‘Irena’s Vow’ – an inspirational true story of daring, guts and bravery

The Germans forced her – a conquered Pole ­– to work in the villa of a Wehrmacht major in the German barracks. When she overheard that the Germans intended to liquidate the Jews.

Actress Rivka Deray [R] and fellow actors present the story of Polish woman Irena Gut who rescued Jews during the Second World War  (photo credit: ITA ARBIT)
Actress Rivka Deray [R] and fellow actors present the story of Polish woman Irena Gut who rescued Jews during the Second World War
(photo credit: ITA ARBIT)
In 1942, teenage innocence came to an abrupt end in one traumatic instant for Irena Gut, a stunningly attractive Polish blond, when she witnessed a Nazi soldier sadistically murder a baby – tearing the infant from the mother’s arms, throwing it into the air and shooting it “like a bird,” as she later recounted in a broadcast interview.
The first of many unimaginable atrocities she would observe, it spurred her to vow to help the Jews if she ever had an opportunity, fully aware that she would be risking her life. “We are responsible for each other, for helping each other in need.”
The opportunity to help soon came.
The Germans forced her – a conquered Pole ­– to work in the villa of a Wehrmacht major in the German barracks. When she overheard that the Germans intended to liquidate the Jews in the town, she decided to do the unthinkable.
Could she really save 12 Jewish slave laborers who were her indentured coworkers from the death camp? She lived in the German major’s house – where could she possibly hide so many people for an extended, open-ended period of time? How could she hope to steal enough food and get it to the hidden group day after day to provide for their needs and keep them all alive?
The plan she developed takes bravery and chutzpah to unprecedented levels. It is fraught with perils; there are sure to be multiple terrifying near misses when they are almost discovered. Eventually, the situation they all fear most must almost certainly happen. If and when it does, how can Gut and the hapless Jews avoid certain rapid death to ultimately survive the war?
The answers to these questions make for a nail-biting and moving story that won Gut recognition at Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile – and makes for powerful theater. Be prepared for surprises.
For decades Gut kept silent about her experience, but ultimately opened up after an interaction with a Holocaust denier. Once the story became known, a book was written and it was also immortalized in the beloved play Irena’s Vow by Dan Gordon, which starred Tovah Feldshuh in its 2008-2009 Broadway run.
Israelis finally have a chance to experience one of the most moving plays they will ever see – a riveting roller-coaster ride laced with danger, emotion, humor, suspense, humanity and love.
Having attended a stage rehearsal, The Jerusalem Post can report that the J-Town Playhouse theater group, experienced director Yardena Buxner and her exceptional cast have put together a hard-punching, spirited production that breathes life and meaning into this inspiring story.
At the rehearsal, we spoke with Buxner and some of the actors.
Why did you choose this play?
Buxner: Most people have never heard of Irena Gut, but she deserves to be known. This is good theater, blending the best and worst of humanity, loving relationships, fascinating psychology and on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense and plot twists. But beyond all that, it is a good play, a good story, and I’m a storyteller by nature. It’s an honor to bring Irena’s story forward, to capture some of their reality – the fears, the hopes and even the joy.
The cast is an ensemble of ridiculously talented, experienced actors from Israel and around the world mixed in a fascinating way. The lead role of the non-Jewish Irena Gut is played by a Jewish immigrant from the United States; one of the key Jewish slave laborers is played by a Christian actor on a program from South Africa; and the SS officer is portrayed by a towering 23-year-old blond, non-Jewish Aryan-looking German student at Hebrew University.
Watching them grow into, embrace and become their roles, bond as a team and generate real cast chemistry has been pure joy.
Despite your youth, you are an accomplished veteran on Jerusalem stages. What is it like for you to play the lead role of Irena?
Rivka Deray: It’s an amazing story about a woman who sacrificed an incredible amount over a long period of time to keep 12 people safe. She saw what was happening around her: Jews were being killed and no one was stepping in. She decides to do something. She sacrifices her own safety numerous times, really giving of herself throughout the war. It is an honor and a challenge to get to play this role. I pray that I will be able to do it justice. It’s a story that deserves to be told right.
The play gets you with the beats. It breaks it up very nicely. There are the really big danger moments and then there are intervals when you can breathe for a second where she’s having a wonderful interaction and then, boom – oh God, we’re in danger again. It gives you a real idea of what she was going through. Every time she lets her guard down momentarily, it is like no... Panic! You’ve got to get your guard back up – you need to do what you can as fast as you can to avert this life-threatening crisis.
In acting it out, I feel a fraction of the whiplash that she must have felt actually living it. Thankfully, the playwright and director are talented at lightening up the story by bringing out the elements of humor, kind of tragicomedy – a really good mix of serious moments and outright funny relief.

As a Christian from South Africa, how does it feel as a human and as an actor to suddenly find yourself in a production in Israel playing a Jew hunted by Nazis?
Rean Combrinck: I play a Polish Jew hiding with his wife from the Nazis who assumes responsibility for the whole group and becomes their impromptu leader. It is a tough role for me because he has some really difficult moral decisions to make. It’s been really instructive to me. Being in Israel and in this play, I’ve gotten much more of a feel for the soul of the Jewish people – their concerns, their fears and their history. Life can be terrible, but when people decide to help each other and stand together, something beautiful is created.

It is uncanny seeing Jews in the play cower in fear from a Nazi who is not only an actor, but is an actual German who looks and sounds like one. How does playing this role make you feel?
Lauritz Streck: The character is depicted as devastatingly handsome and every bit a Nazi. I am quite stereotypically German-looking compared to the average Israeli. I always wonder when I read about the Holocaust – it’s incredible how many people got completely dehumanized and did such terrible things. They can’t all just be evil. I hoped that I could understand what made normal people collaborate and do what they did. As usual, I try to get into the head and the heart of the character, to feel what he feels. It is not easy for me this time on many levels. If I tried too hard to become the role, I’m afraid it would give me nightmares.
One of the things I like about the play is that it is a unique perspective on the Holocaust – uplifting, not terrible and depressing. It’s more about tricking the Nazis than about the horrors of the Holocaust. The true story it is based on is amazing and inspirational, and this is all conveyed so well in the show.
For those who appreciate good English-speaking theater and are also looking for a meaningful and memorable activity for the entire family during this poignant month in our national calendar, Irena’s Vow is as good as it gets – a rare gem that packs a punch and is as enjoyable as it is worthwhile viewing.

Irena’s Vow opens May 1 at the AACI at 6 p.m. with a special performance and ceremony. Performances on May 2, 5, 7, 14 and 16 will be at 7 p.m. There will be a Remembrance Eve ceremony May 7 at 4 p.m. and Remembrance Day at 5 p.m. Info and tickets (NIS 80; discounts for soldiers, students and AACI members) at: www.aaci.org.il
Find out more about what’s going on in the Jerusalem English theater community at jetcommunity.org.