In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, by Irene Gut Opdyke
“In My Hands” starts with the author writing to the reader that if she tried to tell you what really happened during the war, told you everything at once, you wouldn’t understand it. She includes an image that you won’t comprehend until later in the book, the image of a bird falling, a bird that is not a bird. And as you come to understand what the bird really is, your heart will break, and you will know just what Irene means.
Born in 1922, in Poland, Irene had a happy childhood and a normal life. As a young child, she is saved from death by the family dog, and many in her village are convinced this means she has a great and promising life ahead of her. But for a girl in the 1920s, there weren’t many adventures available, and drawn to helping people, Irene decided to go to nursing school.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Irene’s school was on the border, and she was immediately thrust into the war as a student nurse, then as a member of the Polish resistance. Living in the woods, part of an army without a country, Irene was selected to go on a mission into a nearby town and was captured by a Russian patrol who raped her and left her for dead. That experience alone would be enough to break almost anybody, but not Irene. The rape is merely the first of an indescribable number of hardships she endured during World War II; I often had tears in my eyes while reading this book. Irene lived through several lifetimes during the war, and while I am around the same age as her, I couldn’t imagine surviving anything that she went through.
Irene’s story is so many things – it is one of hope, one of courage, one of resistance, one of overcoming the odds, one of doing the right thing. A prisoner herself, while working in a German hotel, Irene did all she could to help those around her, including smuggling out food, warnings, and even hiding 12 Jews in a German officer’s home.
Once I started “In My Hands,” I couldn’t put it down. Irene’s story captivated me from beginning to end, and as I came to understand the metaphor of the bird that she starts her story with, I agreed with her. There is no way I could have understood all that she wanted to tell me if I didn’t know the whole story, if I didn’t know everything she endured and fought for. I found myself wanting to tell everyone I could about her story, and it led to a great talk between my father and myself (we’re both history nerds).
While “In My Hands” is marketed as a young adult book, I believe it’s beneficial for anyone, of any age, to read it and absorb it. Irene was moved to write her story after hearing that some groups claimed the Holocaust was a hoax, and she spoke for 30 years, imbuing a message of hope and tolerance to children across the country. Hands down, this is the best book I’ve read all year, and I wish I could thank the author.