Broadway Features and Reviews
Irena's Vow: The Real-Life Irena Gut Opdyke
By Leora Kanner, Broadway Magazine
This month a powerful new drama, Irena's Vow, began previews on Broadway. Starring the four-time Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh, the play has received critical acclaim and promises to be both powerful and moving.
Irena's Vow is a WWII drama telling the courageous true-story of a woman who risked her life to sake twelve Jewish refugees. The Washington Post wrote that Irena has "the clarity and conviction of a woman to whom acts of heroism and courage are simply natural human responses to inhumanity."
So, who was Irena Gut Opdyke? What is her unbelievable story?
Irena Gut was born in 1918 to a Catholic family in central Poland. She studied nursing before the war and joined an underground defense unit when the Germans occupied Poland. Irena was captured by the Russians and after enduring torture, beatings, and rape she was forced to work in a Russian medical unit.
After escaping from her Russian captivity, Irena was forced to work in a German munitions plant. She was then transferred to work in an army mess hall where she had a direct view of the Jewish ghetto. Irena would slip leftover food into the ghetto even though a proclamation had been made that condemned anyone caught helping the Jews to death.
Irena was then requisitioned as the housekeeper of a German SS officer, Eduard Rugemer. As housekeeper, Irena oversaw a staff of a number of Jews. When she learned of their pending transfer to the death camps, she hid 12 of these Jews in Rugemer's basement and provided them with food, clothing, and shelter. Rugemer did discover the Jews, but didn't report them because he could have been implicated as well. Instead he forced Irena to become his mistress.
After the war, Irena met her future husband at a DP camp. He was a UN officer and the couple later settled in California where Irena became an interior decorator. After receiving a phone call about the holocaust, Irena decided to begin speaking about her experiences during the war. She traveled around the country for years speaking to large and small groups about her experiences.
Irena's actions were not only remarkably heroic, but also very atypical of the gentile Polish community of the time. She endured great risk to her own life in order to save the lives of those she had no obligation towards. In 1982 she was named "one of the Righteous Among the Nations" by the Israeli Holocaust Commission. She was also presented with an Israeli medal of honor and received commendation from the Vatican.
The real Irena Gut Opdyke died in May 2003, but her story lives on in the hearts of those she saved and in the retelling of her story through art forms such as the Broadway stage.
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