August 3, 2005

A Female Schindler


Lela Sopianic saved persecuted Jews.

During the Nazi occupation Lela Sopianic hid forty Jewish families in her house at Zagreb, saving them from torture and death. Then she took refuge in Argentina.

”I dared save the Jews, hiding them in my house because I put into practice what the Gospel says : ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’, as normal and simple as that.” Lela Sopianic thus briefly tells of her decision to hide forty Jewish families in her Zagreb house during the Second World War. (repite lo que ya esta arriba, lo sacaria)

This Croatian woman, who prefers to be called ‘Grandmother’ and not by her name, has just turned ninety. She arrived with her husband to Argentina during the late forties, fleeing from Nazi horror. A short time ago a group of volunteers from the Wallenberg Foundation, who trace people who have helped Jews in the world, found her alone in her house in Olivos, a suburb of Buenos Aires. Her husband died in 1985.

”I have always been the same, when I don’t approve of something I say so and I act in consequence.” Says Lela ” That is why everyone, even the Nazis, knew that I was not going to stay with my arms crossed. I never did anything on the sly, I always acted with the truth and that is maybe why I myself (??) gave myself away.”

At that time she was a young Catholic girl, with a husband that was twenty years older. The husbands of her sisters-in-law were Austrian Jews, ”but no one took notice of religions, we were all brothers and sisters. All equal,” she recalls and becomes furious as if she lived those moments again, ” until those criminals came, brandishing worthless diplomas and appointments”. Word was passed around that the Sopianac’s house was a haven for pursued Jews, ”my house was open to all my brethren as it is today en Argentina; you cannot say ‘this one is Jewish or this one is Christian.’ One must practice the Word of God which is the same for everyone.”

She and her husband were arrested and taken to a concentration camp. Because of the tortures that she suffered she lost a kidney and the thumb of one hand. As she was being taken to the border of Croatia and Italy she escaped to Argentina.. ”I am grateful to God”, she says ”because He never remains in debt. I was dead, they were taking me to shoot me and He saved me.” Even in prison, she did not lose her freedom. ”I had more freedom than those who considered themselves free, because, as the Gospel says, ‘Love makes us free.’”

With the same firm personality as in her youthful years, she recalled that her decisions sprang from the Gospel. ”I am very sorry” ,she says ”to see some of the young people of today who think that not believing in God is progressive without realizing that He always protects the lives of those who trust. I, for example have lived to be ninety with only one kidney; they were able to harm my body but never my spirit. Values that are firm are maintained for life.”

Lela was distinguished worldwide for her courage and acknowledged by Yad Vashem, of Jerusalem, as ” Righteous Among the Nations”, even though she does not consider honors important. ”I am proud and grateful, but the truth is that I don’t consider that it is of value. My soul was overwhelmed to see my Jewish brethren free from those murderers.” When she is asked if she was ever afraid, she simply answers: ”God will charge (yo pondria judge) you according to how you lived and what you did, that is why the only thing I respect and fear is not fulfilling the Word of God.”

Translation: María Lía Macchi