Opdyke, Irene Gut. 1999. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.
I did not ask myself, Should I do this? But, How will I do this? Every step of my childhood had brought me to this crossroad; I must take the right path, or I would no longer be myself. You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis, all at once. One's first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence. Now I was making plans to... (142-143)
In My Hands is nonfiction--a memoir--and it's a powerful one. Full of descriptive images you might wish you'd never seen. But it's an important work, a necessary one. Our narrator, Irene Gut, was a Polish girl--a young woman training to be a nurse when the war burst into her life. The conflict between Germany and Russia stripping her of her childhood in more ways than one. Her account of what happened during the war years are powerful and haunting. But there is nothing over-the-top either. It's straightforward, spare, even.
This is her description of the purging of the Poland of Jews (I believe we're speaking of the ghettos.)
The gates were dragged open, and the Jewish prisoners were forced out through a gauntlet, while the guards beat at them with their rifle butts. An old man, tottering with a cane, was not fast enough, and a guard shot him on the spot. In vain, women tried to protect their small children from blows, men tried to shield their old fathers. But every time someone stumbled and fell under the beatings, shots rang out. The street was paved with bodies, and still the Jews were forced to march out over them.
We watched this from our windows in a paralysis of horror. We could do nothing but watch. We could not even pull back from the glass to keep hidden. An old rabbi carrying the Torah stopped to help a young woman with a shrieking toddler, and all three were shot. A graybeard in a faded uniform of the Polish army from the last war limped past the guards, and he, too, was not fast enough. The sun shone down on all of them, and the dust settled in pools of blood.
By this time, the four of us were crying uncontrollably. Helen was on her knees, sobbing in her mother's arms. Janina turned her face away. But I watched, flattening myself against the window. As I pressed against the glass, I saw an officer make a flinging movement with his arm, and something rose up into the sky like a fat bird. With his other hand he aimed his pistol, and the bird plummeted to the ground beside its screaming mother, and the officer shot the mother, too. But it was not a bird. It was not a bird. It was not a bird. (116-117)
This is how she sums it up, "We did not speak of what we had seen. At the time, to speak of it seemed worse than sacrilege: We had witnessed a thing so terrible that it acquired a dreadful holiness. It was a miracle of evil. It was not possible to say with words what we had witnessed, and so we kept it safely guarded until the time we could bring it out, and show it to others, and say, "Behold. This is the worst thing man can do."" (118)
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews