In My Hands Summary

Irene Gut Opdyke and Jennifer Armstrong

In My Hands

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In My Hands Summary

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In My Hands is the autobiography of Irene Gut Opdyke (written with the assistance of Jennifer Armstrong) in which she offers a first-hand account of the atrocities occurring in Poland in the late 1930s and early 1940s, events which would inspire her efforts to help Jews escape execution by the Nazis.

Opdyke was a seventeen year old Pole pursuing a degree in nursing when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Poland had fallen under the complete control of foreign powers. Opdyke suddenly found herself separated from her family and thrust into a world of violence and uncertainty.

Despite the atmosphere of terror shrouding Poland during that time, Opdyke was determined to do whatever she could to aid the Polish resistance. When she received word that the Polish army was calling for volunteers with medical experience to treat soldiers injured in combat, she immediately offered to lend her services. This would be the first in a series of courageous actions that Opdyke performed throughout the course of her life.

Time after time Opdyke’s deciding to act in favor of what’s right would come at a great cost to her personal safety. As Poland became divided between German and Soviet forces, the relatively small Polish army was driven to retreat. When Soviet forces discovered Opdyke, hiding out in a forest along with Polish soldiers and other members of the resistance, she was raped and beaten nearly to death. Just barely clinging to life, Opdyke was taken to a nearby hospital where she made a full recovery, only to be taken immediately as a prisoner of war and forced to work in a hospital in Ternopol. After being subjected to another attempt at rape, this time by Dr. Ksydzov, with whom she worked at the hospital, Opdyke escaped with the aid of another doctor there. She left Ternopol and settled for a while in Svetlana, where she worked alongside a country doctor.

No longer a prisoner of war, Opdyke now thought only of reuniting with her family, none of whom she had seen since the war began. In order to find them, Opdyke would have to travel by train departing from Ternopol. Knowing that it would not be easy for someone who was Polish at that time to obtain a train ticket, Opdyke thought she might have better luck if she deceived the authorities into thinking that she was German. What Opdyke did not realize was that she had been identified to authorities by Dr. Kysdzov as a member of a radical group of Polish partisans. Russian authorities arrested Opdyke and held her for several days as they questioned her about her involvement in the resistance. Believing that she would lead them to other members of the Polish resistance, Russian authorities released Opdyke. But Opdyke was able to elude the Russian authorities who were monitoring her and managed to make it aboard the train to Radom, where she was reunited with her family. The reunion, however, was short lived: Irene’s mother, father, and young sisters were sent to Kozlowa, where Irene’s father was needed to help the Germans run a factory; Irene would remain in Radom along with her aunt Helen.

What she experienced in Radom would change Opdyke forever and inspire her to perform actions which were nothing short of heroic. It was there, while she working at a German barracks, that Opdyke witnessed a mass shooting of Jews in the surrounding neighborhood. But the memory that stands out most in Opdyke’s mind is that of a German officer tossing a baby above his head and shooting it dead in the air.

Opdyke’s first acts of subversion in Radom were small, including that of sneaking small amounts of food from the German barracks into the Jewish ghetto; such actions nonetheless were extremely risky for Opdyke, punishable by death if found out by authorities. But nothing would weaken Opdyke’s resolve. When she learned of plans of an upcoming mass Jewish extermination, Opdyke made it her mission to help as many as she could to escape. She hid them in small corners and crevices in the barracks until she was transferred to work as a housekeeper for a high ranking German officer. There she was discovered hiding Jews in the basement by her employer, who offered her a deal: he would not turn Opdyke or the Jews over to the authorities on the condition that Opdyke would serve as his mistress. Opdyke consented, once again making an enormous personal sacrifice for the sake of doing what she believed was right.

Opdyke served as the German officer’s mistress until she was allowed to leave by higher ranking German authorities. After that, she led the group of Jews she was protecting through the forest to meet up with other Jews who had also escaped the extermination.

Following the war, Opdyke traveled to Krakaw where she faced arrest again by the Russians, who suspected her of being the leader of an opposing political activist group. The Russians placed Opdyke in a camp, where she met William Opdyke. The two talked at great length and Opdyke shared her story of efforts to rescue the Jews from extermination. William Opdyke invited Irene to move to the United States, where the two of them were eventually married and lived for the rest of their lives.