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Liberating While Enslaved: The Story of Irene Gut Opdyke and her Memories as a Holocaust Rescuer

Book Essay on: Irene Opdyke, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer
(New York: Random House, 1999), 238 pages. UCSB:

by Jenna Leonard
March 21, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links

About Jenna Leonard

I am a junior history major at the University of California, Santa Barbara and have always found European history fascinating. Being of German descent, I definitely am especially interested in learning about the tumultuous past of such a unique country and after taking a similar course last quarter wanted to continue studying the history and culture. I chose this particular book because I am intrigued by any sort of resistance against the Nazi regime during World War II and found this to be a very inspiring read.

Abstract (back to top)

The book I chose, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, provides a detailed story of one individual, Irene Gut, and her life as a Polish girl trying to help Jews while she herself was enslaved under the Nazis during World War II. Irene committed the acts she did because she saw it as the right thing to do and her perception of her actions is very humble. In reality, her acts were quite courageous and heroic and her memories relate this to readers. From working as a nurse, to being raped, and then forced to work under the Nazis, Irene constantly held her own for the sake of others. Her story of saving over 16 people and not trying to save herself is such an empowering story, revealing the selflessness of her deeds and proving that there were acts of resistance during the reign of Nazis in Europe. Her decision to risk her life to help victims of the Holocaust was a reflection of her strength of character and her belief that it was her duty to resist the Nazis from harming Jews in any way that she could.

Essay (back to

Liberating While Enslaved: The Story of Irene Gut Opdyke and her Memories as a Holocaust Rescuer

“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 I really there? In the war, everything was unnatural and unreal. We spoke lines that were not our own. This happened to me and yet I still don’t understand how it happened at all…”

-Irene Gut Opdyke

In her memoir, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, Irene Gut relates her arduous journey as a Polish girl trying to survive in World War II-ravaged Europe, making a choice to help those in need around her and continuously risking her life in doing so. When faced with decisions of whether to do the right thing or to step aside, Irene Gut explains, “The war was a series of choices made by many people. Some of those choices were as wicked and shameful to humanity as anything in history. But some of us made other choices. I made mine” (Opdyke, 235). Her memoir is filled with traumatizing stories of being raped, beaten, and living alone as a non-Aryan exile during the war, but also exemplifies her self-sacrificing attitude and her ability to rescue more than sixteen Polish Jews. Irene Gut Opdyke’s book shows that it is possible to make the right choices when faced with obstacles and hardships, and what readers can take from her experience is that this young Polish girl chose to take the higher route, to put others first, even when it could have led to her own punishment or death. She made these choices because she knew it was the right thing to do, that there was no other option, and the small steps that she explains she took truly weren’t small at all, but courageous and heroic deeds.

As a young girl growing up in Poland, Opdyke provides instances of foreshadowing for her martyr-like future. She relates a fortune-telling incident of discovering her destiny when she and her younger sisters and her “melted candle wax and cooled it with water….then held up the wax to the light and studied the silhouette on the wall” in order to predict their future (Opdyke, 14). The shadow of her candle projected an image of a ship sailing with a crucifix on the bow. This sort of sign, along with another anecdote about her determination to save a wounded bird, provide a basis for Irene’s destiny to be a compassionate and selfless human being. She did not just one day decide to change her ways and become a caring individual, but in actuality had been so from a very young age. In 1938, when Irene was sixteen years old, she decided to attend school in Radom, an industrial city in Poland, in pursuit of becoming a nurse. Her dedication to her education and hope to one day be able to care for the sick left her “lonely and missing her family….hiding behind her books while other girls took their duties lightly” revealing her self-sacrificing tendencies and choice to study and get somewhere rather than go out with the girls at her school (Opdyke, 15). Her choices during childhood and her adolescent years were glimpses of what kind of a person she would become in later years and her desire to always take the right path.

When it was certain that Hitler had plans to invade Poland Irene insisted on continuing her nurse-training program and contribute to her country’s needs. Upon the invasion, when thousands of German tanks rolled over the border, Irene’s choice to stay and help the wounded soldiers reflects her true nature. She could have returned home to her family, as her parents had insisted, but she instead, “…wanted to take part in driving the Germans out of Poland” (Opdyke, 22). Traveling east with Polish doctors and soldiers, Irene was surrounded by the casualties caused by the German military and desperately trying to survive in harsh conditions such as “…living in the cold, growing sick, shivering, huddling against the snow” (Opdyke, 30). Irene Gut could have refused to travel east and gone home, creating a better situation for herself, but that would not have been a reflection of who she was, a devoted and dedicated person to both her job and her country.

There were many instances in her life, especially when it came to being abused, that Irene Gut Opdyke revealed her ability to overcome such pain and remain a pious person because of her strength and courageousness shown to readers. While fleeing into the woods, trying to escape the invading Germans, Irene also found herself running from a Russian Patrol in the east. At seventeen years old she was beaten and raped, “…left for dead in the snow, under the frozen stars, with the dark forest keeping watch…” over her battered body (Opdyke, 33). Taken to a hospital and then forced to work there as a nurse, she did not become revengeful or wallow in her misery because of her strong and silent character, and instead picked herself up and diligently helped tend to the wounded and sick. If she had not gone with the Polish army she would not have been in such a situation, raped and then left alone to work in a hospital where she knew no one, not even the language. While living in the hospital she was accosted once again, this time by her superior, Dr. Ksydzof. She was able to escape sexual abuse by knocking him unconscious, but in turn she had to flee the hospital, in fear of later punishment by the cruel doctor. With assistance from another doctor, Irene was able to escape to Svetlana and stay under the care of a woman named Miriam, also a doctor. Irene was able to work with Miriam and help the inhabitants in the small town, finding peace in an unfamiliar atmosphere. When reflecting on her time spent in Svetlana, Irene sees it as an oasis from the former hospital and an opportunity to become further immersed in the language and culture of the town. Again, she is informing readers of her choice to make the best out of the situation, showing her innate tendency to be positive and altruistic, even though she was in a foreign country with only one person for support.

After living in Svetlana for one year, Irene learned of an opportunity to move back to the west and finally be with her family. However, as Irene was accustomed to, this task was not accomplished without overcoming obstacles. The town of Ternopol, she had fled to escape the wrath of Dr. Ksydzof, was the place she had to first return to in order to pass through to her home town. This was no easy feat, and in fact she was recognized and then interrogated for her previous escape and her reasons for being back in town. Her thoughts were, “almost home, almost home, almost home…” as she ran from authorities by leaving the country by cargo train in the dead of night (Opdyke, 49). After returning to her homeland, not unscathed, she was finally reunited with her family.

Irene’s homecoming celebration, like most positive experiences in her life, did not last long. Her father was forced to assist the German military in a different region of Poland and her mother and three younger sisters all followed suit to be with the father. Irene, nineteen at the time, and her closest sister, seventeen, were able to stay together. Enlisted to do slave labor in an ammunition factory, Irene was fortunately allowed to go work for Herr Schultz, “a good and friendly man, having none of the ferocity of and malevolence…expected of the Germans” (Opdyke, 88). At this point in her life, working in an old hotel as a waitress and helper to Herr Schultz, Irene began committing herself to helping Jews to survive in Poland. Her constant viewpoint towards the abusive treatment and utter terror of Nazi actions towards the Jews of the ghettos was one of disbelief and incomprehensibility. Irene Gut, with help from her sister, began providing food from Herr Schultz’ kitchen by sneaking out to the gate of the ghetto and slipping food under the fence. This was her first step towards resistance and assistance regarding the Jewish community.

In August of 1943, the German military moved east towards Russia and set up more ammunitions factories and production centers. Irene and her sister Janina moved along with Herr Schultz to continue serving the Nazi clientele. The bulk of Irene’s rescuing took place during this time at the complex called Harres-Krafa Park, referred to as HKP. There Irene convinced Herr Schultz to admit six German Jews to work under her and take care of the laundry and food preparations. More Jews were recruited to work at HKP during the time Irene labored there, and while she saved them from death, she also helped four of them escape by horse and cart into the woods where most Jews preferred to be, rather than under Nazi control. Irene risked severe reprimands for providing shelter for the Jews, let alone for helping them escape, and yet she assisted them anyways, knowing that it was not right for them to be treated anything less than human.

Irene Gut Opdyke’s most applauded and surprising accomplishment, when it came to saving the German Jews, was her hiding them in a secret space in Major Rugemer’s brand new villa. Without knowledge of Irene’s intentions Major Rugemer insisted upon Irene being his housekeeper for his new home. Her ability to turn a tedious task into an escape route for her Jewish friends shows her bravery and willingness to find a way to help. Although Irene’s secret was eventually discovered by Major Rugemer, her task did not go unfinished. Major Rugemer did not condemn the hiding Jews and he also let Irene live. Irene faced many obstacles but she completed what she said out to do, to bring kindness to their lives and save them from an unjust government.

Irene Gut Opdyke’s memoir is a story of inspiration, turmoil, fear, and strength. The author could have portrayed herself as a victim of war, a lady in distress, constantly being handed the short straw. But instead, she tells her story as a person who was fortunate enough to be able to survive and explains her decision to help others was not to take the higher road, but that she could think of no other option. Her thinking, indeed, makes her a person of righteous standing, and one whom although definitely lucky, made fortune for herself by making self-sacrificing decisions in her life in order to better the lives of people around her. There were times when she was frightened to death or lied to corrupt authorities, but these times only reveal that she is a real person, not a selfish person. Irene Gut Opdyke may have been enslaved by German and Russian authorities during World War II but she sacrificed herself in the face of severe punishment and/or death in order to help liberate the innocent.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)

Book Reviews:

Locke, J.A. Kaszuba. “In My Hands by Irene Gut Opdyke” BookLoons Reviews, 2004. http://www.bookloons.com/cgi-bin/Review.asp?bookid=4182
This review uses many quotes to emphasize how great the reviewer thought this book was, and how descriptive the narrative of Irene’s story was. The review states that the book is a magnificent one and even notes, “I urge you to read this, even if it is the only book you read all year.” Clearly, this is a very enthusiastic review and provides not only praise but a summary of the book.

Smith, Wendy. “Review of Opdyke, In My Hands.” BKMT Reading Guide. http://www.bookmovement.com/app/readingguide/view.php?readingGuideID=7440
This review explains that Irene Gut’s “experiences while still in her teens remind adolescents everywhere that their actions count, that the power to make a difference is in their hands” and gives nothing but praise for the book, also providing the reader with a short summary. The reviewer describes it as “a drama of moral choice and courage” and gives the reader helpful insight into what the book is about.

George Suboczewski, “Review of Opdyke, In My Hands” Polish Library in Washington, 2003. http://www.polishlibrary.org/review/in_my_hands.htm
This review is different than most because it emphasizes that Jennifer Armstrong served as a ghost writer of Irene Gut’s story. While the author of the book praises the writing and the story he also notes that there are “gaps and occasional errors” in the story. The review was helpful in giving a short summary of the books contents.

Web Sites:

Terese Pencak Schwartz. “Holocaust Rescuers: Heroes and Heroines of the Holocaust” (1997/2008), http://www.holocaustforgotten.com/rescuers.htm
This site provides many different pages on everything associated with the Holocaust. There are many personal stories on this site that provide readers with numerous accounts of Holocaust rescuers. This site is also very helpful in providing information about Polish citizens who were victims of the Holocaust, over 5 million in fact, offering their stories and photographs.

Humboldt University Site. “To Save a Life: Stories of Holocaust Rescues.” (2004) http://www.humboldt.edu/~rescuers/book/synopses.html
This website is very helpful in providing readers with numerous stories of people helping victims of the Holocaust. The narrative provides the stories of six rescuers and thirteen rescued people. This website gives readers further insight into the experiences of those who rescued people and those who were rescued.

Wikipedia, “Raoul Wallenberg”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raoul_Wallenberg
This article provides readers with the biography of Raoul Wallenberg, a man from Sweden who worked in Hungary to help save many Jews during World War II. This webpage offers not only an extensive story of his life but also the awards he received because of his risky and diligent work saving Jews by issuing them passports to cross borders and get out of the reach of Nazi hands. His story, like Irene Gut’s is not only inspiring but shows the courage it took to do such heroic deeds.

Books and Articles:

Mordecai Paldiel, Sheltering the Jews: Stories of Holocaust Rescuers (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996).
The author of this book uses many stories from the archives of the Jerusalem museum, Yad Vashem, to tell the experiences of those non-Jewish Holocaust rescuers who were instrumental in giving aid to Jews during World War II. This book, like In My Hands, is extremely helpful in teaching the world of the heroic acts of individuals trying to resist in any way possible the Nazi regime in Europe.

Milton Meltzer, Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust (New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1988).
This book has been awarded over ten honors for being such an inspiring and thrilling read. It tells the journeys and experiences, like In My Hands, of brave individuals trying to resist Nazi reign. This book is very insightful, especially, because it offers varying accounts of resistance and rescue stories. This book offers encouraging stories and shows the power of courage and quiet rebellion.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/24/09; last updated: 3/x/09
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