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In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer    by Irene Gut Opdyke & Jennifer Armstrong order for
In My Hands
by Irene Gut Opdyke
Order:  USA  Can
Laurel Leaf, 2004 (1999)
Hardcover, Softcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

There are many accounts of World War II and the Holocaust atrocities, whether media articles, historical records, or books. In My Hands is a true story, magnificently written by, and of, Irene Gut (Irena Gutowna) Opdyke, with Jennifer Armstrong. I urge you to read this book, even it if is the only one you read this year! Perhaps it is my Polish roots, my immigrant parents, and my 1999 visit to Poland and Auschwitz that causes my tears to fall. But, it's hard not to feel strongly about Irena's heroic story - of courage and suffering, while spying on, dodging, and mingling with, Germans and Russians, sneaking food and notes, and hiding Jews from a horrific fate.

Irena was born in 1922, Polish Catholic, the oldest of five girls in a loving family. Within a short time, she lost her 'family, home, and her innocence'. In 1938, Irene Gut was a 17-year old nursing student at St. Mary's Hospital in Radom, Poland. As she sat at her desk studying in a musty, hot room, German bombs began to fall. Irena fled with other medical staff to the local hospital, where she helped the injured. She was beaten and raped by a group of Russian soldiers. Through many captivities and escapes, Irena 'fought back in her own way' - eavesdropping on the Nazis, passing information to ghetto Jews, smuggling food and people to the Puszcza (forest) Janowka hideaway, using a borrowed 'dobrozna' (wagon, pulled by a horse). Irena hid Jews in the basement of a villa where she was assigned as housekeeper to a German officer, Major Eduard Rugemer, and tended to them until the end of the war.

Irena was reunited with her Aunt Helen, her parents and sisters, then separated again. Her father was shot while crossing a street, because he did not get out of the way of two drunken German soldiers. She only heard of her mother's death after the war. Irena eventually joined the partisans and fell in love with their leader, Janek. They planned to marry but he was killed attacking a German convoy. At the end of the war, Irena was offered immigration to the United States by UN delegate William Opdyke. She settled in Brooklyn. She unexpectedly met Opdyke again at a coffee shop near the UN building in 1949. They fell in love, married, and lived in Yorba Linda, California. In the 1980's, the Israeli Holocaust Commission named Irena one of the Righteous Among the Nations, and granted her the Israel Medal of Honor in a ceremony at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. She received a special commendation by The Vatican. Irena's story is featured in a permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The book's Historical Background tells of the invasion of Poland in 1939, how it fell under martial law, and had the 'greatest number of concentration camps'. We read about Adolf Hitler's plan for the 'eventual eradication of the Poles in order to create living space ('Lebensraum') for the German people', and for the extermination of the Jews. The book includes black and white photos, Questions for Discussion in a Reader's Guide, and conversations with Opdyke and Armstrong. Jennifer Armstrong responds to a question about Irene, saying 'Of the many remarkable things about Irene, the one that stands out the most is how much she loves people. She has every reason - more reason than most - to be cynical, to mistrust the people she meets. The things that were done to her, the losses ... And yet she is not soured. She is the sweetest, most generous person I've ever met. She has a great heart.'

Irene Gut Opdyke returned to Poland for the first time in 1984 and reunited with her sisters. She decided to tell her story after she saw a media article denying the Holocaust. Irena cannot forget one particular scene as it plays over and over in her mind: '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.' In her dedication, Irena says, 'And to all the people in the churches, temples, and schools I have spoken to, remember 'Love, not Hate'.'

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