Rating: 5 stars
In “In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer” by Irene Gut Opdyke, readers will learn about the Holocaust from the eyes of a young Polish girl who at the age of 17 had to endure horrors most children only dream about in their worst nightmares.
Opdyke (her married name) tells of growing up in a close-knit Polish family proud of their Polish heritage and living in a house where kindness was encouraged. Hurt animals were brought home and healed, dogs were loved, and the sisters were close. When Irene was 17, she decided she wanted to keep helping people by becoming a nurse. It was while she was in school, far from her family, when World War II broke out.
The story relates the horror of how the Russian soldiers abused the women they found, including Irene. Irene got lucky when her German looks and her ability to speak German helped her get a position working for the Nazis in a hotel. The hotel backed up to the ghetto, and Irene saw firsthand the horrors of what was happening there. It was obvious that the Germans wanted to kill all the Jews. And the German officers talked freely in the restaurant about the goal of making the town free of all Jews. The man in charge of the kitchen was kind and looked the other way when Irene started helping the Jews.
First it was simply putting food in a metal box and shoving it into the ghetto through a hole she made under the fence. That escalated when she got Jews to help in the laundry room. She would pass on news she heard from the officers about deportations to her friends — because the Jews working in the laundry became friends. When she learned about the last final “action” to rid the town of all Jews, she knew she had to do more.
That’s when the book really becomes almost incredible — reading about the risks that Irene took on behalf of people she barely knew. She risked her life, she did whatever she had to to make sure that the Jews she saved remained safe. The book is written beautifully with the help of author Jennifer Armstrong, whose writing beautifully brings out the beauty of the human spirit and the cruelty of which humans are capable — all in the course of a few pages.
This nonfiction book should be included in any study of World War II from middle school through high school. While there is mention of rape, it is not graphic. It’s unusual in that most WWII memoirs are written from a Jewish perspective. This one is written from the perspective and voice of a Polish, Catholic girl.