After being rounded up outside of church one Sunday, Irene was put to work for the German Army. Her blond hair, her blue eyes, her youth—these bought her the relative safe job of kitchen helper and waitress in an officers' dining room. But behind this Aryan mask, Irene began to wage her own war. She picked up snatches of conversation along with the Nazi's dirty dishes and passed the information to Jews in the ghetto. She raided the German Warenhaus for food and blankets. She smuggled Jews from the work camp into the forest. And , when she was made the housekeeper for a Nazi Major, she managed to hide twelve people in the basement of his home and to keep them safe there until the Germans' defeat.
Irene Gut Updyke has received many honors for her actions: Israel's Medal of Honor, recognition from the Vatican, a permanent place in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But this memoir, masterfully written by Jennifer Armstrong, strips away the laudatory titles—Holocaust Rescuer, Righteous Gentile—and reveals the woman herself. Just a girl, really. A girl who saw evil around her and chose to defy it. A girl who proves that the actions of one good person can make a difference; that the will to protect is every bit as powerful as the will to destroy.
Ms. Opdyke began to share her story onlyrecently—after hearing the holocaust denounced as a hoax, or propaganda. She now travels the country, speaking about her experiences. Her favorite audience is young people—people who are now the same age she was when the war began. These are the people who are now the same age she was when the war began. These are the people Irene most hopes to empower with the message that each of us can, and must, decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, and behave accordingly.
About the Author
Irene Gut Opdyke (1922–2003) was named by the Israeli Holocaust Commission one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a title given to those who risked their lives by aiding and saving Jews during the Holocaust. She was granted the Israel Medal of Honor, Israel’s highest tribute, in a ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. The Vatican honored her with a special commendation. And her story is part of the permanent exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Armstrong is an award-winning author, perhaps best known for her books of history and historical fiction. Those books include The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History, Shattered, and Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World.
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 . . ."
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.
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.
Table of Contents
|Part 1||I Was Almost Fast Enough||3|
|Part 2||Finding Wings||69|
|Part 3||Where Could I Come to Rest?||207|
|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|
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 rescuerresponsible for saving twelve Jewsportrays with stunning vividness the triumph of a real-life heroine over the grossest of human atrocities.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wonderful read! Couldn't put it down.
Wonderful book. May it continue to be read so her story is never forgotten
** 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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
this book is really interesting, i read it all in one sitting, i just couldn't put it down
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.........