January 21, 1999
Owning Her Story
PLEASE NOTE THE FOLLOWING: This article was published before the final disposition of this matter. The entire matter, including Mr. Alan Boinus' counter-claim for defamation, was dismissed with prejudice, and all parties entered into an amicable settlement agreement in May 2000.
On a terrible day in 1941, Irene Gut Opdyke saw a Nazi soldier snatch a Jewish baby from his mother and smash him on the ground. Another Nazi threw an infant in the air and shot him.
That night, the Polish Catholic teen-ager fell to her knees and ranted against God. "In the morning, I heard an answer in my soul," says Opdyke, now 80 and a resident of Yorba Linda. "I realized that God gives us free will to be good or bad. I asked Him for forgiveness and for the opportunity to help, even if it meant risking my life."
Several months later, Opdyke got her chance when she learned that the Ternapol ghetto was going to be liquidated. She warned Jews of the impending danger, brought food and supplies to partisans in the forest, and hid 12 Jews in the house where she worked as a housekeeper for an elderly Nazi major. When the Nazi discovered her ruse, she was forced to become his mistress.
"I won't tell you it was easy," says Opdyke, who was named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. "But I knew there were 12 lives depending on me."
Opdyke has been telling her story to students and community groups since reading a newspaper report about Holocaust deniers almost 20 years ago.
But today, she alleges, her inspiring story is no longer her own. In a lawsuit filed last month in Orange County Superior Court, Opdyke charges that she was "duped" into signing away the rights to her life story by an Orange County event promoter, Alan N. Boinus.
According to the lawsuit, Boinus realized that Opdyke's life story "could be sold for a great deal of money." Boinus solicited Opdyke's trust by "falsely [holding] himself out as someone who she could depend on as a friend and business adviser," the lawsuit states. "Boinus also knew that the elderly Opdyke had difficulty understanding written English and that people could easily take advantage of her."
The complaint alleges 19 causes of action, ranging from fiduciary elder abuse, to fraud, to misappropriation of name and likeness. According to the lawsuit, Boinus persuaded Opdyke to sign a series of agreements, culminating in an option that allowed him five years to sell her story in exchange for $1. If the octogenarian were to die within the five years, none of her heirs would receive any of the profits. The money would go to Boinus and the Irene Gut Opdyke Holocaust Rescuer Foundation, co-founded by Boinus for fund-raising and other purposes but over which Opdyke has had no control, says Diane Klein, one of Opdyke's attorneys.
Boinus, who denies all allegations, has said that he is now in the unenviable position of defending himself against a Holocaust hero whom he admires.
His attorney, Howard A. Kapp, says the five-year option is a standard entertainment industry contract. Kapp says Boinus' primary motivation has been to publicize Opdyke's heroic deeds, through the IRS-approved foundation and other endeavors. Boinus did ask Opdyke to sit on the foundation board, Kapp says, but the senior citizen declined. She preferred to let Boinus and a board of directors handle the business of the foundation, which aimed to educate children about the Holocaust, Kapp says. The foundation has folded since the lawsuit.
Boinus, 45, a graduate of the USC School of Cinema, met Opdyke about five years ago, after she spoke at the Irvine synagogue where he was a member, Klein says.
Opdyke learned to trust Boinus when he helped her get out of an unfavorable book deal and then facilitated a new deal for her with Alfred Knopf. Boinus also helped Opdyke with her income taxes and coordinated her personal appearances, among other favors, Klein says.
But last summer, after appearing on a segment of ABC's "PrimeTime Live," Opdyke says that she began to develop suspicions about Boinus. Producers had been expressing interest in making a movie about Opdyke; concerned friends convinced her to have an attorney review her contracts with Boinus. Soon thereafter, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a public interest law firm and beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, arranged for Opdyke's case to be handled pro bono by Carole E. Handler, co-chair of Kaye, Scholer law firm's entertainment group.
Kapp, for his part, reiterates that all of Boinus' contracts with Opdyke are "conventional." He says Boinus has worked hard on Opdyke's behalf, arranging media exposure and even writing a screenplay about her. Kapp says he suspects that certain individuals want to cut off Boinus now that his endeavors have engendered film-related offers.
"Mrs. Opdyke's core argument is that she doesn't read English and, therefore, she should be excused from any agreements," Kapp says. "But English has been her primary language for nearly 50 years. She has written two books in English, and she once ran a business in the state of California."
In a written statement, Boinus said: "The irony of all this is, both [Irene's] lawyers and I have been motivated by the same thing: to tell the story of this most amazing brave soul. I have had the passion to tell it when no one would listen."
Opdyke sees it differently. While she is seeking damages, and she wants a full accounting of foundation funds, she says her main goal is to nullify all contracts with Boinus and regain control of her life story.
"I just want to tell my story," she says.
Know Your Rights
If you are a Holocaust survivor or a non-Jewish rescuer, here is the best way to sell your life story, according to Diane Klein of Kaye, Scholer law firm, and Manuel Duran of Bet Tzedek Legal Services:
* If someone expresses interest in your story, don't sign anything or tell your story to that person in any detail until you check the person's "bona fides." If the person is a writer, check to see if he or she is a member of the Writer's Guild. If the person is a producer, ask for information about other films he or she has produced.
* Do not make an agreement with any agent or producer who asks you to pay "front" money or to pay for expenses. No legitimate agent or producer will ask you to pay for anything.
* Do not sign anything until you have it reviewed by a lawyer. Make sure all agreements are in writing.
* Do not "tie up" the rights of your story for more than one or two years under any circumstances.
* Request approval over creative decisions and a role in creating the final product.
* Be aware that is it possible to get no- or low-cost legal advice, for example, from Bet Tzedek or Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Do not enter into any agreement with someone who tells you that you don't need a lawyer.
* Before you sign the deal, negotiate an "exit strategy" in case the deal does not go the way you want: if the producer assigns the agreement to someone with whom you would not want to do business, for example, or if a person to whom you have sold the rights does not do anything with them.