In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer By Irene Gut Opdyke


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    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.

    Through this intimate and compelling memoir, we are witness to the growth of a hero. Irene Gut was just a girl when the war began: seventeen, a Polish patriot, a student nurse, a good Catholic girl. As the war progressed, the soldiers of two countries stripped her of all she loved -- her family, her home, her innocence -- but the degradations only strengthened her will.

    She began to fight back. Irene was forced to work for the German Army, but her blond hair, her blue eyes, and her youth bought her the relatively safe job of waitress in an officers' dining room. She would use this Aryan mask as both a shield and a sword: She picked up snatches of conversation along with the Nazis' dirty dishes and passed the information to Jews in the ghetto. She raided the German Warenhaus for food and blankets. She smuggled people from the work camp into the forest. And, when she was made the housekeeper of a Nazi major, she successfully hid twelve Jews in the basement of his home until the Germans' defeat.

    This young woman was determined to deliver her friends from evil. It was as simple and as impossible as that. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer

    Kurt Vonnegut has defined a saint as a person who behave[s:] decently in a strikingly indecent society. By his definition, Irene Gut Opdyke is a saint. I think there are more than a few people who would agree.

    I had the pleasure of seeing an adaptation of this on Broadway, and got incredibly lucky: the author's daughter was in the house that night and hosted a Q&A session after the show. It was during this session that she revealed a few remarkable stories the book doesn't touch on...

    As regards Major Rugemer: The book mentions that upon his return to his hometown, his wife (having heard of his indiscretions) wanted nothing to do with him, and neither did the town (having heard rumors of his being a Jew sympathizer). He lived on the streets, homeless and outcast, until the Hallers heard of his condition and took him in. He lived with them until his death. (I consider this show of kindness in the face of the preceding circumstances a testament to the power of goodness and forgiveness, and absolutely breathtaking.)

    As regards Irene finally speaking out about her story: Her daughter, Janina knew nothing of her mother's experiences until her teenage years, when they received a phone call from an individual claiming to be randomly polling people to find out if they thought the Holocaust actually happened or if they believed it was a ploy on the part of the Jews to gain sympathy. It was at this point that Irene broke her silence and related her story. As a witness, she realized she had to speak out, to testify to what she had seen and experienced so that she could erase some of that ignorance, that doubt, that blindness that so many in the population desperately cling to. Also, she felt the overwhelming messages of the power of love and forgiveness and hope were worth sharing.

    As regards Irene being reconnected with her sisters: I do not believe in coincidence. Things happen when they do for a reason. It so happens that a Polish couple that had gone to see the show were going to be traveling to Poland and offered to try to find Irene's sisters for her. She gave the couple her sisters' names, but did not hope for much, as they had all been single last she had seen them and had probably remarried, taken on new names, and would be impossible to find. She promptly forgot about the couple and their task. The couple traveled to Poland and checked with the Embassy, the Consulate, everyone and everywhere, to no avail. Then, on their way to the airport, they stopped at a corner store to buy snacks for the flight, and on a whim asked the proprietor if he knew any of the women on the list. He apologized that no, he did not, but just then a woman came rushing out from the back room - let me see that list! Yes! These names... these are my sisters! And this one is me! Information was exchanged, and after nearly forty years, Irene was reunited with her family. Karmic justice is breathtaking.

    This was a profoundly moving work that I think could raise a lot of compelling issues, and one I would like to expose my kids to (and think they would enjoy!). In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer There was a bird flushed up from the wheat fields, disappearing in a blur of wings against the sun, and then a gunshot and it fell to the earth. But it was not a bird. It was not a bird, and it was not in a wheat field, but you can't understand what it was yet.

    When I understood what the bird was, it was one of the most chilling things that I have ever read.

    This is the story of a Catholic girl in Poland. In 1939 when Poland is invaded, she is 16 years old and training to be a nurse. Like Poland itself, she is brutalized by Russians and Germans.

    Despite her own hardships, she is not blind to what is happening to the Jews. She manages to escape the slow death of a work camp because of her pretty face and her ability to speak German. She is placed as a servant in a Nazi officers' club.

    She sees the murder of Jews in the ghetto and decides to help. The most touching chapter in the book is when she fills a box with food (including potato peelings from the trash) and shoves it under a fence that leads to the ghetto. The next day the box is empty and she replaces it with a new box. It's just a drop in the ocean, but she feels she has to start somewhere. This is the beginning of a path that leads to hiding Jews and an incredible story of luck and courage.

    Why did she risk her own life to help? When so many others refused, why she did she choose to see?

    Reading books on the Holocaust remind me that real people survived and real people died. These aren't good vs. evil narratives concocted by storytellers to give us convenient heros and devils. Real heros are imperfect people who are able to look beyond their own survival to help someone else. Real devils are imperfect people who allow themselves to be numb to the pain they inflict. This numbness led to the murder of six million people and it is beyond comprehension. But, we need to try. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer I think this paragraph is the most eloquent description of why speaking about the Holocaust was/is so difficult for the survivors. We did not speak of what we had seen. At the time, to speak of it seemed worse than sacrilege: We had witnessed a thing so terrible that it acquired a dreadful holiness. It was a miracle of evil. It was not possible to say with words what we had witnessed, and so we kept it safely guarded until the time we could bring it out, and show it to others, and say, 'Behold. This is the worst thing man can do'.

    When a book is so well written and the story so compelling then it generally defies any age categorisation I would recommend this book over and above The Diary of Ann Frank, simply because this is a survivor's tale which coveys the full horror of such events. It was a privilege to read. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer I thought, ”Gosh, should I really read another holocaust memoir?” The answer is yes, and you should too, even if you have read a zillion already. You should read this memoir about what Irene Gut, a Catholic Polish girl of only seventeen, did to save others’ lives. Each person’s story is unique.

    You know why you can go on reading one holocaust story after another? It is because they show you not only the worst in man but also the best. Horrible things happened to Irene and she suffered just as you and I would. We are all only human, but she responded with bravery and help and kindness to others. Her suffering did not make her bitter and she refused to give up. At the same time, she recognizes the consequences of her own actions as a partisan.

    The story is told without melodrama. It is exact and it is succinct. This happened and then this and then that. The events speak for themselves. I like this. Don’t think that because it is matter-of-factly told you will be left unmoved.

    The story begins with how her parents met. She was their first child, born in 1922 in the village Kolzienice in eastern Poland, near the Ukraine border. She was followed by four more girls. The war years, the invasion of that part of Poland where she lived first by the Russians, then the Nazis and then the Russians again, is the primary focus of the book. The years after the war are briefly summarized – where Irene came to live (the USA, first NY and then California), whom she married (William Opdyke – a UN official) and what she did (gave lectures to school children).

    This is Irene Gut Opdyke’s story, as she told it to author Jennifer Armstrong. What we are told is true; facts have been verified. The book came out in 1992, almost fifty years after the war. This means of course that inconsequential details and even a few names had been forgotten. With Irene’s full support, the author has filled in the blank spots and given us Irene’s story as it should be told. That supplemented has in no way changed the truth of the events. Neither the central protagonists’ names nor the events have been altered. This is explained at the conclusion of the book. There follows also a chapter entitled Historical Background. It is short and discusses information pertinent to the political involvement and culpability of the people involved in Irene’s life.

    The audiobook is very well read by Hope Davis. The reading fits the text to a tee. The speed is good. It is movingly told, but not with over-dramatization.

    I want you to read this book. It is inspiring. Even during the worst of times people do make active choices determining what kind of person they want to be. Ultimately, what one person does affects another.
    In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer In My Hands in one of those books that you read and you can't get it out of your mind. This is the first novel I've read in quite some time that left me staying up all night until the darkness of sleep enveloped me.

    Irene's story is both an amazing adventure and an heroic tale of a woman who saved the lives of others by risking her own. It almost seems unbelievable that the things that happened to Irene could actually happen to one person. The entire book is filled with adventure and suspense. Irene Gut Opdyke is one of those rare people who make others want to strive to do their best and be their best. I thank the world there are people like Irene here to spread their light and inspiration throughout the land.


    On a technical note- Jennifer Armstrong does a tremendous job of bringing Irene's story into the limelight. It is her excellent writing that allows us to delve into Irene's life. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer

    I did not ask myself, Should I do this? But, How will I do this? Every step of my childhood had brought me to this crossroad; I must take the right path, or I would no longer be myself. 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. Now I was making plans to... (142-143)

    In My Hands is nonfiction--a memoir--and it's a powerful one. Full of descriptive images you might wish you'd never seen. But it's an important work, a necessary one. Our narrator, Irene Gut, was a Polish girl--a young woman training to be a nurse when the war burst into her life. The conflict between Germany and Russia stripping her of her childhood in more ways than one. Her account of what happened during the war years are powerful and haunting. But there is nothing over-the-top either. It's straightforward, spare, even.

    This is her description of the purging of the Poland of Jews (I believe we're speaking of the ghettos.)

    The gates were dragged open, and the Jewish prisoners were forced out through a gauntlet, while the guards beat at them with their rifle butts. An old man, tottering with a cane, was not fast enough, and a guard shot him on the spot. In vain, women tried to protect their small children from blows, men tried to shield their old fathers. But every time someone stumbled and fell under the beatings, shots rang out. The street was paved with bodies, and still the Jews were forced to march out over them.
    We watched this from our windows in a paralysis of horror. We could do nothing but watch. We could not even pull back from the glass to keep hidden. An old rabbi carrying the Torah stopped to help a young woman with a shrieking toddler, and all three were shot. A graybeard in a faded uniform of the Polish army from the last war limped past the guards, and he, too, was not fast enough. The sun shone down on all of them, and the dust settled in pools of blood.
    By this time, the four of us were crying uncontrollably. Helen was on her knees, sobbing in her mother's arms. Janina turned her face away. But I watched, flattening myself against the window. As I pressed against the glass, I saw an officer make a flinging movement with his arm, and something rose up into the sky like a fat bird. With his other hand he aimed his pistol, and the bird plummeted to the ground beside its screaming mother, and the officer shot the mother, too. But it was not a bird. It was not a bird. It was not a bird. (116-117)


    This is how she sums it up, We did not speak of what we had seen. At the time, to speak of it seemed worse than sacrilege: We had witnessed a thing so terrible that it acquired a dreadful holiness. It was a miracle of evil. It was not possible to say with words what we had witnessed, and so we kept it safely guarded until the time we could bring it out, and show it to others, and say, Behold. This is the worst thing man can do. (118)

    © Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer I have read many WW II memoirs and will continue to do so. The grit, determination, perseverance, and sheer will to live and to help others survive is educational and inspirational....and we always hope to break the cycle that history does not repeat itself by learning about historical events.

    Irene Gut Opdyke's story has a unique angle compared to most WW II memoirs because she was originally living in Poland and began training as a nurse. She experienced significant challenges, but not to the same degree as those who were sent to Auschwitz. Yet she was compelled to act and help others.

    My low rating is primarily a reflection of the writing style which did not always keep me as engaged as I typically am during a WW II memoir.

    In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer This is the first Holocaust memoir I had read from a Polish point of view, and I was truly captivated. I have never read a story about one person having so much good fortune and bad luck all at the same time, it was almost like it was straight out of Hollywood. The things she was subjected to do, the things she risked and her uncompromising need to do what was right despite the consequences makes it nearly impossible to set this book down. I would lay awake at night, anticipating what was going to happen next, and before I knew it, my light was on and that book was back in my hands. This woman has more strength, courage and faith in her pinkie than I could ever hope to have in my entire being. If you need reassurance that despite the evils in the world, there is still good left in humanity, read this book. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer 3 stars for the writing. 5 stars for the remarkable story.
    This is not a work of fiction. And it is a heartbreaking one.
    This is a recount of the author’s experience, who as a young Polish girl, hid and saved Jews during the Holocaust.
    This is the first time that I read a story from a rescuer and not from a survivor of the Holocaust.
    I rarely read non-fiction unless it has been recommended by a friend, which is this case.
    Although I was very engaged from the beginning, I thought that the writing was not very good or perhaps too simple. I missed something. I felt that the author held back her true emotions or perhaps the co-author wasn’t able to translate it into words. Or the fact that this book/memoir was written 50 years after the war had something to do with it.
    Regardless, this a powerful story, no doubt about it.
    Her story is remarkable.
    Her achievements and her courage are quite impressive, especially at such young age.
    And the atrocities that she witnessed are just unbelievable. I just can’t imagine how someone could cope with such vivid images for the rest of his/her life, as I’m sure those events are unforgettable.
    The most admirable thing about her is that she had a choice and hers was to help people the best way she could.
    If this story was on the hands of a good and experienced story teller I’m sure that this book would have been a tremendous success. It has all the ingredients. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer First - this is a true story as told by Irene Gut Opdyke (a Catholic Polish girl) with Jennifer Armstrong as the Author. I bought this book at a popular used book store not knowing anything about the story or how it was rated. About halfway through the book I did a google check on it. It was what I expected - mostly a 4 and a 5 rated book.
    Irene is a big time hero. BIG TIME. What she went through and did to save a good hand full of Jews from the Nazies was mind boggling.
    To read her story reads like a really good fiction book. As I said ---- THIS IS NONFICTION.
    The story begins with the birth of Irene - 1922 and quickly gets into 1938 and then the invasion of Germany and then Russia.
    IN MY HANDS is a worthwhile story to read. Actually, it should be a MUST READ on your list. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer

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