The Miracle Worker

‘Irena's Vow'

Irena's Vow

When Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic, immigrated to the United States in 1949, she was not yet thirty years old. Like so many Europeans who had survived the horrors of the Second World War, she struggled to leave her memories behind her. For decades Opdyke kept quiet about her experiences in Poland under German and Russian occupation. No one could have guessed what an incredible story she had to tell.

In her memoir In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer (Knopf, 1999), Opdyke describes her reaction to a violent pogrom:

We did not speak of what we had seen. At the time, to speak of it seemed worse than sacrilege: We had witnessed a thing so terrible that it acquired a dreadful holiness. It was a miracle of evil. It was not possible to say with words what we had witnessed, and so we kept it safely guarded until the time when we could bring it out, and show it to others, and say, “Behold. This is the worst thing man can do.”

After the war, Opdyke married an American. They raised a daughter in California, where Opdyke worked as an interior decorator. She guarded her memories until an encounter with the shocking phenomenon of Holocaust denial convinced her it was time to bear witness to the evil she had seen. So she spoke to groups at schools, churches, and synagogues. She told of how her family, and her country, suffered when the Germans invaded; how she was attacked and raped by Russian soldiers; how she was swept up in a raid while she was at Mass and forced to work without pay in a German munitions factory. And then she told them how she risked her life to save others, hiding twelve Jews in the cellar of the home where she worked as a housekeeper for a Wehrmacht officer. Opdyke was more than a witness, more than a survivor. She was a hero.

Opdyke died in 2003, but her memoir (written with historical-fiction author Jennifer Armstrong) remains as a testament to her courage. A tree was planted in her honor at the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel, when she was recognized as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” And her heroics are the basis for the new play Irena’s Vow, which recently opened on Broadway.

Playwright Dan Gordon focuses narrowly on Opdyke’s plan to save Jewish lives, cramming the events of several years into a bumpy ninety minutes. The result is a hurried exercise in Holocaust-drama shorthand: swastika armbands, yellow stars, uneven German accents. So many factual details have been removed, for expediency, that the plot feels less than credible. And though Tovah Feldshuh gives a commanding performance as Irena (Opdyke’s Polish name), she is constantly in motion, rushing from one plot point to the next. Irena addresses the audience almost constantly, but she never seems to stand still long enough for anyone to get to know her.

This is problematic, because Opdyke’s story grows more interesting, and more challenging, as you learn more about her life. As In My Hands records, Opdyke was directly responsible for saving the lives of twelve people, but she took other risks to provide food and assistance to many more. And she did it all despite being virtually powerless herself. Seen in close-up, her righteousness—taken almost for granted in Irena’s Vow—turns out to be the product of extraordinarily difficult circumstances. At the point where Irena’s Vow picks up the story, Opdyke had already been captured by the Russians twice, and had escaped twice. She was underfed and faint with anemia when she was hired by the German officer, Major Rügemer. And as she worked, she worried about her family, impoverished and suffering acutely under German occupation. The story may be too broad to fit neatly on a stage, but only a comprehensive accounting of Opdyke’s experiences can do justice to her heroism.

Gordon’s script barely hints at the many factors that shaped Opdyke’s spirit: her ardent Polish patriotism, her concern for her scattered family members, her own mistreatment at the hands of the Russians and the Germans. While Opdyke was providing shelter for her Jewish friends in the cellar of Major Rügemer’s villa, she was indirectly assisted by the head of the household staff, Herr Schulz. “I was almost angry at Schulz for being so kind and helping me help the Jews without admitting it,” she recalls in In My Hands. “He made hating the Germans a complex matter, when it should have been such a straightforward one.” In contrast, Irena’s Vow too often simplifies complex situations, neglecting to communicate the human side of Opdyke’s superhuman courage.

Aside from a largely anachronistic debate about the morality of abortion, the play betrays little interest in how Opdyke’s Catholic faith influenced her choices. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the church provided unreliable moral support at a time when giving aid to Jews was a capital offense. Religion offered little comfort when Rügemer found out about the Jews hiding in his cellar. He did not expose the secret, but in exchange for his silence he demanded that Opdyke become his mistress. Bizarrely, Irena’s Vow attempts to romanticize this turn of events, portraying the cruelly exploitative Rügemer as lonely and starved for affection. Even stranger, the play does not disclose the fact that Opdyke kept this sacrifice to herself, never telling her Jewish friends the price she was paying on their behalf. She did, however, bring her guilt to the confessional, seeking encouragement, as she records in her memoir. The priest she spoke with told her she was committing a mortal sin, regardless of the circumstances. He refused to give her absolution.

Rejecting the priest’s counsel, Opdyke depended instead on the voice of her own conscience. “I did not ask myself, Should I do this? But, How will I do this?” she recalls in In My Hands. “I must take the right path, or I would no longer be myself.” Only seventeen when the Germans invaded Poland, Opdyke spent the next ten years assuming a succession of false identities. She pretended to be German to pass through Russian checkpoints. She was “Rachel Meyer” when she hid from the Russians, and “Mala” when she joined the resistance movement after the Soviet “liberation” of Poland. She degraded herself to take on the role of “girlfriend” to Rügemer. And finally, when she was reunited with some of her Jewish friends after the war, she enlisted their help to disguise herself as “Sonia Sofierstein,” a fellow Jew, so that she could be admitted to a repatriation camp and, from there, find a way out of Europe. Irena’s Vow passes over most of this, giving no notion of the disorientation and loneliness Opdyke experienced during the war. By the end, she writes in her memoir, “I did not know Irene.”

Despite its based-on-a-true-story credentials, Irena’s Vow ultimately feels less than authentic. It is an astonishing, suspenseful, and uplifting story, a true-life “miracle of goodness” in the midst of overwhelming evil. But it lacks the immediacy of a witness’s testimony. Only by considering Opdyke’s entire story—everything she survived, everything she saw and knew—can we really be challenged by what she accomplished. From our historical perspective, Opdyke’s righteousness seems obvious, even predetermined. But at the time, she was very much on her own—even the church couldn’t offer her unequivocal support. We shouldn’t be able to hear her story, and applaud her courage, without asking what made her different, and why there were so few miracles like hers.


Pictured: Tovah Feldshuh and cast in Irena's Vow. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Related: My Polish Grandfather, by Alexander Charns

Published in the 2009-05-08 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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