In My Hands Summary and Study Guide

Irene Gut Opdyke and Jennifer Armstrong

In My Hands

  • 49-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 27 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a Master's degree in Professional Writing
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In My Hands Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 49-page guide for “In My Hands” by Irene Gut Opdyke and Jennifer Armstrong includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 27 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Religion as Both Disappointment and Support and Witnessing and Processing the Evils of War.

Plot Summary

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer is a memoir written by Irene Gut Opdyke with help from historical-fiction author Jennifer Armstrong. The book details Opdyke’s experience as a young Polish woman who rescued Jews from the Holocaust during World War II. Armstrong explains in a note at the end of the book that she constructed the narrative after countless hours interviewing Opdyke. For the purpose of this study guide, Opdyke is referred to as the author of the memoir throughout.

Opdyke, née Irena Gut, was born in a small Polish village in May 1922, and In My Hands begins with a brief recounting of Irena’s happy childhood as the eldest of five sisters. As a teenager, Irena wishes to become a hero, saving lives and taking part in “righteous adventures” (14), so she volunteers for the Red Cross and decides to become a nurse. Meanwhile, Hitler is rising to power in Germany.

At the age of sixteen, in 1938, Irena enrolls in nursing school at St. Mary’s Hospital in Radom, Poland. As her studies continue, Hitler’s influence grows in both Germany and Poland. In September 1938, German bombers attack Radom, and Irena quickly becomes a rescue worker at St. Mary’s, rather than a student. Determined to help her countrymen, she volunteers to accompany retreating Polish forces as part of the medical staff.

Deposited with the soldiers and medical staff near the Russian border, Irena learns the Polish army is defeated and disbanding. She follows the former Polish soldiers through the forest for months, and at one point is brutally raped by Russian soldiers. Another Russian patrol finds her after the rape and takes her to a hospital in Ternopol, where she is put to work as a prisoner of the Russians.

After working both at the hospital in Ternopol and a clinic in a small Russian village, Irena finally escapes to look for her family. She makes it to Radom, where she finds her parents and sister living with her aunt, Helen. Soon after she arrives, Russia and Germany declare war on each other, and German soldiers force her father to return to his hometown and run the ceramics factory there. Irena’s three youngest sisters and mother accompany him, while Irena’s oldest sister, Janina, stays with her in Radom.

Irena is picked up as part of a German raid and put to work in an ammunitions factory. The major in charge of the Polish workers, Eduard Rügemer, eventually gives her a better job serving German officers in a converted hotel, and she is allowed to return to her family. Irena gets Janina a job in the hotel as well, and they work under a kind man named Herr Schulz. Irena becomes aware of the horrors occurring in the nearby Jewish ghetto and smuggles extra food from the hotel to the Jews, despite knowing she could be put to death for her actions.

In spring 1942, Irena and Janina accompany the German officers as they relocate east, to Ternopol. One of Irena’s tasks is to oversee a laundry room staffed by twelve Jews from the local work camp. She befriends the Jewish workers and, as she learns of the abuse going on in the camp, determines to help them however she can. She eavesdrops on the cruel SS officer, Sturmbannführer Rokita, who mistreats her workers, when she serves the Germans at mealtimes, and she passes on information about raids to her Jewish friends.  Meanwhile, after noticing an officer ogling Janina, Irena decides she can best protect her sister by sending her back to Radom, leaving Irena to help the Jews alone.

By spring 1943 the Aktionsagainst Jews—raids where Jews disappear, never to be heard of again—are increasing, and Irena smuggles six of her workers to a nearby forest, where they will hide from the Germans. Irena overhears Rokita saying that Hitler plans to exterminate all the Jews in Ternopol by July. Meanwhile, Major Rügemer is relocating to a nearby villa and asks Irena to move in as his housekeeper. She discovers the villa’s basement is the perfect place to hide the rest of the laundry room workers, and she manages to smuggle them in just before the final extermination of the Jews occurs.

Irena successfully hides ten Jews in the basement, and while Rügemer eventually discovers the presence of two of the Jewish women, he agrees to keep her secret, but only if Irena will be his mistress. Irena, feeling she has no choice, agrees to this fate she considers worse than rape.

As 1944 arrives, Russian forces are advancing, and the Germans are evacuating Ternopol. Irena smuggles the Jews to the forest, knowing the war is almost over, and she has brought them through alive.

Rügemer and Rokita bring Irena to Kielce, where the major wants Irena to continue working for him, but she escapes and joins a partisan group. Irena falls instantly in love with the group’s leader, Janek Ridel, and they are engaged to be married. Janek, however, is killed in an ambush on the Germans.

The war ends, and a grieving Irena begins to search for her family. She reconnects with her Jewish friends and finds they’ve all survived, but she learns her father was killed for disrespecting German soldiers, while her mother and sisters are in hiding because of Irena’s partisan ties. Realizing she can’t visit her family without endangering them, she accepts that she may never see them again.

Irena lives in a repatriation camp in Germany for three years before a UN worker, William Opdyke, offers her US citizenship after hearing her story. In a postscript, we learn that after arriving in the US, Irena encountered Opdyke by chance and the two later married and had a daughter, Janina. Irena was finally able to visit Poland and reunite with her sisters in 1984, and she dedicated her later years to sharing her story and making sure the horrors of the Holocaust—and the heroism of those who fought against it—are never forgotten.

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