"I'm Joseph Weiss," the eldest of the three said. "And this is Marian Wilner and Alex Rosen. Henry told us."
For a moment I was at a loss. I had ten lives in my hands now! But there wasn't time for lengthy introductions. The soldiers from the plant were due any minute to start painting.
"Hurry, everyone," I said. "You'll have to stay in the attic until the house is painted. I'll check on you as often as I can. I don't need to tell you not to make any noise at all."
This was met with grim nods all around. Then we made our way upstairs. The attic was musty; dust swirled in a shaft of light from the high window, and the air smelled of mouse droppings. "Shoes off," I said. "Don't walk around unless you absolutely must."
I locked them in just as trucks ground to a halt out on the street.
I kicked the basement door shut on my way to let in the soldiers, and then unlocked the front door.
"This way," I said, stepping aside to usher them in with their painting equipment and drop cloths. When I glanced outside, I saw the major climbing out of a car.
"Guten Tag, Irene," he called cheerily.
I bobbed my head. "Herr Major."
"This is splendid," he said, rubbing his hands together as he came inside. "I'll move in in a week or so, when all the painting and repairs are finished, but in the meantime, I'd like you to move in right away, so that you can oversee things. Don't worry about your duties at the hotel -- if you can serve dinner, Schulz can manage without you the rest of the time."
As he spoke, Major Rügemer strolled back and forth across the hallway, glancing into the rooms and nodding his approval. His footsteps echoed off the walls, and he muttered, "Ja, ja, ausgezeichnet," under his breath. Then, when another truckload of soldiers arrived, he went outside to meet them and show them around the garden: There were renovations to be made on the grounds, as well. I stood at the dining room window, watching him point out the gazebo and indicate which shrubs and trees should be removed and where new ones should be planted. Behind me, I could hear the painters beginning to shove furniture across the floors, exchanging jokes and commenting on the weather and the sour cabbagey smell left behind by the previous tenants. I heard one of them say "...the major's girlfriend."
I gritted my teeth and prepared to spend the day keeping the soldiers away from the attic.
For the next few days, while the soldiers swarmed around the villa -- painting, repairing, replanting -- I contrived to smuggle food upstairs to the attic. I took fruit and cheese, cold tea, bread and nuts. I also took up two buckets to use for toilets. The attic was stuffy with the heat of summer, but we were reluctant to open the one window high on the wall. The fugitives had accustomed themselves to much more discomfort than this. They were willing to sit in the stifling heat, not speaking, just waiting. At night, when the workmen were gone and I had returned from the hotel, I was able to give my friends some minutes of liberty. They used the bathroom, stretched their legs, and bathed their sweating faces with cool water. But we did not turn on any lights, and we were still as silent as ghosts.
It wasn't long before the servants' quarters had been completely refurbished; I had seen to that. Telling the workmen that the major had ordered the work to be done from bottom to top, I directed them to start with the basement. Then, when it was finished, I waited until dark and triumphantly escorted my friends to their new quarters, fresh with the smell of sawdust and new paint instead of old cooking.
It was the start of a new way of life for all of us. Several of the men, being handy and intelligent, were able to rig up a warning system. A button was installed in the floor of the front entry foyer, under a faded rug. From it, a wire led to a light in the basement, which would flicker on and off when I stepped on the button. I kept the front door locked at all times, and when I went to see who might be knocking, I had ample opportunity to signal to the people in the basement. One flash would warn them to stand by for more news. Two flashes meant to be very careful, and constant flashing meant danger -- hide immediately. We had also found the villa's rumored hiding place: A tunnel led from behind the furnace to a bunker underneath the gazebo. If there was serious danger, everyone could instantly scramble into the hole and wait for me to give them the all clear. The cellar was kept clear of any signs of occupation. Once the men had killed all the rats living in the bunker under the gazebo, it could accommodate all ten people without too much discomfort.
Excerpted from In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong Copyright© 1999 by Irene Gut Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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