IRENE GUT WAS just 17 in 1939, when the Germans and Russians devoured her native Poland. Just a girl, really. But a girl who saw evil and chose to defy it.
Even among WWII memoirs a genre studded with extraordinary storiesAthis autobiography looms large, a work of exceptional substance and style. Opdyke, born in 1922 to a Polish Catholic family, was a 17-year-old nursing student when Germany invaded her country in 1939. She spent a year tending to the ragtag remnants of a Polish military unit, hiding out in the forest with them; was captured and raped by Russians; was forced to work in a Russian military hospital; escaped and lived under a false identity in a village near Kiev; and was recaptured by the Russians. But her most remarkable adventures were still to come. Back in her homeland, she, like so many Poles, was made to serve the German army, and she eventually became a waitress in an officers' dining hall. She made good use of her positionArisking her life, she helped Jews in the ghetto by passing along vital information, smuggling in food and helping them escape to the forest. When she was made the housekeeper of a German major, she used his villa to hide 12 JewsAand, at enormous personal cost, kept them safe throughout the war. In translating Opdyke's experiences to memoir (see Children's Books, June 14), Armstrong and Opdyke demonstrate an almost uncanny power to place readers in the young Irene's shoes. Even as the authors handily distill the complexities of the military and political conditions of wartime Poland, they present Irene as simultaneously strong and vulnerableAa likable flesh-and-blood woman rather than a saint. Telling details, eloquent in their understatement, render Irene's shock at German atrocities and the gradually built foundation of her heroic resistance. Metaphors weave in and out, simultaneously providing a narrative structure and offering insight into Irene's experiences. Readers will be rivetedAand no one can fail to be inspired by Opdyke's courage. Ages 10-up. (Aug.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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September 13, 2004
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