When Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic, immigrated to the United States in 1949, she was not quite 30 years old. As with so many Europeans who had survived the atrocities of World War II, she struggled to leave memories behind. For decades, Opdyke remained silent about her experiences in Poland under German and Russian occupation.
She kept silent until the Holocaust denial convinced her it was time to testify to the evil she had endured. She began speaking to groups at schools, churches and synagogues. She shared the horrors of the suffering within her family and country, when the Germans invaded. She told anyone who would listen 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.
Finally, she told them how she risked her life to save others, hiding 12 Jews in the cellar of the home where, at just 19-years-old, she worked as a housekeeper for a Wehrmacht officer. Opdyke was more than a witness, more than a survivor. She was a hero.
Acacia brings story to life
The story of Opdyke comes to life in “Irena’s Vow,” written by Dan Gordon. Acacia Theatre Company will perform the play on Nov. 9-11, and 15-18, at Concordia University. Director Elaine Rewolinski, also a Polish Catholic, finds inspiration in the woman molded by life experiences of service and sacrifice.
“When I was asked to read the script, I was interested, but it was the opening monologue by Irena that kept me reading. I have always been fascinated by stories of ordinary people living extraordinary lives, and they do so by accepting and embracing the challenges that come to them in their lifetime,” she explained. “Throughout the story, we see a woman who is challenged by some very dreadful turn of events in her life, and yet she perseveres with creativity and bases her decisions and takes action with the guidance of a firm moral compass, and her faith in God.”
For two years, Opdyke used wit, humor and courage to protect the lives of the refugees. She obtained food and blankets and smuggled people who escaped a work camp through the forest.
For Rewolinski, who has acted and directed at Acacia since 1991, sharing “Irena’s Vow” with the Milwaukee area helped her to reconnect with her own Polish heritage while telling the story of a real Polish heroine.
If you want to go
Irena’s Vow Performances:
Concordia University Wisconsin’s Todd Wehr Auditorium
Cardinal Stritch University
will also present “Irena’s Vow” in the university’s Nancy Kendall Theater, 6801 N. Yates Road, Milwaukee, on Friday, Nov. 2 and Saturday Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m. and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4.
Tickets: $12 adults, $10 seniors, $6 seniors
For more information or to order tickets, call (414) 410-4171 or visit the website.
“Irene Gut Opdyke began speaking about her experiences because someone suggested to her that the Holocaust never happened, and that gave her the inspiration to tell as many people as possible about her life as a rescuer,” said Rewolinski. “I also think there are some people out there who don’t realize the personal sacrifices many Poles made as part of the resistance during both the Nazi and Russian occupations of Poland, and Irena’s vow to do what she could to save even one life is a story that needs retelling.”
Play includes Catholic elements
While Rewolinski doesn’t believe the playwright intended to include Catholic elements in the script, aside from recitation of a “Hail Mary” and a decidedly pro-life
stance, Opdyke is portrayed as a woman of deep faith willing to do whatever God asked.
“She was an ordinary woman who lived her life with humility and compassion for all people, regardless of religion,” she said, adding, “All the characters in the script represent the many challenges to living a life of faith and hope. Some characters follow orders regardless of the morality of the decision, or act out of selfishness with no regard for others, but Irena’s faith in God remained constant, despite the challenges she endured.”
Throughout her story, Opdyke is confronted by the cruelty of man and uses humor to lighten the emotional burden, explained Rewolinski.
“For example, when she and her houseguests are in imminent danger of discovery as soldiers come to search the house, she describes the scene with a comic tone that suggests a fool-hardiness in their ability to deceive a house full of Germans,” said Rewolinski. “When the soldiers search the basement, she sends the Jews to the attic, and vice versa, and the pattern repeats until the soldiers are convinced the house is empty. Many of these scenes are written as monologues to the audience, reminiscent of a comedian retelling a visually comic moment, and these lighter moments help balance the serious portions of the drama.”
Views actions through Catholic lens
For Tim Goetcher, playing Schulz, the head servant of Major Rügemer, a German Wehrmacht officer and Opdyke’s employer, allows him to reflect on his own Catholic faith and the sanctity of human life.
“Irena is Catholic, and she views her actions and morality through a very Catholic lens,” said Goetcher, 24, of Franklin. “The audience will see the heroic example of an imperfect, but earnest Catholic woman who strove to preserve life at nearly any cost to herself. It helps me to think about my own life and reflect not only on what I would do in challenging situations like the ones Irena faced, but also on how I can apply to my own life the way Irena lived the faith when she made right choices.”
Goetcher began his career at age 9, with his first role performing in a homeschool play. As a Catholic actor, he reminds himself that any art, including theater, is not solely for the audience, or for himself, but for the greater glory of God.
“If art doesn’t do this, it degrades itself and the people involved,” he explained.
Opdyke shows that the key to facing overwhelming hatred is love, humility and gentleness, said Rewolinski.
“She inspires me to always have hope and to recognize the joy that comes in service to others,” said Rewolinski, explaining when she directs for Acacia, she finds a passage of Scripture to bridge the Acacia season theme, which is “Contemplating Character,” and the script.
“For this show, I chose Ephesians 4:1-6 – ‘I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving, to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace … one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’”
Theater stretches director’s faith
Rewolinski explained those words reveal the heart of what it means to be a Christian and offer a list of virtues “we can all aspire toward in living on faith on a daily basis. When I work on a show for Acacia, it stretches my faith.”
Rewolinski, a longtime actor and director, began acting, singing and playing the violin as a young girl. In addition to two bachelor’s degrees from UW-Madison in communications and theater, and radio/TV/film specialization, she earned a master of fine arts degree in drama at University of Arizona, and secondary education certification in English/speech/theater from Alverno College.
“I love being part of a team and telling a story for a live audience,” she said, adding, “At Acacia Theatre, we work with men and women from different faiths and at different points in their spiritual journeys, so I am always in the process of learning about and appreciating other faith traditions while strengthening the understanding of my own.”