Book of the week: In My Hands: memories of a Holocaust rescuer

12th January 2001 at 00:00

In My Hands: memories of a Holocaust rescuer
By Irene Gut Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong
Corgi pound;4.99

A conundrum the rabbis liked to pose was: how many righteous in each generation? For how many righteous souls might the world be saved? And then, more difficult, for the sake of the righteous gentiles, should the world be redeemed? And could any righteous gentiles be found?

The answers remain, as sadly they have for centuries: very few. But yes, for the sake of these few, the world is worth saving. Irene Gut Opdyke, a Pole who saved the lives of a dozen Jews in the Second World War , is one of those for whom apocalypse may be stayed.

Anyone who has read testimony from any atrocity, from the slaughter of the innocents as recorded in the Gospels to the gut-wrenching terror of "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families", a note written in a Rwandan church hospital during the 1994 massacre, ought to know that hell has a human face - and often that of the family next door.

How wonderful, then, to read the testimony of a person not directly oppressed who helped those being persecuted: in short, a righteous gentile. Irene's story, ghost-written in a simple, teenage-friendly style, deserves to take its place with The Diary of Anne Frank on school reading lists.

Irene was 17 and working as a nurse when the outbreak of war stranded her on the other side of Poland from her parents. Within a few months she went into hiding with refugees in a wood, was raped by Russian soldiers, went back to nursing and had almost managed to get home when she was imprisoned by the Nazis.

How salutary for us, with our great belief in an individual's power to deal with life, to read these adventures and realise how one's existence can depend on the trembling of an official's eye, a moment's absence, the quick trip to the bathroom which means you miss the call for the death train.

Tremendous resourcefulness, coupled with good looks (fortune favours the fair, unfairly) led Irene to a position as a cook in a Nazi munitions factory staffed by Jewish slave labourers who were worked to death. Irene was put in charge of the laundry and made friends with her slaves.

When she got wind of the "final solution", she rescued "her" Jews and hid them in the house of her boss, the German officer in charge of the factory. Risking death, she transported them to the relative safety of the freezing forest. When one of them got ill, Irene took her back to the house.

Discovered by the German officer, Irene placated him by becoming his mistress. Even this was not the end of her adventures. Now behind Soviet lines, she was captured as a partisan and tortured. So she escaped and joined the partisans in earnest. Still barely 20, she fell in love but her fianc, a partisan fighter, was killed on the morning of their wedding day.

Her perils were still not over, but now took the more mundane form of searching across Poland for her family (some of whom had been killed) and trying to make a new life. She went to the United States, where she eventually married the intelligence officer who had debriefed her in the displaced persons' camp.

It is a brave, inspiring story but by no means one with any kind of insultingly happy ending. Though Irene makes and finds much happiness in her life, she has never forgotten one moment, the moment when she sees the SS round up and kill truckloads of Jews in a village square. One throws a woman with a baby to the ground.

Something flies up in the air, like a fat bird, is shot and comes crashing to the ground. "But it was not a bird, it was not a bird, it was not a bird."


The first Holocaust Memorial Day will be January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Holocaust Education Trust has distributed a pack for secondary schools.
Memorial day website:


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