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How You Become a Hero

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Gut Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong, Knopf Books for Young Readers, $17

“I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis all at once…” explained Irene Opdyke, a Polish Christian. “One’s first steps are always small.” To society’s detriment, few people have “small” steps as large as Opdyke’s.

Opdyke risked her life many times over to save the lives of at least 12 Jews, and that figure doesn’t include the Jews to whom she smuggled food and supplies or warned about Nazi invaders. Over the course of six years, Opdyke was a nurse for the Polish partisan army, a housekeeper for German officers and a spy for the Polish liberation effort.

Opdyke didn’t just help people out of a sense of obligation. She truly loved “her” refugees, and this showed in the great lengths she went to in order to spare their lives. When Opdyke’s boss, a major in the German army, found out about her actions, he kept her secret on the grounds that she become his mistress. She did, but did not tell her Jewish friends what she went through for them, to spare them guilt.

The only low point of the book is Opdyke’s defense of the Polish people. Although there were anti-Nazi Poles, she directly downplays Polish anti-Semitism. As much as Opdyke and her cohorts were exceptional in rescuing Jews, they stand out even more in the context of most Poles’ behavior towards Jews.

Young adults are exposed to the Holocaust with images of death, images of despair, and of a need to rebuild. A positive message—of a woman doing all she can to save lives—is rare, so this book is a must-read for people of all ages.