Sunday, September 6, 2009

Book reviews: Two different perspectives on life under the Nazis: In My Hands; On Hitler's Mountain

I have seasons of interest. Lately I have developed an interest in things pertaining to the first half of this century and the world events that took place.
The books I have been reading are nonfiction accounts of different people's lives during World War II. I have also bought, but not yet read, a book on the rise of Communism in Russia. I don't know why I have developed an interest in such events except that I am striving to gain an insight in how people come to be in countries where all their freedoms and rights are taken from them and they find themselves living under the regime of a totalitarian government.

My questions are: Do people freely hand their freedoms over to despots? Are they deceived into doing so? Do they find themselves pulled under by a current that's too strong to swim against? Is it apathy? Desperation? Can we recognize the symptoms if it happens in our own country? Do the writers of these memoirs now possess insight as to how things came to be in their country and how it can be avoided in the country they've immigrated to (all the writers I've read so far have immigrated to the US)?

Finally, as those of you who know me, I am Christian and have an unashamedly Christian viewpoint. That will be obvious from my reviews. On the chance that there are people reading my blog that do not share my faith, please do not jump to the conclusion that my personal angle must be biased. Any viewpoint is from the angle of that individual's personal beliefs. Therefore, my opinion of secular viewpoints are that they are no less biased, but simply from a stance that God doesn't play a key role in our lives while I know Him to be the Entity that gives meaning and purpose to all things.

Into My Hands by Irene Opdyke

The first book I've read was a wonderful, riveting account of a young Polish girl's experience of the Germans invading her country. I read this book in two days because I could not put it down.
Irene Opdyke vividly recounts the innocence of her childhood, the happiness of her family as she grows up and trains to be a nurse. While at the hospital one day, the Nazis invade her town and life as she knows it is over. She doesn't get to go back home. Instead, she and the other hospital staff find themselves running for their lives and hiding in a forest for the night. The next morning one of the Polish generals comes to them and, rather than giving them the comfort and solace they were hoping for, announces that Poland no longer exists as a country and that they are now a part of Germany.
Can you just imagine that? You go to work in the morning little knowing that you're not coming home again? Not because you died but because there is no home to go to. You no longer even have a country.

Irene doesn't see her family for three years. In her efforts to escape the Germans she is apprehended by the Russians where she is forced to work as a nurse in one of their hospitals. Eventually she makes it back to her hometown and because she is lucky enough to look and speak German, she is given a job as housekeeper of an SS officer.

Now here's the really good part. While she keeps house for this feared Nazi officer, she is simultaneously taking care of eleven Jews in the basement of his house.

What I particularly like about Opdyke's narration is that she has no one-dimensional good and bad guys. Yes, she meets with and suffers at the hands of some monstrous, Russians and Germans; but she also meets Russians and Germans who are capable of compassion and kindness. Such as the German cook in the hotel occupied by the Nazis who, with a knowing eye, gives Irene several coats when she asks for just a couple for "her sister and herself".

Opdyke recounts her horrific experiences in a way that causes you to vicariously partake of them. Not a bad thing for most of us sheltered Americans.

On Hitler's Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood by Irmgard A. Hunt

This book is also very interesting for what it reveals. Several things stuck out for me. One, Irmgard Hunt tells of how Hitler attempts to replace the Christian religion with Nordic and Celt beliefs because the latter are more "authentically German". For instance, during the Christmas and Easter holidays, the German people are encouraged to practice the ancient pagan customs that Christian missionaries had imposed "Christian meaning" to such as winter solstice and fertility rites in the spring rather than celebrating Christ's birth and crucifixion/resurrection.

According to Hart, what she and the Germans around her were most aware of was their own hardship and deprivation. She claims they were ignorant of the holocaust and the concentration camps. Given that she was very young during much of it and also that she lived near Hitler's compound it is possible that she and the people of Berchesgaden were more sheltered from the nightmarish realities that other German citizens must have known about.

What I value about this book is the insight it reveals in how a people could allow someone like Hitler to rise to power in the first place. We can understand some of the reasons through the lens of time. For one, the first World War had left the German nation utterly destitute and desperate. Initially, Hitler seemed to improve the economy and for a time things got better. Then, however, as Nazi Germany started invading its neighbors, Germany was soon sunk back into poverty as WW II took its toll. Hart never explains how the average German reasoned the need for war in the first place. Were they led to believe that they were the ones being invaded? How did they become persuaded to fight in a war when no one was attacking them? This is never made clear nor does Hart ponder it herself- at least in this book.

She does make clear how the blind devotion to Hitler and the almost brainless unquestioning obedience to anyone in authority affected the German citizens. I would like to read something that explains how they came to think like that.

Overall, this book does not draw me into the sufferings of the people as does Opdyke's book, except at the beginning when Hart describes the harsh conditions her grandparents and mother have to endure in the aftermath of WWI.

Interestingly enough, in reading the question and answer section at the end of the book, Hart believes the same thing could happen in the US if "fundamental religionists" are allowed into power. My question to her is, how do you define fundamental religionists, and what do you fear they can do?"
She also expresses a fear that these "fundamentalists" are trying to make "targets of hatred" out of terrorists and Moslems in the same way that Hitler made targets of the Jews. Now what the heck does she mean by that? For one, the Jews were not a threat to Germany. Terrorists are a threat to the security of our country. Has she already forgotten 9/11?

All of this calls to mind that someone can live through something as profound as a totalitarian regime but possess no insight as to how it can be prevented again when their own secular ideologies shape their thinking. If you read her biography at the end of the book, you'll know what I mean.
Overall, it was an interesting read and I still recommend it although I think there must be better sources of information of life under Hitler out there.



  1. I enjoyed the reviews. You have a gift for reviewing books.
    Irene must have been a Polish JEW.I hope this book is made into a movie. It sounds thrilling.
    the Hitler's Mountain, not so much. It seems to reveal that the secular mind about things is truly sad and misdirected. But we knew that, anyway, right?

  2. Actually, Irene was a devout Catholic and in the book she reveals her struggles with God and how He could let all this happen. Her faith is not as strong as Corrie Ten Boom's but she never loses it even though she struggles with it.
    They have actually made a Broadway play about Irene's experience and I think it's playing now or at least this past summer.

  3. Great reviews. I have to say that the cover for "On Hitler's Mountain" is both sad, scary and haunting.

    Do people freely hand their freedoms over to despots?
    Absolutely, the Romans did it willfully to the hand of Julius Caesar and we, in the US, are on the verge.

  4. Man of la Book: I agree with you. I am fascinated, stunned and horrified at the phenomena of groupthink.
    That's an interesting comment about the Romans. I haven't read as much on them, although I'm currently slogging through Josephus. I've just got to where Herod Antipas is gaining power.
    If you know any good sources for Roman history I'd like to read it.

  5. I have wanted to read On Hitler's Mountain! Wonderful, detailed review. Now I know what to expect! Here from the Book Lovers' Blog Hop! New follower :)

  6. Sharon, I'm sure there are many sources on general Roman history. I like to read more pinpointed books such as Caesar's Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins in

  7. Man of la Book: Thanks for getting back to me. I will look up Dando's book.

  8. Welcome Priya! I hope you get the chance to read the book. Very eye opening!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.