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In My Hands

Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer

Written by Irene Gut OpdykeAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Irene Gut Opdyke
As told to Jennifer ArmstrongAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jennifer Armstrong

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In My Hands began as one non-Jew’s challenge to any who would deny the Holocaust. Much like The Diary of Anne Frank, it has become a profound document of an individual’s heroism in the face of the greatest evil mankind has known.

In the fall of 1939 the Nazis invaded Irene Gut’s beloved Poland, ending her training as a nurse and thrusting the sixteen-year-old Catholic girl into a world of degradation that somehow gave her the strength to accomplish what amounted to miracles. Forced into the service of the German army, young Irene was able, due in part to her Aryan good looks, to use her position as a servant in an officers’ club to steal food and supplies (and even information overheard at the officers’ tables) for the Jews in the ghetto. She smuggled Jews out of the work camps, ultimately hiding a dozen people in the home of a Nazi major for whom she was housekeeper.

An important addition to the literature of human survival and heroism, In My Hands is further proof of why, in spite of everything, we must believe in the goodness of people.


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, and wondering 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.
Jennifer Armstrong

About Jennifer Armstrong

Jennifer Armstrong - In My Hands

Photo © Tom Stock, Stock Studios Photography

“Why do I write historical fiction? Johnny Tremain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphins—that’s why. I'll never forget how it felt to read those books. I want to write books with the same power to transport readers into another time and place.”—Jennifer Armstrong

Jennifer Armstrong is the winner of the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. Many of her books have been designated as Notable Books by the American Library Association and the International Reading Association.
Ever since the first grade, Jennifer Armstrong knew that she would become an author. She loved making up stories and sharing them with others. Her family treasured books and this led her to become an avid reader of all types of fiction. It was no surprise when she chose to study English and American literature at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Armstrong is the author of over 50 books for children from kindergarten through high school. Best known for writing historical fiction, she has also been successful in creating picture books, easy readers, chapter books, young adult novels, as well as nonfiction.

Armstrong, who grew up outside of New York City, now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

For more information on Jennifer Armstrong, visit her website at www.jennifer-armstrong.com, or read her blog at www.jennifer-armstrong.blogspot.com.
Praise | Awards


“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


WINNER YALSA Best Books for Young Adults
WINNER ALA Best Books for Young Adults
WINNER New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

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.

About the Guide

When the Nazi army invades Poland in 1939, Irene Gut is a seventeen-year-old student nurse. She is studious, young, and pretty, a good Catholic girl and close to her loving parents and three younger sisters--her life thus far is as remote as possible from the horrors of war. Yet, despite her youth, she is also fiercely loyal to her beautiful Poland and committed in her soul to helping others. So it is without hesitation that she volunteers to join the Polish army in its fight against the Germans. When the Polish army surrenders, Irene is exiled with other soldiers to the Lithuanian forest (now part of Russia) and roams from town to town bartering for supplies. On one such bartering mission she is raped, beaten, and left for dead by Russian soldiers. But Irene survives. She endures internment in a Russian hospital and exile in Kiev and is able to return to German-occupied Poland to be reunited briefly with her family. This period of happiness is short-lived: she is assigned to work for Major Eduard Rügemer of the German army, who is responsible for an ammunitions factory compound. Irene serves meals to Nazi soldiers and supervises the Jewish workers in the laundry. She begins to take actions to help the Jews suffering in the ghetto just beyond the compound's walls. And, ultimately, her relatively comfortable position and favored relationship with the major give her the opportunity to save the Jews who work in the laundry--her friends--from extermination by the Nazis. At every turn Irene is faced with another impossible challenge, another degradation, more evil. Each time, instead of breaking, she becomes braver and more resolute in her determination to fight for her friends, for her country, for what is right. Irene's breathtaking story is a testament to the possibility of good in mankind, and her strength of spirit lingers in the reader's mind long after the final page of her memoir. Jennifer Armstrong's beautiful rendering of Irene's story does justice to its subject: it is poetic yet cruelly frank--just as Irene's humanity looms large in the face of the most unspeakable evils of the twentieth century.

About the Author

Irene Gut Opdyke was named by the Israeli Holocaust Commission as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a title given to those who risked their lives by aiding and saving Jews during the Holocaust, and was presented with the Israel Medal of Honor, Israel's highest tribute, in a ceremony at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. The Vatican has given her a special commendation, and her story is part of a permanent exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Irene Gut Opdyke continues to share her story in talks around the country. She lives in Yorba Linda, California.

Jennifer Armstrong is an award-winning author of historical fiction. Her books include Black-Eyed Susan, The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, and Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Discussion Guides

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<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?

Teacher's Guide


In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer recounts the heroic life of Irene Gut Opdyke, a young woman living in Poland during World War II who risked her life to save many Jews who otherwise would have perished in Nazi concentration camps.

On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. As Irene's native land is devastated by the Germans and the Russians, Irene chooses to fight. She 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" (p. 126). While studying to be a nurse, away from her family and home, she is suddenly forced into a completely different world. The Poland she knew and loved no longer existed.

At a time when she should have been thinking about school and dreaming about her future, Irene thought only of war: "I only wanted not to die in too much pain, and to foil the Germans as much as I could before I went" (p. 127). Her ability to speak German and her good looks worked to her advantage both in regards to her own survival as well as in her efforts against the Nazis. As she was blond, blue-eyed and spoke German, Irene never aroused suspicion as a resistance fighter. She was forced to work for the German army first at a munitions plant and later in an officer's dining room in a hotel near the town's Jewish ghetto. It was here that she overheard information regarding the Germans plans for the Jews in the ghetto. Beginning with putting food under a fence in the Jewish ghetto, she gradually took more and more risks, smuggling Jews to hiding places in Poland's forests. Ultimately, her most audacious act of rescue was to hide a group of twelve Jews in the basement of her employer, a Nazi major. Eventually she joined a group of partisan freedom fighters. "I had been living as a resistance fighter for so long, I could no longer imagine anything else. I would continue to fight. That was my life. That was the life I wanted to lead, struggling against the enemies of Poland" (p. 204).

When the Germans retreated from Poland in 1944, her worries didn't end. She was arrested by the Soviets as a member of the resistance. She escaped once again, and the Jews she saved returned the favor and ensured her survival by disguising her as a Jew and sending her to a camp for displaced persons in Germany. She emigrated to the United States in 1949. Irene's compelling story touches on every aspect of the war–the destruction of Poland, the unreal nature of war, the cruelty of the invading armies towards the Poles and the Jews, the dangers and the triumphs of being a woman in the resistance, and the incredible risks involved in helping and rescuing Jews during war.

At the conclusion of In My Hands, Irene defines her mission for the reader: "This is my will: to do right; to tell you; and to remember" (p. 236). In telling her story, Irene hopes not only to teach people about what happened during World War II, but to teach them the lessons of resistance. She shares her memories to keep them alive in others, to prevent something like the Holocaust from ever happening again, and to rouse people to action if it ever does. Despite the seemingly insurmountable circumstances of war, individuals can choose, as Irene courageously did, "to do right."


Irene Gut Opdyke currently lives in California and tours the country speaking about her experiences. She was named by the Israeli Holocaust Commission as one of the righteous among the nations and was presented with the Medal of Honor, Israel's highest honor. Her story is part of a permanent exhibit in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She has received awards from numerous Jewish groups and holds an honorary degree from Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

After the war, she came to the United States in 1949 and worked in a garment factory in New York. By chance, she bumped into William Opdyke, a U.N. delegate who had interviewed her in Germany about her wartime experiences. They later married and had one daughter.

Jennifer Armstrong has written several works of historical fiction, including Black-Eyed Susan, The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, and Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. In writing In My Hands, she drew on history as well as conversations with Ms. Opdyke. She is the winner of the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction and several of her books have been designated as Notable Books by the American Library Association and the International Reading Association. She currently lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.


The questions that follow are intended to guide your students through In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer. Irene Gut Opdyke's story will engage your students in discussions of World War II, the Holocaust, the roles of women in war, the effects of war, and most importantly, personal courage. The following discussion points explore WWII history and its importance to the story, test reading comprehension, offer themes for more in-depth discussion, and suggest additional memoirs of personal experiences during the war as well as books focusing on WWII and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.


Understanding WWII and Its Role in the Story
Please note that the book contains a brief, helpful section providing the key points of history which serve as a backdrop for Irene's story in addition to a map showing how Poland was divided after the German invasion in 1939 (pages 243-245).

Through a joint declaration issued on March 31, 1939, Britain and France attempted to guarantee protection for Poland. They enlisted the Soviets in protecting Poland, but negotiations fell apart. Hitler offered the Soviets a slice of Eastern Poland if they let Germany invade Poland from the West without interference. On August 22, 1939, Foreign ministers from Russia and Germany, Molotov and Ribbentrop, signed a non-aggression pact. The end result opened the door to Poland for the Germans and would allow the Soviets to eventually annex Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

On August 25th, 1939 Britain entered into a formal alliance with Poland, guaranteeing protection against aggression by a third party. Using the pretense of Polish aggression to attack, Hitler, invaded Poland on September 1st and by September 3rd, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. The Soviets invaded eastern Poland on September 17th and Warsaw fell to the Germans by September 27th. A new Polish government formed in exile. The Poland Irene Gut Opdyke knew and loved ceased to exist by October 6th.

As is noted in the brief history chapter in the book, Germany's invasion pushed the German-Polish border East and the Germans annexed outright a large part of Western Poland. Irene painfully describes the course of events: "The carnage was staggering. Germany had claimed western Poland, chewed it up, and swallowed it in one gulp" (p. 22). What was left of a Polish State was under German martial law. This area, known as the General Gouvernment, held the greatest concentration of death and prison camps.

Also noted is the difference between the Germany army, called the Wermacht, and the Schutzstaffel (SS), the political police of the Nazi party. The different agendas of these two groups are both apparent and important in the book. While one group needed labor, the other group was dedicated to making Germany judenrein (free of Jews). Major Rügemer was an officer of the Wehrmacht and Rokita an officer of the SS.

Once in power, the Germans systematically brought tremendous suffering and death to both Jews and Poles. By the time they retreated in 1944, approximately six million people had died in Poland and nearly three million of them were Jews. Towards the end of the book, Irene describes what it was like to travel through Poland after the Germans had left. "I began to understand more fully what had been done to Poland. Word spread about what the Allies were finding in the countryside, about the scale of the Nazis' extermination camps....Poland had been turned into the land of death. We who traveled across it in those days felt that we walked on graves wherever we stepped" (p. 219).

1. What are Irene's feelings towards Poland before the invasion? What is the significance of the "Tears" chapter which opens the book and how does it relate to Polish history? What does Irene's summary of Polish history on page 13 reveal about her feelings towards Poland? Describe the loyalty she and her family feel so passionately towards their native country.

2. Irene and her family lived in Upper Silesia, six kilometers from the German border. Why is this fact important later in regards to her survival?

3. Early in her story, Irene can't believe that the Germans are capable of such evil. She explains, "...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" (p. 17). Discuss the moments in the book when she begins to realize what is happening to the Jews in Poland.

4. What do we learn about the Holocaust through Irene's story? How does she feel when she begins to understand the German's plans for the Jews? (For example, page 91) Does she fear that the Poles will suffer the same fate?

5. When does she realize what happens to those who help Jews and how does it affect her actions? Discuss Irene's reaction to the scene on page 186 in which she witnesses the punishment of a family discovered helping Jews. Why does she continue in her efforts after she sees the lethal consequences?

6. When the war begins, Irene is forced into the Russian-controlled area of Poland (pp. 30-32). Discuss what happens to her at the hands of the Russians. When the Russians first capture her, she is held as prisoner in a hospital (pp. 33-41). What does she learn during this time that helps her to survive later? Compare these circumstances with her later encounters with the Russian army on pages 56-61 and finally on page 222 when she is captured for the final time. What do we learn about the Poles' attitudes towards Russia through Irene? After the Germans have retreated at the end of the war, Irene explains, "I learned that all of Poland had been turned over to the Soviets. We had been 'liberated,' whatever that meant" (p. 218). Why does she question Poland's "liberation" from the Germans by the Soviets?

7. How do the Germans treat her and in what ways does her life differ under German occupation? How do the Germans exercise their power? What does she do to survive in German-controlled Poland? What are some of the consequences of the German occupation of Poland? (for example p. 219)

8. When the Germans invade Poland, Irene loses touch with everything – her family, any sense of familiarity, the Poland she once knew. She explains, "Sometimes I wonder if these things could have happened. Was it me? Was that girl me? Was I really there? Did I see this happening? In the war, everything was unnatural and unreal ....This happened to me, and yet I still don't understand how it happened at all" (p. 1). Characterize what life is like during wartime. Discuss how Irene views the war and what she does to adapt to the new reality to survive. How does Irene initially react to her new circumstances?

Understanding the Story

1. How does the opening chapter, "Tears," relate to the "Amber" chapter that closes the book? How does the symbol of amber change from the beginning of the story to its conclusion? What does she mean when she says, "...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" (p. 235)?

2. Irene introduces the reader to Poland through the eyes of a child. What image does the reader get of Poland before the War? For example, what feeling about Poland does she intend to convey with the story of her parents' meeting (p. 6)?

3. In the chapter entitled, "Tears," Irene asks herself "...was it me? Was that girl me.... we wore masks and spoke lines that were not their own" (p. 1). Find examples in the text in which Irene wears "masks" and speaks lines which were not her own. What role does she finally define for herself?

4. The reader learns of Irene's childhood through her memories. As she explains later, "now I look back as an old woman, and with one old hand over my brow to shield my eyes from the glare, I receive my past" (p. 235). In a sense, she remembers her childhood in terms of what she later becomes. For example, in her earliest memory, she is saved by the family dog from drowning and her family's response was that she was not meant to die because God had plans for her (p. 7). Find other examples in the text in which the young Irene foresees her future.

5. Irene's thoughts are not those of a typical teenager and she thinks of herself exclusively through her role as a rescuer. Find moments when Irene gathers strength from this image of herself. For example, she says, "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." Why does she refer to herself as a mother hen? (examples, pp. 196, 221).

6. How does she feel about herself after she knows the Jews she hid will survive? She explains: "Shouldn't I have been happy? But I was oddly dejected, because my great and righteous undertaking was finished" (p. 203). Note on the very next page that she says she has found her calling, a new mission. One "project" is over, but she takes on the even larger task of fighting for Poland. Irene assumes this role again and again. After the war, does Irene continue her efforts? If so, how?

7. The metaphor of a bird appears frequently in the story and it changes as Irene has new experiences. Find examples of this metaphor in the text and discuss how it reflects the changing situation in Poland and how Irene herself changes. How does this metaphor help tie the narrative together?

8. While she is held prisoner by the Russians, Irene remembers Bociek, the stork she and her sisters saved when she was a child (pp. 9-10). Why does she remember the bird at that particular moment? What is it about the bird that she admires (p. 224)?

9. On the very first page of Irene's story, the reference to a bird signifies a horrible scene she witnessed during the war, "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 the wheat field, but you can't understand what it was yet" (p.1) Why does she begin and end her story with a reference to this incident? What does she need to make the reader understand?

a. The actual incident occurs when a soldier viciously throws a baby into the air and shoots it, "... and something rose into 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..." (p. 104). The other people Irene is with when she sees this happen turn away from the horror of the scene, but Irene continues to look. Why does Irene watch?

b. This chapter concludes with silence. Irene and the others do not discuss what they saw, but keep the secret until they "could bring it out, and show it to others, and say, 'Behold. This is the worst thing man can do'" (p. 105). How does this particular story inspire her actions in later life? How does she "show it to others" and what does she hope to accomplish by doing so?

c. This story resurfaces again at the end of the book on p. 236. In this instance, however, Irene refers to the incident in a different way. How does the story differ? As opposed to a baby cruelly killed, what does the bird now signify? She describes "a little bird released from a cage, and it flies away, rising higher and higher over the treetops, and over the roofs of the houses....It is a little bird flying. A sparrow soaring." Immediately following this she expresses her intent in telling her story: "To do right, to tell you, and to remember." What is the connection between the story of the baby/bird and her intention in telling her story? Does the soaring sparrow represent Irene or is she the little girl who nurtures the bird and watches it as it flies away to freedom? How does this story show what Irene experienced in the war and how it changed her?

10. In what ways does Irene's gender influence her actions? When does it hinder or help her? What is her attitude towards being a woman and taking risks?

a. Irene is left for dead by Russian soldiers after she is brutally raped and beaten (pp 31-32). Discuss her reaction to the rape. She says "I did not die," but what does happen to her? How does it change her? How does her family react when she tells them what happened (pp 73-74)?

b. She is also forced into a sexual relationship with Major Rügemer to protect the Jews hiding in the basement of the house. She describes this relationship as "worse than rape." In what ways is it worse? Does she feel as if she had a choice in the situation? How does she think those she is trying to save will react to her sacrifice (p. 191)?

c. How does she feel about the supposed "weakness" of being a girl? How does she use it to her advantage? Note one chapter is entitled, "Only a girl." What does that really mean to Irene? She says, "I was only a girl, alone among the enemy. What could I do?" (p. 108) yet a page later she says, "I was only a girl, nobody paid much attention to me" (p. 110). How is this invisibility now a strength? Find other examples in the text when she realizes that this perception that she was "only a girl" actually empowers her.

11. Discuss Irene's views on religion.

a. Irene frequently goes to church and confession. How does she feel about religion? Does she find solace in her faith? Does her faith motivate her?

b. Note her comments regarding the nuns on p. 15. Is it spirituality that attracts her to the Catholic faith or does she admire other qualities in religious people?

c. Irene encounters two priests during the course of the narrative. Discuss her confession on page 192. How does she react to the priest's response? "I had not received consolation from the priest, but I had God's blessing. I was never more sure of anything" (p. 193). Why does she feel that she has God's blessing?

d. She also meets a priest on her trips to the forest smuggling people and goods. Characterize their relationship. Is he aware of her activities (pp. 131-132)? Although this isn't a traditional confession, she does open up to the priest and tell him her story. Why does she feel that she can trust him? Does she trust him completely?

e. After witnessing the horror and cruelty of war, does she question God? Find examples. If she does question God, how does she resolve her feelings and return to her faith to conclude her story with the words "Go with God" (p. 236)?

12. What is the significance of Irene's time in Svetlana? What important skills does she learn?

13. How does Irene feel about Schulz? What is the importance of their relationship? Why does she suspect he knows what she is doing? (for example, p. 91 or p. 118)

14. Discuss Irene's dream on pages 116-117? What might it mean? Is there any significance that she has this dream right after she saves Fanka? What does the grain represent? Why is she panicked that it is spilling out of her hands? Does this dream have any connection to her efforts to save Jews from the concentration camps?

15. Discuss other aspects of her relationship with the major. What are his feelings for Irene? How does Irene feel about him? Why does he go and visit Irene's "cousin"? Does he trust her? Do you think when he leaves her at the hotel that he knows that it will be the last time he ever sees her (p. 206)? Although he takes advantage of Irene, why in the end does she feel a certain tenderness for the major? What happens to him?

16. What role does Janek play in her life? Are these the only moments in the story when we see Irene enjoying her youth? (example, p. 215)

In-Depth Discussion

1. Why does she feel the fate of these Jews are entirely in her hands? For example, she says "How could I presume to be their savior? And yet I had promised. I had to do it" (p. 145) Discuss what motivates Irene to take these incredible risks. Is it moral outrage? Is it her faith in God?

2. Discuss and document Irene's development as a rescuer/freedom fighter. " 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 cross-road; I must take the right path, or I would no longer be myself" (p. 126). What is her first small step? How does she gradually increase the risks she takes? What skills does she acquire to succeed? Who are the people who help her in her efforts? For example, how do her relationships with Helen or Zygmunt, her "cousin" who lives in the forest, advance her efforts? How does the telling of her story relate to her resistance during the war?

3. Is there a relationship between the Jews she saves and her family? What role do these people play in her life as she loses touch with her parents and her sisters? She misses them desperately and risks her life to find them, yet why does the reader only learn of their fate in the postscript? How do her sisters survive? Why do they stay in Poland? What was her marriage like? What was it like to find oneself in California after the horrors of war that she witnessed? Why does Irene leave these questions unanswered? What is the most important message that Irene wants to convey?


1. In the "Tears" chapter that begins the book, the history of Poland is discussed in an allegory about amber, "…so I must tell you slowly. Slowly, and with everything fine and clear. I will start at the beginning, because it started long ago." What started long ago? Discuss the history of Poland and its relations with Russia and Germany and how the country's history led to the situation that resulted in World War II. What happened to the Polish government during the war? Why was Poland so vulnerable to invasion? What happened to Poland after the war? What was Poland's relationship with Russia after the war?

2. Assign other memoirs to compare different experiences of World War II. What was it like for Jews in other countries? What was it like being in a concentration camp? What were the resistance efforts like in other countries? Other suggested titles include: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Night by Elie Weisel, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal, Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe by Leo Bretholz, The Avengers by Rich Cohen, I Will Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer, Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally, and Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Kluger.

3. Use the book as a starting point for a larger discussion about the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Irene includes several details about the progress of the war in her story. Possible discussion topics include Hitler, the Nazi party, the Holocaust, actions Germany took in other European countries, resistance efforts, etc.... Suggested books include: Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler and the Holocaust by Robert Wistrich, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer.

4. When Irene is in Germany after the war, she meets a group of people who are living in Israel. She describes them: "A group of young, strong people, men and women, arrived at our camp. They were outdoor people, tanned and fit, who spoke Hebrew with their own accent. They were Jews from Palestine, and they called themselves Israelis." Discuss the history of Palestine and the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948. After discussing the history, review with students the current situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.


In addition to the memoirs and history titles listed above, Maus: A Survivors Tale (Volumes 1 and 2) by Art Spiegelman, The Second World War by John Keegan, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by Eva Fogelman, The Holocaust: The History of the Jews in Europe During the Second World War by Martin Gilbert, The War against the Jews by David Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto by David Sierakowiak, Reporting World War II (volumes 1 and 2) published by The Library of America, That the Nightingale Return: Memoir of the Polish Resistance, the Warsaw Uprising and the German POW Camps by Leokadia Rowinski, Alicia: My Story by Alicia Appleman-Jurman, Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter by Kazik Simha Rotem. Young adult memoirs include No Pretty Picture: A Child of War by Anita Lobel, Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Suvivor by Judith Magyar Isaacson; Tell them We Remember: The Story of the Holocaust by Susan D. Bachrach, and Four Pefect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story by Lila Perl.


This teacher's guide was written by Karen Iker. Karen Iker has a master's degree in American literature and has worked in the book publishing industry for ten years.

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