In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer

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Overview

Recounts the experiences of the author who, as a young Polish girl, hid and saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Recounts the experiences of the author who, as a young Polish girl, hid and saved Jews during the Holocaust.

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Overview

Recounts the experiences of the author who, as a young Polish girl, hid and saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Recounts the experiences of the author who, as a young Polish girl, hid and saved Jews during the Holocaust.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Few anti-Nazis could match the spunk of Irene Gut Opdyke. Not only did this spindly Polish teenager steel food for ghetto Jews from a German officers' club; she smuggled Jews out of work camps and, most daringly of all, hid a dozen fugitives in the home of Nazi major, for whom she worked as a housekeeper!
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Even among WWII memoirs--a genre studded with extraordinary stories--this autobiography looms large, a work of exceptional substance and style. Opdyke, born in 1922 to a Polish Catholic family, was a 17-year-old nursing student when Germany invaded her country in 1939. She spent a year tending to the ragtag remnants of a Polish military unit, hiding out in the forest with them; was captured and raped by Russians; was forced to work in a Russian military hospital; escaped and lived under a false identity in a village near Kiev; and was recaptured by the Russians. But her most remarkable adventures were still to come. Back in her homeland, she, like so many Poles, was made to serve the German army, and she eventually became a waitress in an officers' dining hall. She made good use of her position--risking her life, she helped Jews in the ghetto by passing along vital information, smuggling in food and helping them escape to the forest. When she was made the housekeeper of a German major, she used his villa to hide 12 Jews--and, at enormous personal cost, kept them safe throughout the war. In translating Opdyke's experiences to memoir see Children's Books, June 14, Armstrong and Opdyke demonstrate an almost uncanny power to place readers in the young Irene's shoes. Even as the authors handily distill the complexities of the military and political conditions of wartime Poland, they present Irene as simultaneously strong and vulnerable--a likable flesh-and-blood woman rather than a saint. Telling details, eloquent in their understatement, render Irene's shock at German atrocities and the gradually built foundation of her heroic resistance. Metaphors weave in and out, simultaneously providing a narrative structure and offering insight into Irene's experiences. Readers will be riveted--and no one can fail to be inspired by Opdyke's courage. Ages 10-up. Aug. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Irene Gut, a student nurse, was living in Poland when the Nazis invaded. Later she became a Russian prisoner; still later she was a German prisoner. Even as she endured personal violence, she witnessed the Jewish population suffering their own horrors. For no reason that she could explain, she was compelled to help the Jews. She began by providing food surreptitiously. Soon she provided some Jews with a safe work environment. Eventually she hid 12 people in the basement of a German major's villa. As she moved around, she had one thought, to find her family; but it was not until many years after the war that she would accomplish this goal. As the war ended, it was all the souls she had helped who helped her. They fed her, hid her and helped her to move on with her life. This memoir offered another perspective on WW II. Irene performed heroic tasks without any thought of her own safety or well-being. She did it because she knew she had to or people would die. Her good deeds were repaid as those she had helped came back to help her later. Some pictures and two pronunciation guides as well as a historical note are included. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Random House, Anchor, 248p. map. 21cm. 98-54095., $12.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Robin S. Holab-Abelman; White Plains, NY , July 2001 (Vol. 35, No. 4)
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-An amazing, courageous, uplifting autobiography (Knopf) about a brave teenager who was not afraid to get involved. Irene Gut Opdyke, Polish national, although homesick and separated from her own family, found herself in the right place during World War II to help at least 12 Jews survive the Nazi occupation. The author herself introduces the tape providing insight into her motivation. Her older voice contrasts nicely with the unaccented, talented, youthful film and Broadway actress, Hope Davis, who reads the first person memoir. Davis' expressive voice is gentle, effectively portraying Irene's personality. Although she relates emotional scenes, she remains detached so that the story can be told. The narration flows quickly and keeps listeners eagerly awaiting more. Davis expertly pronounces the many foreign names without hesitation. Opdyke's memoir is especially good for young people because she shows how one young person can make a significant difference. She recognizes that not all Germans were hateful. Although she refers to violence, there are very few graphic scenes. A wonderful addition to Holocaust collections.-Claudia Moore, W.T. Woodson High School, Fairfax, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Horn Book Magazine
Many wartime memories, including a brutal rape at the hands of the advancing Russian soldiers, haunt Polish teenager Irene Gutowna. But none more than the vision of a Jewish baby thrown into the air like a bird and shot. Irene's story-from happy eldest of four daughters to laborer in a German officer's mess hall to member of the Resistance-makes for gripping reading. Witness to the Germans' answer to the "Jewish problem," Irene begins to "not do nothing." She works, at first in small ways, against its evil; ultimately, she risks her own life by hiding twelve Jewish friends in the home of the Nazi major who employs her. Irene takes joy in the secret knowledge that, because of her, her town is not judenrein free of Jews as the Nazis proclaim. When the major discovers her betrayal, the reader's breath stops. Unfortunately, in an attempt to transform Irene's life into art, Jennifer Armstrong imposes upon it language whose beauty works against the horrific events she narrates, lessening rather than extending its force. Perhaps inspired by the fragment of the poem "Portrait of a Woman" by Wislawa Szmborska that serves as epigraph she "holds in her hands a sparrow with a broken wing", Armstrong creates bird and flight imagery that gives structure to a story whose truest understanding evades any meaning or structure. But despite the novelistic flourishes, the power of Irene's true story keeps the reader spellbound. The postscript that details, in words and photographs, the bittersweet histories of Irene and her Jewish "family" comes as a welcome relief.
Kirkus Reviews
Opdyke opens her story with her parents' first meeting in 1921, closes with a 1949 invitation to emigrate to the US, and in between straightforwardly, with restrained passion, lays out a strong tale of innocence burned away by repeated atrocity, of courage fueled by anger and opportunity. A teenaged student nurse separated from her Polish family, the narrator goes from caring for wounded to waiting tables in a German officers' mess and being a German major's housekeeper, but not before being sexually assaulted by Russian and German soldiers alike, arrested and interrogated, and witnessing systematic massacres and casual brutality. Unable to stand by, she contrives to shelter 12 Jews in the cellar of her employer's own villa, and helps them escape into the wild; in the war's closing months, she joins the Polish Resistance. Although there is evil in plenty here, Opdyke does not see all of her enemies as utter monsters, and with Armstrong seamlessly filling in the inevitable gaps in 50-year-old memories, she paints a coherent, compelling picture of her times, and of the moral necessity that compelled her to action. (b&w photos) (Biography. 13-15)
From the Publisher
“Few memoirs of the Holocaust tell in such vivid detail what it was like for a non-Jew to risk life day after day, year after year, to save the lives of people Hitler was bound to exterminate. No one reading In My Hands will ever forget the devotion to humanity this young Polish Catholic girl lived, and almost died, by.”–Milton Meltzer, author of Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679891819
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 8/28/1999
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Age range: 14 - 18 Years
  • Lexile: 890L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.53 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet 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.

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Read an Excerpt

An Excerpt from In My Hands
Part Two: Finding Wings


I was awakened by gunfire and explosions. I sat bolt upright in bed, looking around in confusion. When I moved to the window and nudged aside the blackout curtain, I was greeted by the dull clap of detonation. Rokita's men were doing their work, the final Aktion in Ternopol. I could not keep the tears from coming. They spilled onto the front of my dress as I tied my apron around my waist.
——
Schulz was already in the kitchen when I arrived, wide-eyed and shaking. He handed me a cup of coffee and put one arm across my shoulders. "Irene, the pogrom will be over soon. You must compose yourself."
——
Through the window, we could see smoke billowing up beyond the roof of the factory, from the direction of the ghetto. Behind us, the door opened and the major came in, pale and sick-looking.
——
"Schulz, something for a hangover," he said, groping for a chair. He sat down, and with each explosion and burst of gunfire, his shoulders jerked. He was muttering to himself. "Stupid, stupid war."
——
In the dining room, the officers and secretaries were making their late appearance. Hardly anyone spoke, and when they did, it was with a sour, wincing irritableness. The entire German staff of HKP was hungover and in foul spirits. Beyond these walls, people were dying, but the officers and secretaries cared only that the noise hurt their heads, and that work would be hard enough today with disruptions from the SS. It was all I could do to serve those people breakfast, all the time knowing that my friends must be hearing the same terrible sounds I heard, andwondering about friends and relatives who had not escaped.
——
Finally, all the late arrivals had dragged themselves off to work. I was desperate to get to the major's suite and check on my friends. The moment the door shut behind the last straggler, I raced upstairs. The bathroom door was wide open, and I hurried inside, shutting it behind me. Just as I was about to open my mouth to speak, the door opened again.
——
I whirled around. A young SS trooper stood with his hand on the doorknob. He was turning pink with embarrassment at bursting in on me in the bathroom.
——
"Forgive me, Fraulein. I beg your pardon," he stammered.
——
My entire body had gone icy cold. "What are you doing here?"
——
"I — we have orders — " He pulled himself together before I did. "What are you doing here?"
——
"I'm Major R¸gemer's housekeeper, and I'm about to clean his suite. You are in the major's bedroom. Will you please excuse me?"
——
"Of course, Fraulein."
——
Looking quite sheepish, he turned and let himself out. Obviously, he did not expect to find any Jews hiding in the major's bathroom. If he had taken even a moment to look around, he would have spotted the vent. And he would have seen the shadowy form of Ida Haller, sitting cross-legged behind the screen.
——
I closed and locked the door, and drew a shaky breath.
——
"Irene!" Ida whispered. "You must turn us in. This is too dangerous for you."
——
"No! Just wait. I'll let you have a break when I know the SS are gone. Don't do anything until I get back!"
——
I fumbled open the lock and slipped out the door, refusing to argue with them for their lives. I hurried back to my duties, while the SS continued to search HKP. I was as conscious of their presence as a quail who knows a fox is nearby. My skin prickled with their movements around the hotel. By late morning, they had finished at the plant and gone away in their trucks, but detonations and gunfire from surrounding areas of Ternopol continued to break on the summer air all day.
——
As soon as the SS had left the factory complex, I had snuck upstairs to give my friends a chance to stretch their legs and use the toilet. Then I ordered them into the vent again, ignoring their pleas to stop endangering my own life for theirs. I told them it was impossible, what they were suggesting, and that I would not hear of it. I shoved the screen back in place and left them still arguing with me in urgent whispers.
——
After lunch, I went to the villa on foot. The tenants were just leaving as I arrived; they cursed me and called me a whore of the Germans. I stood silently aside to let them pass me; the lives of my friends were more important than my own wounded feelings. I prayed silently for them to hurry up, to leave, to turn the corner of the street and be gone, never to come back.
——
And then the house was mine. Perhaps the major thought it was to be his house, but I knew better. The house was mine, my treasure box, my sword, my henhouse. I turned around and around in the front hall, owning the moldings around the door frames, owning the chandelier over the staircase, owning the door to the basement.
——
I opened that door and went downstairs, taking the time to examine the space more thoroughly. As servants' quarters, the basement rooms were outfitted with everything necessary — two bedrooms, a kitchenette, a bathroom, closets. All the windows up by the ceiling, windows and ground level, were covered with dark cardboard for the Verdunklung, the blackouts. No one could see into the basement from the outside. No light would show. I felt a surge of elation as I went into the furnace room and opened the coal chute. For a moment, as I stood clapping coal dust from my hands, I had a picture of my friends sliding down the chute like children in a playground. I even pictured myself, like a proud mother, catching them in my arms and setting them safely on the ground, while a blue sky embraced us from above.
——
Then the sunny picture faded, and I was left with one more question: How was I going to get them out of the major's bathroom and out of HKP?


——
I would need a key. The street entrance of the hotel was not guarded, and was well out of sight of the guardhouse at the main gate. But the door was always locked at night, for fear of sabotage or murder by the locals, I suppose, or of unauthorized late-night rendezvous. All through dinner preparations I tried to think of ways to get the major's keys, trying out first one then another story to explain why I needed them. In the end, I decided simply to steal the keys.
——
Every one of staff was still suffering from the effects of their party the night before. The dining room was quiet during dinner. Voices were subdued, and barely a laugh rose above the sullen murmur. People tried to handle their forks and knives carefully to avoid clattering, and many officers and secretaries excused themselves early. There was little billiard playing or after-dinner drinking.
——
I went to the major's table, where he sat alone, nursing a glass of wine and looking down at his uneaten dinner.
——
"Can I get you anything, Herr Major?" I asked.
——
He looked up at me, his glasses catching the light in such a way as to obscure his eyes; he regarded me with a round, blank stare.
——
"I think perhaps I will take a glass of warm milk with me to bed, Irene. And I'll take something to help me sleep. This has been a terrible day."
——
I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice as I began clearing his dishes. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, Herr Major. I'll be happy to bring some milk to your room right away."
——
He pushed himself away from the table. "Good. And tomorrow I will send some men to paint inside the house. If you could just watch over them, see that they do the job properly . . ."
——
"Of course."
——
I practically hauled him to his feet and shoved him out of the dining room, so anxious was I to see him in bed and unconscious. At the bottom of the staircase I left him and ran to the kitchen to heat the milk, and in five minutes I was knocking on his door.
——
Major R¸gemer took the glass from the little tray and put a small white pill on his tongue. While he gulped down the milk I glanced at his dressing table. His keys were there.
——
——
"Sleep well, Herr Major," I said as he turned away.
——
"Hmm? What's that?"
——
I smiled and raised my voice. "Good night, Herr Major!"
——
        I left the door slightly ajar and hurried back downstairs. Now, for the second night in a row, I had to keep my vigil, waiting for the hotel to fall asleep. I sat on the edge of my bed, not daring to lie down while I waited, for in spite of my state of nervous anxiety, I was as weary as if I'd been juggling bricks all day. So I sat, staring out my open door into the hallway, listening to the sounds that came further and further apart. At last, the place was still. I kicked my shoes off and tiptoed up to the third floor.
——
        At the door to the major's bedroom I stopped to listen; from within came a labored snoring. I remembered the sensation of waiting in the wings offstage in high school, then taking a deep breath and walking out into the lights. There was the same fluttering in my stomach, the same twitch of muscles between my shoulder blades as I straightened my back. And so, I took a deep breath and went in.
——
The light from the hallway slanted in across the room and illuminated the dressing table. I gave a quick glance to the bed, which was in shadow. The major snored on. I closed my hand over the bulky set of keys to keep them from jingling, and then backed out, locking the door behind me. I don't know what I was thinking, for if the major had woken and tried to leave his room, he would have raised a commotion. But I could not have him walk into the bathroom until I'd gotten my friends.
——
They were stiff, cramped, and tired. One at a time they lowered themselves from the air duct and stood rubbing their aching muscles. Fanka swung her arms in circles to get the blood moving, and Steiner's back let out a crack as he stretched himself.
——
"Let's hurry," I said, opening the door to peek out. I waved them after me, and we went single file and down the staircase as fast as their stiff legs would allow. They stood behind me, watching anxiously, while I found the right key from the ring in my hands; then I had the street door open, and they were stepping out into the fresh night air.
——
"You know the address," I whispered. "Go through the coal chute on the left side of the house and wait for me in the basement. I'll be over first thing in the morning. Go! Stay in the shadows, and God bless you."
——
In a moment, they had disappeared into the darkness. I locked the door again, returned the keys to the major's room, and then threw myself onto my own bed, telling myself that they would make it. I did not allow myself to imagine otherwise.
——
Before I fell asleep, I felt a surge of triumph: Rokita thought Ternopol was judenrein tonight, that his Aktions had rid the city of Jews once and for all. But I had taken action myself. There were at least six Jews left in town. As long as I could help it, Ternopol would never be judenrein.
——
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 planters 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 wooded 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 merged 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, 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.

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Table of Contents

Tears 1
Part 1 I Was Almost Fast Enough 3
Part 2 Finding Wings 69
Part 3 Where Could I Come to Rest? 207
Amber 235
Postscript 237
Polish: A Rough Guide to Pronunciation 239
German: A Rough Guide to Pronunciation 241
Some Historical Background 243
A Note on the Writing of This Book 247
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Introduction

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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Foreword

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? Forexample, 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<ETH>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<ETH>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<ETH>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?

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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?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2006

    Excellant!

    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!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2005

    A MUST READ BOOK!!

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2001

    A must read!

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2001

    a book that cannot be missed

    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

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2001

    the most realistic

    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

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2001

    touching and well written acount

    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

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2000

    A Compelling Story Telling of a Sacrifice for Friendship

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2000

    Something you can't pass up

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2000

    Little-Known Polish Aid to Jews During WWII

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2000

    It will change your life

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2000

    great book

    this book is really interesting, i read it all in one sitting, i just couldn't put it down

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 1999

    Fabulous-Humanitarian-------human being!!!!!!!!!!

    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.........

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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