Irena’s Vow

Aired on April 9, 2009;  performance:  April 3, 2009

This is the story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Catholic Polish woman ”employed,” to be euphemistic, by the Nazis, and one in particular:  Major Rugemer, played by Thomas Ryan.  The major takes a shine to young, petite, attractive Irena and transfers her to his home as his personal housekeeper.  While there she undertakes to assist a dozen Jews whose final voyage to the death camps is imminent.

Irena allows them to stay right in the major’s own cellar, knowing full well she was risking her own life by doing so.  When the major hears rats in the cellar he orders them exterminated and Irena moves her charges to a secret room under the gazebo.  The major has been a gentlemen to Irena all along, but when he discovers her deception and his potential humiliation, he offers to overlook the facts if she will only say that she cares for him.  So she cares for him in body, if not soul, performing her Christian duty at the expense of her modesty.

Irena is memorialized next to Oskar Schindler on the wall honoring the Righteous Among the Nations in Jerusalem, and in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  The story is touching and adequately acted.  The sparse set is a bit too sparse, but the story is told, and that is what is important.  Tovah Feldshuh plays Irena, and in an end piece after the performance which made the one I attended special, Jeannie Opdyke Smith, Irena’s daughter, took the stage to answer questions about her mom.  An articulate woman, Jeannie says she knew nothing of her mom’s heroism until the 1970’s, three decades after the events transpired. 

Once she opened up, though, Irena started making tours of schools to teach young people about the Holocaust.  She died at age 85 in California just six years ago in 2003.

The story is poignant, the production carries it.  No star performances but really, this is not that kind of play.  The story is what is important here and it rings out loud as a bell.  Some plays transcend production values and performances and this is surely in that category.  If you get the message, then the play is successful, and I doubt you can see it without getting the message.  It is similar to Schindler’s List without the graphic carnage and brutality which remains implicit here.  If this type of heroism interests you, then I recommend the play.