In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer

by Irene Gut Opdyke, Jennifer Armstrong

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IRENE GUT WAS just 17 in 1939, when the Germans and Russians devoured her native Poland. Just a girl, really. But a girl who saw evil and chose to defy it.

“No matter how many Holocaust stories one has read, this one is a must, for its impact is so powerful.”—School Library Journal, Starred

A Book Sense Top Ten Pick

A Publisher’s Weekly Choice of the Year’s Best Books

A Booklist Editors Choice

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307557025
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Publication date: 12/18/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 52,452
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Irene Gut Opdyke was presented with the Israel Medal of Honor and a special commendation from the Vatican. She died in 2003.

Jennifer Armstrong is the author of many highly acclaimed books for young readers. She lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Read an Excerpt

The Villa

The instant I was able to get away after breakfast, I walked to the villa as quickly as I could -- quickly enough to put a stitch in my side and to break a sweat in the heat. I unlocked the door and burst inside, dreading the sound of painters bumping ladders against the furniture. But it was silent. I was in time -- assuming that my friends were indeed waiting in the basement. The smell of cabbage and potatoes lingered in the air.

Almost fearing what I might find, I opened the basement door and clattered down the stairs, my shoes making a racket on the wooden steps. "Hoo-ee! It's Irene!" I called out.

The first room was empty. Trying not to worry, I opened the door to the furnace room, praying to find my six friends -- and Henry Weinbaum. The door creaked as it swung open into the gloom, and I called out again.

"It's Irene!"

There was an almost audible sigh of relief. One by one, figures emerged from the shadows: Ida, Lazar, Clara, Thomas, Fanka, Moses Steiner, and a young, handsome fellow I took to be Henry Weinbaum. I shook hands with them all silently, suddenly overcome with emotion. They were all there; they were safe and alive. And then, to my surprise, I found three strangers, who greeted me with an odd mixture of sheepishness and defiance.

"I'm Joseph Weiss," the eldest of the three said. "And this is Marian Wilner and Alex Rosen. Henry told us."

For a moment I was at a loss. I had ten lives in my hands now! But there wasn't time for lengthy introductions. The soldiers from the plant were due any minute to start painting.

"Hurry, everyone," I said. "You'll have to stay in the attic until the house is painted. I'll check on you as often as I can. I don't need to tell you not to make any noise at all."

This was met with grim nods all around. Then we made our way upstairs. The attic was musty; dust swirled in a shaft of light from the high window, and the air smelled of mouse droppings. "Shoes off," I said. "Don't walk around unless you absolutely must."

I locked them in just as trucks ground to a halt out on the street.

I kicked the basement door shut on my way to let in the soldiers, and then unlocked the front door.

"This way," I said, stepping aside to usher them in with their painting equipment and drop cloths. When I glanced outside, I saw the major climbing out of a car.

"Guten Tag, Irene," he called cheerily.

I bobbed my head. "Herr Major."

"This is splendid," he said, rubbing his hands together as he came inside. "I'll move in in a week or so, when all the painting and repairs are finished, but in the meantime, I'd like you to move in right away, so that you can oversee things. Don't worry about your duties at the hotel -- if you can serve dinner, Schulz can manage without you the rest of the time."

As he spoke, Major Rügemer strolled back and forth across the hallway, glancing into the rooms and nodding his approval. His footsteps echoed off the walls, and he muttered, "Ja, ja, ausgezeichnet," under his breath. Then, when another truckload of soldiers arrived, he went outside to meet them and show them around the garden: There were renovations to be made on the grounds, as well. I stood at the dining room window, watching him point out the gazebo and indicate which shrubs and trees should be removed and where new ones should be planted. Behind me, I could hear the painters beginning to shove furniture across the floors, exchanging jokes and commenting on the weather and the sour cabbagey smell left behind by the previous tenants. I heard one of them say "...the major's girlfriend."

I gritted my teeth and prepared to spend the day keeping the soldiers away from the attic.

For the next few days, while the soldiers swarmed around the villa -- painting, repairing, replanting -- I contrived to smuggle food upstairs to the attic. I took fruit and cheese, cold tea, bread and nuts. I also took up two buckets to use for toilets. The attic was stuffy with the heat of summer, but we were reluctant to open the one window high on the wall. The fugitives had accustomed themselves to much more discomfort than this. They were willing to sit in the stifling heat, not speaking, just waiting. At night, when the workmen were gone and I had returned from the hotel, I was able to give my friends some minutes of liberty. They used the bathroom, stretched their legs, and bathed their sweating faces with cool water. But we did not turn on any lights, and we were still as silent as ghosts.

It wasn't long before the servants' quarters had been completely refurbished; I had seen to that. Telling the workmen that the major had ordered the work to be done from bottom to top, I directed them to start with the basement. Then, when it was finished, I waited until dark and triumphantly escorted my friends to their new quarters, fresh with the smell of sawdust and new paint instead of old cooking.

It was the start of a new way of life for all of us. Several of the men, being handy and intelligent, were able to rig up a warning system. A button was installed in the floor of the front entry foyer, under a faded rug. From it, a wire led to a light in the basement, which would flicker on and off when I stepped on the button. I kept the front door locked at all times, and when I went to see who might be knocking, I had ample opportunity to signal to the people in the basement. One flash would warn them to stand by for more news. Two flashes meant to be very careful, and constant flashing meant danger -- hide immediately. We had also found the villa's rumored hiding place: A tunnel led from behind the furnace to a bunker underneath the gazebo. If there was serious danger, everyone could instantly scramble into the hole and wait for me to give them the all clear. The cellar was kept clear of any signs of occupation. Once the men had killed all the rats living in the bunker under the gazebo, it could accommodate all ten people without too much discomfort.

There was food in plenty; Schulz kept the major's kitchen stocked with enough to feed a platoon, and once again, I could not help wondering if he had an inkling of what I was doing. I was also able to go to the Warenhaus whenever I needed to, for cigarettes, vodka, sugar, extra household goods, anything the major might conceivably need for entertaining in his new villa. Of course, the soldiers who ran the Warenhaus had no way of knowing that half of what I got there went directly into the basement, and I was certainly not going to tell them!

The basement was cool even in the intense summer heat; there was a bathroom, and newspapers, which I brought down after the major was finished with them. All in all, the residents of the basement enjoyed quite a luxurious hiding place.

And yet it almost fell apart when the major moved in at last.

"The basement is finished, isn't it?" he asked me when he arrived.

All the hairs on my arms prickled with alarm. "Do you have some plans for it, Major?" I asked, keeping my voice from showing my fear.

He unbuttoned the top button of his tunic. "I'm sure it will do very well for my orderly."

I felt the blood drain from my face, and Major Rügemer looked at me in surprise. "What is it?"

I did not have to fake the tears that sprang to my eyes. "Please don't move him in here," I pleaded. My mind raced with explanations. "I never told you this, but at the beginning of the war, I was captured by Russian soldiers and -- and I was -- " My throat closed up.

The major frowned at me. "You were what?"

"They attacked me, sir, in the way that men attack women."

Table of Contents

Part 1I Was Almost Fast Enough3
Part 2Finding Wings69
Part 3Where Could I Come to Rest?207
Polish: A Rough Guide to Pronunciation239
German: A Rough Guide to Pronunciation241
Some Historical Background243
A Note on the Writing of This Book247

Reading Group Guide

1. In the first pages of the memoir we are introduced to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa at the shrine of Jasna Gora, and Irene recounts that she prayed to God to get her through particularly difficult or lonely times. What role does religion play in Irene's story? Does religion sustain her or fail her in her times of need? As she watches the last trucks full of Jews drive away from the Ternopol ghetto she says, "I tried to pray, but the words in my head did not fit together in the right order. I wanted to say 'Holy Father, ' but I could not. I thought He must have gone far away, taking His name with Him" [p. 147]. Does her faith waiver at other times? How do the different clergymen that Irene encounters strengthen or weaken her resolve?

2. Irene's father assures Irene during their brief reunion by telling her, "God has plans for you. He did not let you die" [p. 74]. Yet later, Irene explains, "You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis, all at once. One's first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence" [p. 126]. And, finally, in her epilogue she tells us, "Yes, it was me, a girl, with nothing but my free will clutched in my hand like an amber bead. God gave me this free will for my treasure. I can say this now. I understand this now. The war was a series of choices made by many people" [p. 234]. Were Irene's actions predestined or the result of her free will? How is free will an important theme in understanding the Holocaust overall?

3. How much of Irene's success is based on sheer luck and how much on quick thinking? For example,she easily escapes the Russian commissar [p. 63], she finds the vent in the major's bathroom to hide the Jews before moving them to the major's villa [p. 150], and she escapes through the prison window in Krakow [p. 224].

4. From the first chapter when we meet Bociek, the stork that Irene and her sisters care for, different images of birds permeate Irene's memoir. References to birds or bird images appear at least seven more times in the memoir in different contexts [pp. 68, 80, 104, 133, 142, 215, 234]. How are these images symbolic of Irene? What else do the birds represent? What is the significance of the moments in Irene's story when bird imagery is used? How does the bird motif characterize the style Jennifer Armstrong uses in telling Irene's story?

5. Irene tells us, "Sometimes, when I thought of the amount of hatred dwelling in Poland, I was surprised to see that the grass was still green, that the trees still flourished their leaves against a blue sky. . . . The birds can hop from one branch to another, tipping their heads and honing their small beaks against the bark while a child dies in the mud below" [pp. 99-100]. How is nature portrayed in In My Hands? How does Irene perceive man's relationship with nature and the land during the war? How is the land of Poland simultaneously a force for man to reckon with, as in the cruel cold of Polish winters, and a symbol of hope, as in the flowers of Poland heralding the arrival of spring?

6. So many questions remain at the end of the memoir, and the pictorials raise questions about Irene's life after Poland: What was her courtship and marriage like? What were her sisters' lives like after the war? Did she ever communicate with Eduard R? gemer again? Why did her sisters and her Jewish friends decide to remain in Europe? Why does the author choose to end Irene's memoir where she does and leave these and other questions unanswered?

7. In significant passages, Irene recalls the manifestation of German anti-Semitism in Poland. She writes of her home town: And in some shops not many, but some there were signs saying, "Don't Buy from Jews!" or "A Poland Free from Jews Is a Free Poland." This mystified me. In my home, there had never been any distinction made between people. . . . We did not imagine where it would lead. How could we? To us, Germany had always been a seat of civilization, the home of poets and musicians, philosophers and scientists. We believed it was a rational, cultured country. How could we know that the Germans did not feel the same about us? How could we know the depth of their scorn for us? Despite our centuries of glorious achievements, despite our Chopins and our Copernicuses, our cathedrals and our heroes and our horses--despite all this, Germany viewed Poland as a land of Slavic brutes, fit only for labor. And so Hitler wanted to destroy us [pp. 17-18].

It was now impossible not to understand what Hitler's plans for the Jews were. . . . Janina and I would recall Jewish friends from our girlhood. . . . It seemed to us . . . that if our childhood friends could be considered enemies, what was to keep us from the same fate? Weren't we all the same? Hitler would finish the Jews, ghetto by ghetto, and then turn his full attention to the rest of us Poles [p. 98].

In both of these passages, Irene begins by discussing anti-Semitic acts and ends with fear of what such German behavior might mean to Poland and the Poles. From Irene's point of view, how did these anti-Semitic actions and sentiments differ from anti-Polish actions and sentiments?

8. Except for the incidental German women echoing the anti-Semitism of their Nazi soldier boyfriends, all of the perpetrators of evil in Irene's wartime experience are men. How are Irene's actions made possible by the fact that she is a woman? How might a man read her memoirs differently than a woman?

9. In Irene's memoirs she juxtaposes the major's decentness against Rokita's iciness [pp. 134-135]. Yet, after he elicits sex from her in exchange for protecting her secret she reflects, "I wondered how the major's honor would allow him to make such a bargain. I had always felt that behind the uniform was a decent man. I had never seen him do anything cruel or rash. . . ." [p. 191]. Is the major a sympathetic person? What are Irene's feelings toward Major R? gemer? Are the major's actions toward Irene"justified, " or is Irene rationalizing? While Irene had clearly realized his feelings for her before this fateful moment and, more and more, had exploited them [pp. 113, 123, 142, 164], was the major's demand in fact inevitable?

10. Equally complex is Irene's opinion of the average German, as epitomized by Herr Schulz. On one hand, he is a "good, friendly man" and "had none of the ferocity and malevolence that [Irene] had come to expect of the Germans" [p. 88]. But she also admits, "As good and kind as he was, he was a German, and I could not reconcile those two things in my mind" [p. 93], and "He made hating the Germans a complex matter, when it should have been such a straightforward one" [p. 119]. Is Herr Schulz's behavior understandable? Excusable?

11. Is it possible that Dr. David and Dr. Miriam are Jewish, as their names would indicate? Was the "Rachel Meyer, " whom Irene poses as in Kiev, supposed to be Jewish? If so, why would Irene not explicitly note this irony? After the war, when Irene is in the repatriation camp posing as a Jew, she notes twice, "I fooled myself that I belonged" [p. 231]. And, after three years, the village still "did not feel like home" [p. 232]. Why might Irene have felt this way?


The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of In My Hands, written by Irene Gut Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong. This awe-inspiring memoir of a young Polish girl who became a Holocaust rescuer—responsible for saving twelve Jews—portrays with stunning vividness the triumph of a real-life heroine over the grossest of human atrocities.

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In My Hands; Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful read! Couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book. May it continue to be read so her story is never forgotten
schatzi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
** mild spoilers below ** This was an amazing story of how a Polish woman helped save the lives of over a dozen Jews during the Holocaust (she hid twelve of them in a Nazi officer's house, and she helped others living in the forest). It's even more powerful since Irene suffered so much during the war herself - she was raped by Russian soldiers, forced to be a Nazi's mistress to help protect her Jewish friends, lost her first love (a Polish partisan) during a raid, lost her father (who was murdered by the Nazis), and never saw her mother again (she died after Irene fled Poland for the United States). It's an amazing story of courage and survival.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I have had this book for maybe more than 6 months and in those 6 months I have read this book at least 7 or 8 times. I lvoe this book its one of my favorites! It tells a tale of a couragous women and her determination to help hide Jews from the Nazi's! This book I highly reccomend!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book had moved me som uch! I loved it! I couldn't put it down! It was so suspenful. It kept me on the edge of my seat I definetly recommend other people to read this! You'll love it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Incredible story. A friend loaned me this book and I enjoyed it so much that after I returned it to my friend, I bought it in hard cover to have and read again in the future. Being Jewish, I have read many Holocaust accounts, however, none from a Catholic point of view. The book was amazing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this is a must-read book that tells the bravery of Irene Gut Opdyke. so many should know of this tale and feel the need then themselves to stand up for what they believe in. Irene's story is very inspiring
Guest More than 1 year ago
i was shocked and amazed by irene's horrifying but accurately described recount of her past.I didn't know, of many holocaust resceurs -those that did something great, deserve to be commended, just like Irene. The story takes you to the heart of poland, where Irene finds herself lost in her job- friendless. By the end of the story irene is a herione who has saved many lives,[ always putting her life on the line], with frienDs that last a life time. the novel shows you that even in the worst of times some of the greatest people live.and that we truely must learn from our past or we'll be doomed to repeat it - as so said santyana
Guest More than 1 year ago
the most realstic book I have ever read i sya this book gets a rating of 5 stars due to the great literature and the realisticness you should read this book
Guest More than 1 year ago
Hearing of the concentration camps and the innocent people locked inside them breaks my heart. This book gives a story told by someone outside the camps, still making sacrifices as great as those inside. Irena Gut tells her story as if it were happening now. It made yearn to go to Germany to help this poor girl solve her problems which were told as if I were there. Her happy childhood in the mountains to separation while at school led to Irena's story. She struggled as a young women among many men soldiers. Having to withstand rape, asult, and being used, without one friend she could openly talk to, made her want her jewish friends to see freedom even more. She saved countless lives by slipping them away from the ghetto camps and letting them go free, then risked her own life and heart to keep the secret of her friends hiding from the army. This book made me realize what great sacrifices are made from the heart for those who one truely loves. It never bored me! I definitely recommend you to pick up a copy to see what war does to people, even the innocent ones.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The intriguing book In My hands by Irene Opdyke is a must read. This book shows in great detail what Irene went through in order to hide the Jews and keep them safe from danger. Irene saved at least 12 Jews during the time of the Holocaust. Irene is a hero and is respected for all of her life struggles she went threw to try to save her friends. Irene still fights for equal rights for all. If you only read one book a year this is the one for 2000. This book really shows the torture the Jews went through and how one girl became the only one they could rely on.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is an unfortunate and unfair stereotype about Poles not doing enough for Jews during World War II. This book helps set the record straight by first showing that Poles were also victims of the Germans. In addition, unlike in other German-occupied countries, Poles were given the death penalty for the slightest aid to Jews. Despite all this, the heroine of this historical account risked her life every day to hide a group of Jews right under the nose of a German officer whom she was forced to serve.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have researched the Holocaust for a long time, and I have read many books about the struggles of survival. Never has a book touched me so deeply. I recommend it for anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is really interesting, i read it all in one sitting, i just couldn't put it down
Guest More than 1 year ago
Irene is a wonderful human being who gives the word moral courage a new meaning---Irene should receive The Congressional Medal of Honour from the USA as a first citizen of the USA ----she puts many of us to shame---what if we were in her shoes? What would we do? This is a lesson to teach future generations.........