‘Irena’s Vow’ is a Harrowing Tale of Heroism

Filmed on location in Poland, Irena’s Vow tells the true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, who is honored by Yad Vashem as a Ger Tzaddik (Righteous Among the Nations) for saving the lives of thirteen Jews during the Holocaust. 

I met Opdyke back in 1991 when I was an undergrad. Her story is burned into my memory more deeply than any lecture I attended in my four years of college. Irena Gut was a teenage girl in Poland who studied nursing and performed triage in a hospital in 1939. Then, the Hitler-Stalin Pact erases her country from the map, and Irena is conscripted into the service of Major Rugmer, the highest-ranking German officer in the region. Irena is put in charge of 11 Jewish tailors who aren’t tailors; they just need to prove themselves “essential” to stay out of the camps. 

One of the challenges of capturing the Holocaust in film is bearing witness to its brutality. The details are gruesome and difficult to see, yet essential to the story. This particular moment comes when Irena witnesses a Jewish family being rounded up for relocation. A young mother is pleading with the soldiers not to be so rough with her and her baby. That’s when a Nazi officer, in cold blood, kills the baby and then shoots the distraught mother. At that moment, Irena Gut vows that if she ever has the opportunity to save a life, she will. 

As a servant, Irena is invisible. The Nazi officers speak freely around her, which is how she learns of their plans to eliminate and replace the Jews under her charge. 

When Rugmer appropriates a villa outside of Lublin, Rugmer makes Irena his housekeeper, and Irena uses this villa to hide her Jewish friends, shifting them from a crawl space to the attic, to the cellar, to a hidden safe room just below the gazebo in the garden. The major frequently entertains high-ranking members of the military, including SS and Gestapo. And all the while, a group of Jews is hiding directly under their feet. There are close calls that leave the audience holding their breath. 

When Rugmer does come home early one morning and sees the Jews who have been living under his feet, he knows that his life is in danger as well. Rugmer agrees to be silent only on the condition that Irena becomes his willing mistress. It recounted it as “a small price to pay to save their lives.”

The actors’ performances are profoundly layered and intriguing.  Sophie Nélisse took us by the hand through her perilous journey as Irena. She looked the part of a frightened, naïve youth, but acted with great cunning and courage. Dougray Scott (Major Rugmer) was a true kommandant when in uniform, but underneath, he was a sad, frightened, and painfully lonely man who wanted so badly to be loved that he would settle for pretend. 

Maciej Nawrocki (Rokita) looks the part of a handsome young lover in a rom-com. Yet the very nature of his work in the SS calls for a cold-blooded psychopath, whistling as he publicly executes two families with young children. 

Adrzej Seweryn is fatherly and kind as Herr Schulz. This isn’t his first war, so he cautions Irena, “You take care of you. Keep your eyes down. See nothing. Speak nothing. Your survival depends on it.” He has suspicions but insists that he doesn’t want to know. What he doesn’t know can’t be beaten out of him. 

Less developed were the hidden Jews, yet each owned their role. Thrown together by circumstance, they quickly grew to rely on Irena and one another. I liked that they didn’t just happen to be Jewish. Rather, they embraced being Jewish, softly chanting the Chanukah blessings while the Germans sang, O, Tannenbaum above them. 

‘Irena’s Vow’ is playing at theaters around the Twin Cities via Fathom Events, on April 15 and 16. Check the website for theaters and showtimes.