‘Irena’s Vow’ — Faith and Courage at the Crossroads

This is the story of a heroine who believes that every choice we make for good or evil matters to God and to his plan.

‘Irena’s Vow’ movie poster
‘Irena’s Vow’ movie poster (photo: TIFF / IMDB)

On June 9, 1995, a special ceremony of Catholic and Jewish leaders was held at Shir Ha-Ma’alot synagogue in Irvine, California. Pope John Paul II had bestowed a papal blessing from Rome on 77-year-old Irene Gut Opdyke (née Irena Gut) for her heroic actions as a 19-year-old in Poland to save Jews who would otherwise have died in the Holocaust. The recognition of the Church came 13 years after Irena had been recognized by Yad Vashem in Israel as a “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Now, Irena’s incredible story of faith, courage, and the creativity that comes from both of those, can be seen in a new motion picture, Irena’s Vow, which will receive a limited theatrical release at theaters around the U.S. on April 15-16.

Coming from award-winning director Louise Archambault, Irena’s Vow is a well-executed, “edge of your seat” thriller. The filmmaking never calls attention to itself, but keeps Irena’s story central and always escalating. We’ve seen innumerable stories on the screen of Nazi atrocities, but this movie feels fresh in that the focus stays mainly on the deepening heroism of a simple Polish teenager whose pure faith in God leads her to put everything on the line for a group of strangers. 

Initially, the film’s fascination is in how the Catholic teen outsmarts the Gestapo with sheer moxie and cleverness. Hired as a housekeeper to the German commandant of the town, she ends up hiding 12 Jews right underneath him in his own basement. But eventually, as the stakes get higher, the story takes Irena into unthinkable personal sacrifice to save the lives of her now friends. Irena’s Vow is one of those movies that puts the question viscerally: “What would I have done in the same situation?”

It’s rare to see writing this good in faith-based films. Here, the screenplay is very solid coming from Dan Gordon, who has 35 screen credits including Oscar-nominees The Hurricane (1999) and Wyatt Earp (1995). 

In my interview with screenwriter Gordon, he noted that getting this story to the screen had been a passion project for him that was 25 years in the making. Irena had come out of obscurity in the early 1980s to tell her story in response to a wave of Holocaust denials that were gaining attention. Hearing her on the radio and recognizing the movie potential of the story, Gordon reached out to Irena and they formed a strong bond. Gordon noted, “She became like a second mother to me.” 

Gordon’s love and esteem for Irena make for a very clear and engaging portrayal. As fleshed out by talented actress Sophie Nélisse (Yellowjackets), Irena is a decisive heroine whose simple, pure faith is enough motivation for her to do what she has to.

The vow that is the title of the film, and the inciting incident for Irena’s journey, occurs early in the story when she happens to witness a Nazi officer murdering a Jewish baby and then the child’s mother. Irena noted to Gordon that there was nothing she could do at that moment to stop that evil act, but it led her to make a vow that if she ever could do anything to save a life, she would. That vow came out of the Catholic beliefs that formed the fabric of Irena’s whole life. 

Gordon noted, “Irena had a kind of perfect faith that God would see her through” — even, the movie suggests, if it meant taking her through trauma and death.

One of the most convicting and haunting scenes of the film presents a strong pro-life witness. When one of the Jewish women in hiding discovers she is pregnant, she and her husband make the tortured decision to ask Irena to procure abortifacient drugs for them. None of the 12 Jews hiding in the German commandant’s basement could imagine how they could remain hidden with a baby crying. But Irena makes a strong, principled case that the child’s life must be preserved. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but Irena believes that God will bless their commitment to save a human life.

Through such trials, and amid so many horrors, Irena’s faith in God never wavers. 

Irena’s Vow is well worth seeing for mature audiences. As the story of a person who clearly believes that every choice we make for good or evil matters to God and to his plan, it’s the kind of film that makes it impossible to avoid thinking about our own actions and where they fall on the scale of heroism. 

As Irena noted in a speech to students, “When I was your age, God put me at a crossroads and offered me a choice between a moral and an immoral life.” 

Eventually, everyone finds themselves at those crossroads. The difference for us, too, is whether we have the strong, pure faith in God’s goodness of Irene Gut Opdyke.

 

Irena’s Vow is rated R for a few moments of graphic Nazi brutality and some implied sexuality.

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