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In My Hands
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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
| Anchor | Trade Paperback | April 2001 | $14.95 | 978-0-385-72032-8 (0-385-72032-7)

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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, " 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.