II, heroically rescued Jews from the Holocaust. 

Her amazing feat, which has been likened to a spy movie, is now honored with her image on a 60-foot wall located in the heart of the Arts District at 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles. Opdyke was also considered a local hero as she settled in Southern California after the war.

This mural is one of the ongoing efforts around the world from Artists 4 Israel that utilizes the power of art to stop the spread of bigotry and assists communities affected by terrorism and hate.

Painted by artist Andrew Hem, who arrived in LA as a refugee from Vietnam, the mural is a focal point with a QR code in the giant painting which opens a link that tells the story of the heroic woman.  

Hem, originally a graffiti artist with this project, isn’t Jewish but through this process, he too, has been “educated, just as it’s believed his completed work will educate.”

It’s the intent for the large image of Opodyke placed at a popular location to give others an opportunity to see it each day, and educate and inspire scores of  others to resist hate.

Painting of the Mural of Holocaust hero Irene Gut Opdyke, now complete, covers a 60-foot exterior wall. The colorful mural is intended to inspire millions who drive through downtown LA every year.

While the question continues to be asked, why anti-semitism and hate crimes continue in Los Angeles and around the world, it’s clear — racially motivated attacks and antisemitism are on the rise. This project, in various planning stages over the last year and in production for the last six months, was completed shortly after another antisemitic attack occurred last month.

Two Jewish men were shot within 24 hours of each other in LA’s Pico-Robertson district en route from prayer at their synagogues. The suspect, Jaime Tran, 28, is currently facing federal hate crimes and firearm charges. A former dental student, Tran shot the two people in separate attacks one day after the next after using an app to locate a Jewish community.

“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.”

Tran is reported to have a history of making antisemitic remarks and following his arrest he confessed and asked if the victims were dead. He’s reported to have said previously to fellow students, “Someone is going to kill you, Jew,” and “I want you dead, Jew,” along with a slew of other threatening remarks. There was an increased police presence and patrols around Jewish communities and places of worship immediately following the shooting.

Terrifying attacks like this latest incident raises many questions still pondered — why and how does language evolve to violence? What causes hate incidents between interethnic groups? And how can antisemitism and hate crimes be adequately addressed, countered and eradicated?

“The mural was painted in response to a dangerous surge in antisemitism in Los Angeles and around the world with an intention to inspire unity and rally those resisting hate,” said Craig Dershowitz, CEO for Artists 4 Israel.

The organization is a global network of thousands of artists representing 32 different countries involved in social change projects through the “Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project.” Their goal is to paint 20 of these large scale murals of “righteous Gentiles” around the world in their home countries with their home artists.”

Dershowitz believes while we are accustomed to using words and discussion — art, especially public art, speaks to the soul and has the power to motivate people. This mural brings art to them as they go about their daily lives.

“When it comes to seeing something, it creates a visceral emotional reaction. We all know that Holocaust education is at the lowest point it’s been in history. And that might just be because we’ve tried to do it all through language.

“We put them [historic accounts and testimony] in dark museums and dusty textbooks. And this [mural project] is ripping those stories out of those places and putting it in the street in a way that gathers attention and reaction … by using art to tell the stories of these heroes makes the entire community pay attention and it makes the entire community understand and feel empowered that they too can take a righteous and courageous stance.”

Dershowitz said by placing the artwork with access to the history where there is foot traffic and within view of passing motorists — the story is placed in the public sphere. 

“Now on one of the busiest street corners in downtown LA, even if you get 1/100 of the attention of the hundreds of thousands of people to pass by every day, or passed by each week, and multiply that by five, 10, 20 years, the numbers become much higher than those that walk into the Holocaust Museum,” said Dershowitz. 

“Each mural comes with a number of QR codes placed on it. So any passerby that wants to can read it. Also every passerby that wants to take a picture of the mural is going to immediately open this QR code,” Dershowitz explains. “And of course, you’ve got the element of the social media interaction as all the websites that focus on graffiti art muralism are sharing this mural because of its beauty — the story is told each time they share it.

The murals now placed in areas where there is a high incidence of antisemitism, along with those murals planned for the future, send a positive message that Artists 4 Israel hope can uplift community members in their home countries and reset dangerous trends.  

“By exhibiting the people and their positive and brave acts it serves to model heroism to end antisemitism and shows people a pathway towards hopeful behavior.”