"No matter how many Holocaust stories one has read, this one is a must, for its impact is so powerful."School Library Journal, starred
I did not ask myself, "Should I do this?" but "How will I do this?"
Through this intimate and compelling memoir, we are witness to the growth of a hero. Much like The Diary of Anne Frank, In My Hands has become a profound testament to individual courage.
You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defierof the SS and the Nazis, all at once.
When the war began, Irene Gut was just seventeen: a student nurse, a Polish patriot, a good Catholic girl. Forced to work in a German officiers' dining hall, she learns how to fight back.
One's first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence.
Irene eavesdropped on the German's plans. She smuggled people out of the work camp. And she hid twelve Jews in the basement of a Nazi major's home. To deliver her friends from evil, this young woman did whatever it tookeven the impossible.
About the Author
Irene Gut Opdyke (1922–2003) was named by the Israeli Holocaust Commission one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a title given to those who risked their lives by aiding and saving Jews during the Holocaust. She was granted the Israel Medal of Honor, Israel’s highest tribute, in a ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. The Vatican honored her with a special commendation. And her story is part of the permanent exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Armstrong is an award-winning author, perhaps best known for her books of history and historical fiction. Those books include The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History, Shattered, and Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World.
Read an Excerpt
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 painters 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 wooden steps. "Hoo-ee! It's Irene!" I called out.
The first room was empty. Trying not to worry, I opened the door to the furnace room, praying to find my six friends and Henry Weinbaum. The door creaked as it swung open into the gloom, and I called out again.
There was an almost audible sigh of relief. One by one, figures emerged 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 then, 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.
I kicked the basement door shut on my way to let in the soldiers, and then unlocked the front door.
"This way," I said, stepping aside to usher them in with their painting equipment and drop cloths. When I glanced outside, I saw the major climbing out of a car.
"Guten Tag, Irene," he called cheerily.
I bobbed my head. "Herr Major."
"This is splendid," he said, rubbing his hands together as he came inside. "I'll move in in a week or so, when all the painting and repairs are finished, but in the meantime, I'd like you to move in right away, so that you can oversee things. Don't worry about your duties at the hotel if you can serve dinner, Schulz can manage without you the rest of the time."
As he spoke, Major Rügemer strolled back and forth across the hallway, glancing into the rooms and nodding his approval. His footsteps echoed off the walls, and he muttered, "Ja, ja, ausgezeichnet," under his breath. Then, when another truckload of soldiers arrived, he went outside to meet them and show them around the garden: There were renovations to be made on the grounds, as well. I stood at the dining room window, watching him point out the gazebo and indicate which shrubs and trees should be removed and where new ones should be planted. Behind me, I could hear the painters beginning to shove furniture across the floors, exchanging jokes and commenting on the weather and the sour cabbagey smell left behind by the previous tenants. I heard one of them say "...the major's girlfriend."
I gritted my teeth and prepared to spend the day keeping the soldiers away from the attic.
For the next few days, while the soldiers swarmed around the villa painting, repairing, replanting I contrived to smuggle food upstairs to the attic. I took fruit and cheese, cold tea, bread and nuts. I also took up two buckets to use for toilets. The attic was stuffy with the heat of summer, but we were reluctant to open the one window high on the wall. The fugitives had accustomed themselves to much more discomfort than this. They were willing to sit in the stifling heat, not speaking, just waiting. At night, when the workmen were gone and I had returned from the hotel, I was able to give my friends some minutes of liberty. They used the bathroom, stretched their legs, and bathed their sweating faces with cool water. But we did not turn on any lights, and we were still as silent as ghosts.
It wasn't long before the servants' quarters had been completely refurbished; I had seen to that. Telling the workmen that the major had ordered the work to be done from bottom to top, I directed them to start with the basement. Then, when it was finished, I waited until dark and triumphantly escorted my friends to their new quarters, fresh with the smell of sawdust and new paint instead of old cooking.
It was the start of a new way of life for all of us. Several of the men, being handy and intelligent, were able to rig up a warning system. A button was installed in the floor of the front entry foyer, under a faded rug. From it, a wire led to a light in the basement, which would flicker on and off when I stepped on the button. I kept the front door locked at all times, and when I went to see who might be knocking, I had ample opportunity to signal to the people in the basement. One flash would warn them to stand by for more news. Two flashes meant to be very careful, and constant flashing meant danger hide immediately. We had also found the villa's rumored hiding place: A tunnel led from behind the furnace to a bunker underneath the gazebo. If there was serious danger, everyone could instantly scramble into the hole and wait for me to give them the all clear. The cellar was kept clear of any signs of occupation. Once the men had killed all the rats living in the bunker under the gazebo, it could accommodate all ten people without too much discomfort.
There was food in plenty; Schulz kept the major's kitchen stocked with enough to feed a platoon, and once again, I could not help wondering if he had an inkling of what I was doing. I was also able to go to the Warenhaus whenever I needed to, for cigarettes, vodka, sugar, extra household goods, anything the major might conceivably need for entertaining in his new villa. Of course, the soldiers who ran the Warenhaus had no way of knowing that half of what I got there went directly into the basement, and I was certainly not going to tell them!
The basement was cool even in the intense summer heat; there was a bathroom, and newspapers, which I brought down after the major was finished with them. All in all, the residents of the basement enjoyed quite a luxurious hiding place.
And yet it almost fell apart when the major moved in at last.
"The basement is finished, isn't it?" he asked me when he arrived.
All the hairs on my arms prickled with alarm. "Do you have some plans for it, Major?" I asked, keeping my voice from showing my fear.
He unbuttoned the top button of his tunic. "I'm sure it will do very well for my orderly."
I felt the blood drain from my face, and Major Rügemer looked at me in surprise. "What is it?"
I did not have to fake the tears that sprang to my eyes. "Please don't move him in here," I pleaded. My mind raced with explanations. "I never told you this, but at the beginning of the war, I was captured by Russian soldiers and and I was " My throat closed up.
The major frowned at me. "You were what?"
"They attacked me, sir, in the way that men attack women."
Reading Group Guide
1. When Germany invades Poland, Irene is separated from her family and loses her country. She says, “In the war, everything was unnatural and unreal. . . .” What is life like during wartime? How does Irene react to her new circumstances? How does she manage to adapt to the new reality that is thrust upon her?
2. Irene asks “Was that girl me? In the war . . . we wore masks and spoke lines that were not our own.” Discuss the different masks that Irene wears during the war. How much do you think her flair for acting contributes to her survival? What role does she finally define for herself?
3. “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.” How does Irene grow into her role as a rescuer? What is her first small step? How does she gradually increase the risks she takes? What skills does she acquire that help her succeed? How does her telling her story now relate to her resistance during the war?
4. “How could I presume to be their savior? And yet I had promised. I had to do it.” What motivates Irene to take such incredible risks? Is it her religious belief? Her upbringing? Her anger at the cruelty all around her? Does she truly consider the alternatives–does she think it possible not to help?
5. Throughout the war, and for many years after, Irene is separated from her family--first by circumstance, but later as a direct result of having helped her friends. When does this separation weigh on her the most heavily? In what ways do the people whom she has helped become her family? Many years after the war, Irene meets Roman Haller–the child of two of the people she hid. How might he be considered a closer relative than her own nieces and nephews?
6. Discuss how being female affects Irene throughout the war. She often refers to herself as “only a girl.” For example: “I was only a girl, alone among the enemy. What could I do?” Yet a page later she says, “I was only a girl, nobody paid much attention to me.” What are some other advantages and disadvantages of her being “only a girl”? How do you think she views this status in the end?
7. Early in the story, Irene is raped, beaten, and left for dead by Russian soldiers. How does this change her feelings about herself? Her feelings about men?
8. Later in the story, Major Rügemer agrees that he will not turn the Jews hidden in his basement over to the Gestapo if Irene will become his mistress. She describes this relationship as “worse than rape.” In what ways is it worse? Does she believe she has any choice? What does she imagine the people she is hiding would want her to do?
9. 1.Irene often contrasts the major’s decent behavior with Rokita’s cruelty. But after the major forces her into a sexual relationship, she feels confused. “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. . . .” Does Irene realize the full extent of the major’s feelings for her? How does she use his affection to her advantage? Is his eventual exploitation of her inevitable, as she implies?
10. What are Major Rügemer’s feelings for Irene? He both protects her and does her harm–how would you assess his behavior as a whole? Why does he take Irene to visit her “cousin”? When he leaves Irene alone at the hotel, do you think he knows that she will run from him? Do you find his actions forgivable? Is it possible to feel sympathy for him? Does Irene forgive him? What happens to him at the end of the war?
11. How would you contrast the major’s behavior with that of Herr Schulz? Irene calls him a “good, friendly man” and admits “he made hating the Germans a complex matter, when it should have been such a straightforward one.” Why does Irene suspect that he knows what she is doing? How much is he willing to help? Is Herr Schulz’s behavior understandable? Excusable? Laudable?
12. Irene faces the threats of torture and imprisonment in Siberia. She is raped by a Russian soldier, blackmailed by a German officer, and separated for years from her family. She knows that the fate of her Jewish friends is in her hands. What does she risk to help? What is her biggest sacrifice?
13. When the Jews whom Irene has been hiding escape into the forest, she is unsure what to do next. She explains: “Shouldn’t I have been happy? But I was oddly dejected, because my great and righteous undertaking was finished.” Then, on the very next page, she says she has found her calling. She throws herself into fighting for Poland by joining the resistance. After the war, does she continue her efforts? If so, how?
14. Irene often goes to church and confession. Does religion sustain her or fail her in her times of need? Discuss the different clergymen she encounters. How does she cope with their conflicting advice and admonitions?
15. Does Irene’s faith ever waver? Does she question God? At what point in the story? She ends her memoir with the words “Go with God.” How does she hold on to her belief in God when she has witnessed so much suffering and cruelty?
16. The book is framed by the sections “Tears” and “Amber.” How are these two pieces related? How do they reflect Irene’s growth from the beginning of the war to the end? How has the meaning of amber shifted by the end of the memoir?
17. Irene often says that she had no choice but to act as she did and that God put her in the right place to act. But in her epilogue she tells us, “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.” Were Irene’s actions predestined or the result of her free will? How is free will an important idea in understanding the Holocaust?
18. Images of birds permeate Irene’s memoir. Discuss what all these different birds might mean. Sparrows, hens, storks, pigeons . . . do any of these symbolize Irene? What else do the birds represent?
19. On the very first page of Irene’s story, an image of a bird represents 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.” What does she need to make the reader understand? Why do you think she begins and ends her story with a reference to this incident?
20. The real scene represented by this image is one of the most indelible in the book: a soldier viciously throws a baby into the air and shoots it. The people Irene is with when she sees this happen turn away from the horror, but Irene continues to look. Why does she watch?
21. Irene and her companions do not discuss what they have seen, 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.’” How does Irene “show it to others” and what does she hope to accomplish by doing so?