Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Germany invades Poland, Irene is separated from her family and loses her
country. She says, "In the war, everything was unnatural and unreal. . .
." What is life like during wartime? How does Irene react to her new
circumstances? How does she manage to adapt to the new reality that is
thrust upon her?
Irene asks "Was that girl me? In the war . . . we
wore masks and spoke lines that were not our own." Discuss the different
masks that Irene wears during the war. How much do you think her flair
for acting contributes to her survival? What role does she finally
define for herself?
"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 cross-road; I must
take the right path, or I would no longer be myself." How does Irene
grow into her role as a rescuer? What is her first small step? How does
she gradually increase the risks she takes? What skills does she acquire
that help her succeed? How does her telling her story now relate to her
resistance during the war?
"How could I presume to be their savior? And yet I had promised. I
had to do it." What motivates Irene to take such incredible risks? Is it
her religious belief? Her upbringing? Her anger at the cruelty all
around her? Does she truly consider the alternativesdoes she think it
possible not to help?
Throughout the war, and for many years after, Irene is separated
from her family--first by circumstance, but later as a direct result of
having helped her friends. When does this separation weigh on her the
most heavily? In what ways do the people whom she has helped become her
family? Many years after the war, Irene meets Roman Hallerthe child of
two of the people she hid. How might he be considered a closer relative
than her own nieces and nephews?
Discuss how being female affects Irene throughout the war. She
often refers to herself as "only a girl." For example: "I was only a
girl, alone among the enemy. What could I do?" Yet a page later she
says, "I was only a girl, nobody paid much attention to me." What are
some other advantages and disadvantages of her being "only a girl"? How
do you think she views this status in the end?
Early in the story, Irene is raped, beaten, and left for dead by
Russian soldiers. How does this change her feelings about herself? Her
feelings about men?
Later in the story, Major Rügemer agrees that he will not turn the
Jews hidden in his basement over to the Gestapo if Irene will become his
mistress. She describes this relationship as "worse than rape." In what
ways is it worse? Does she believe she has any choice? What does she
imagine the people she is hiding would want her to do?
Irene often contrasts the major's decent behavior with Rokita's
cruelty. But after the major forces her into a sexual relationship, she
feels confused. "I wondered how the major's honor would allow him to
make such a bargain. I had always felt that behind the uniform was a
decent man. I had never seen him do anything cruel or rash. . . ." Does
Irene realize the full extent of the major's feelings for her? How does
she use his affection to her advantage? Is his eventual exploitation of
her inevitable, as she implies?
What are Major Rügemer's feelings for Irene? He both protects her
and does her harmhow would you assess his behavior as a whole? Why does
he take Irene to visit her "cousin"? When he leaves Irene alone at the
hotel, do you think he knows that she will run from him? Do you find his
actions forgivable? Is it possible to feel sympathy for him? Does Irene
forgive him? What happens to him at the end of the war?
How would you contrast the major's behavior with that of Herr
Schulz? Irene calls him a "good, friendly man" and admits "he made
hating the Germans a complex matter, when it should have been such a
straightforward one." Why does Irene suspect that he knows what she is
doing? How much is he willing to help? Is Herr Schulz's behavior
understandable? Excusable? Laudable?
Irene faces the threats of torture and imprisonment in Siberia.
She is raped by a Russian soldier, blackmailed by a German officer, and
separated for years from her family. She knows that the fate of her
Jewish friends is in her hands. What does she risk to help? What is her
When the Jews whom Irene has been hiding escape into the forest,
she is unsure what to do next. She explains: "Shouldn't I have been
happy? But I was oddly dejected, because my great and righteous
undertaking was finished." Then, on the very next page, she says she has
found her calling. She throws herself into fighting for Poland by
joining the resistance. After the war, does she continue her efforts? If
Irene often goes to church and confession. Does religion sustain
her or fail her in her times of need? Discuss the different clergymen
she encounters. How does she cope with their conflicting advice and
Does Irene's faith ever waver? Does she question God? At what
point in the story? She ends her memoir with the words "Go with God."
How does she hold on to her belief in God when she has witnessed so much
suffering and cruelty?
The book is framed by the sections "Tears" and "Amber." How are
these two pieces related? How do they reflect Irene's growth from the
beginning of the war to the end? How has the meaning of amber shifted by
the end of the memoir?
Irene often says that she had no choice but to act as she did and
that God put her in the right place to act. But in her epilogue she
tells us, "God gave me this free will for my treasure. I can say this
now. I understand this now. The war was a series of choices made by many
people." Were Irene's actions predestined or the result of her free
will? How is free will an important idea in understanding the Holocaust?
Images of birds permeate Irene's memoir. Discuss what all these
different birds might mean. Sparrows, hens, storks, pigeons . . . do any
of these symbolize Irene? What else do the birds represent?
On the very first page of Irene's story, an image of a bird
represents a horrible scene she witnessed during the war: "There was a
bird flushed up from the wheat fields, disappearing in a blur of wings
against the sun, and then a gunshot and it fell to the earth. But it was
not a bird. It was not a bird, and it was not in the wheat field, but
you can't understand what it was yet." What does she need to make the
reader understand? Why do you think she begins and ends her story with a
reference to this incident?
The real scene represented by this image is one of the most
indelible in the book: a soldier viciously throws a baby into the air
and shoots it. The people Irene is with when she sees this happen turn
away from the horror, but Irene continues to look. Why does she watch?
Irene and her companions do not discuss what they have seen, but
keep the secret until they "could bring it out, and show it to others,
and say, 'Behold. This is the worst thing man can do.'" How does Irene "show it to others" and what does she hope to accomplish by doing so?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
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