In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer – Irene Gut Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong

I read this book recently, it only took me a day and a half, I couldn’t put it down. If you’re a regular reader here, you know I’ve read lots of first-hand Holocaust accounts and like many others, this book sucked me in, made the experiences very real to me and even had me reading a great number of it aloud to a certain husband who was equally intriqued.

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer – Irene Gut Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong

Irene Gut was a good Catholic girl from Western Poland. She didn’t start out with a goal to save people’s lives and end up as a resistance fighter, it just happened that way. Doing one right thing led to another and before you knew it, she was hiding 10 Jewish people in the basement of the Nazi officer’s home… right under his nose.

She was only sixteen when she left home to go to nursing school in 1938 Radom, Poland. The first year went pretty much without incident as she threw herself into her work but not long into her second, the war in Poland errupted and her life was suddenly in shambles. She traveled with a group of nurses and Polish soldiers, caught between Germany in the West and the Russians in the East. A group of Russian soldiers captured her, beat her, raped her, and left her for dead in the cold snow.

It wasn’t long before another group picked her up and took her to a hospital. It was here that she recovered and began her long years of working for the enemy… both of them. She worked hard first in a hospital run by the Russians and when things happened there and she had to get away, she worked with a single doctor in a small village for a year. She soon headed back to try and find her family but instead was yanked out of church on the German side and put to work in a factory. One thing led to another and she ended up working in the kitchen and housekeeping departments for a German officer. With more resources at her disposal, she began leaving food for people in the Ghetto which was right behind the hotel she worked in and from there her resistance activities escalted until the end of the war for Poland. She had saved at least 16 lives directly and many, many more indirectly (by feeding information to the ghetto about aktions and roundups, etc, warning the people to try and escape or to hide, etc. There were many risks and costs involved for her during this time as well, she was even forced to become the officer’s mistress when he found out about the people in the basement towards the end of the war. She also had one of her sisters with her and looked after her, even making the decision to send her back to their aunt when the local labor camp’s commandant (a very evil man) took an interest in her. She did not see her sister again for forty years. The good Catholic girl once “confessed” to a priest. He told her that it was a mortal sin to be this major’s mistress and harbor the Jews and that she should get rid of them instead. Even the priest was evil, not caring about the lives of these ten people.

Even after the Germans began retreating, the Russians began moving farther West, and her Jewish friends were safe, Irene knew she had to continue with resistance work and joined up with some Polish partisans fighting against both the Germans and the Russians. After a few years of this work, a lost love, and many sicknesses, she set out to find her family again. During this time, she was captured by the Russians and interoggated until she escaped and it was in this time that she began to discover just how far her efforts had reached and many people who had been indirectly saved by her in turn now cared for her. Ironically, now needing to get out of Poland (because the Russians were still looking for her), her friends dyed her hair black and gave her false papers identifying her as a Jewish woman and send her into Germany. She worked at a displaced person’s camp for about three years before meeting with a UN respresentative who, at his own suggestion, helped her get to the United States. A chance running into him in New York about 6 years later, they were soon married.

She was inducted into the Righteous Among the Nations and has a tree on the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Israel. In 1984, she was finally able to be reunited with her four younger sisters. If it is one thing I wish the book had covered more, it would be a bit about what happened to her sisters during the war and afterward. Irene had not been able to receive any letters of them during the war and with Poland being behind the Iron Curtain for so many years, she did not have any news of them during that time.

I enjoyed this book about as much as one can enjoy a book about evil, horror, and sadness.

There is one passage that will remain seared in my brain forever… Irene and her sister traveled with their new friend Helen and her mother to “a nearby village” in the hopes of finding Helen’s husband, a Jewish man, they had heard that the Nazis were bringing many Jews to this village and many, many people came to try and find their loved ones. As the women were chased away by Nazi guns, they hid in an abandoned house.

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.

What happened to the rest of the people? They were led out of the village, those who were not fast enough were shot on the spot, but outside the village, all were shot. All.

This image also stayed with the author for her entire life and seems to be one of the driving forces of her resistance and she often recalls it… when she’s riding the train home, for example, she sees something out of the corner of her eye, and for a moment, she thinks it is happening again. We now understand, at that point, what she meant in the very beginning of the book, in the introduction:

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.
How can I tell you about this war? How can I say these things? If I tell you all at once – first this happened, and then this, and these people died and those people lived and then it was over – you will not believe me. 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. We wore masks and spoke lines that were not our own. This happned to me, and yet I still don’t understand how it happened at all.

There’s a lot to learn from this book though – it’s another reminder of the evil that humans are capable of, another reminder of the past so we don’t repeat it. But more important, it’s a reminder that one person can make a difference. Even if you don’t see the results of your actions now, trust that they are there, they do exist. Your life reaches more people than you will ever realize, make it worthwhile. She was only a girl, she says several times. When the war was over, she was younger than I am now. But she made a difference, in at least the lives of those sixteen people she directly saved and the lives of at least two who are mentioned that she indirectly saved… and all their descendants (including and especially one certain baby conceived during the war while in hiding), friends, relatives… She made a difference.

More:

2001 Interview with Irene Gut Opdyke
Nazi Officer’s Mistress Risked Her Life to Save Jews
Teenage Nurse Rescued Jews During the Holocaust