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Jewish Journal

Tovah Feldshuh immortalizes life of young Shoah heroine in ‘Irena’s Vow’

By David A. Lash

November 20, 2008 | 1:26 am

Tovah Feldshuh <br />
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Tovah Feldshuh
Photo by Carol Rosegg

In a small theater just off Lexington Avenue in New York City, a Southern California heroine comes to life. For 90 minutes, the wonders of great theater, personal strength, history and humanity combine in a play that transcends and empowers each.

"Irena's Vow" is the story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a young Polish Catholic woman who took unimaginable risks and paid an unspeakable personal price to save the lives of 12 Jews by hiding them in the basement of the villa where she was virtually enslaved by a German major during World War II.

The teenage Irena also saved countless others by smuggling food and information to the nearby resistance, when she selflessly, courageously and, perhaps, almost inexplicably defied the Nazis. What she saw, what she experienced and what she endured are beyond comprehension. How this young girl stepped up, looked her own death in the eyes and triumphed, is a story that goes well beyond theater.

As depicted in the play, Opdyke emerges from the torture of her youth late in life. Living in Southern California, she decides to lift her emotional veil after hearing a Holocaust denier spill his venom. She believes she had to stand up again, and she tells her story to a new generation of children.

Opdyke's tale is eloquent and powerful. She talks about forced labor, of escaping into the forest, of losing her family and of being raped and nearly killed. She describes the evil she saw by explaining its impact and cruelty. Her story of a baby being ripped from the arms of its mother, tossed into the air and shot as target practice is just one example of the horrors she witnessed and would never let be denied.

For those of us listening, there are few moments like that in our lives. For Opdyke, there were only a few moments not like that in her life. For its off-Broadway audience at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, the honesty and emotion is overwhelming.

It was one of the great honors of my life when, on behalf of Bet Tzedek, The House of Justice, I agreed to represent Opdyke in a suit brought to restore to her the disputed rights to her own remarkable life story. Together with a heroic pro bono effort from Carole Handler and Jeff Tidus, who gave us invaluable expertise as trial co-counsel, we gained far more than just another client. We learned a lesson about a lifetime of dignity. And we made a friend and found a hero, forever.

After the trial concluded, we helped Opdyke sell the rights to her story to Dan Gordon, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. He has turned her tale into compelling theater that is as personal and intimate as it is historic and powerful.

The 12 Jews in the basement are cleverly depicted through the eyes and words of three -- a frightened young woman and a married couple. When the couple becomes pregnant, the dilemma it presents is one of life or death during the Holocaust. Issues of abortion, faith, safety, majority rule and hope are real and moving. The Nazi major is a beast of unspeakable magnitude, yet there is just enough of a hint of humanity that the decisions he ultimately makes are understandable, compassionate and repulsive, all at the same time.

The final message of the play, a plea from Irena for tolerance -- for carrying forth after the last survivors and eyewitnesses are gone -- is not a clichéd speech but instead a prayer from one woman, slight in stature, gigantic in character, coming from a personal will that after a stunning performance from acclaimed actress Tovah Feldshuh is full of reality and understatement.

Although she died in 2003, Opdyke comes alive on stage. Although her accent is not as thick as Opdyke's and her halting English not as cumbersome, Feldshuh's poetic license only brings the deceased more to life. She captures the humanity, vulnerability, naiveté and strength that defined Opdyke as no other. She also captures the will, despite seriously ill health, that pushed Opdyke to travel the world, visiting classrooms full of children dubious about listening to an old woman but soon to fall completely in love with her.

In the end, we are left to wonder why Opdyke risked everything. What would we risk to do the right thing? What would we risk to save a life? How far would we go to save a stranger? The play profoundly and subtly explores those difficult, universal questions. It's hard to explain the answer. But for Opdyke, there seemed not even to be a question.

The play's producers hope to raise enough money to take "Irena's Vow" to Broadway. A sold-out eight-week run gives them hope. But if that means later taking the play on the road, visiting cities around the world as Opdyke did, then great theater and a personal story of strength will live on, teaching tolerance, just as she wanted.

David A. Lash is an attorney with the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles. While serving as the executive director of Bet Tzedek from 1994-2003, he and pro bono volunteers Carole Handler and Jeffrey Tidus represented Irena Gut Opdyke.

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