‘Irena’s Vow’ Tells a WWII Story of a Courageous Catholic

‘Irena’s Vow’ Tells a WWII Story of a Courageous Catholic April 11, 2024

A group of people during World War II hide from Nazis.
‘Irena’s Vow’/Quiver Distribution

On March 29, 2009, writer Dan Gordon’s play Irena’s Vow opened on Broadway. On April 15-16, 2024, Fathom Events releases the movie version of the fact-based WWII tale to theaters nationwide.

By the look of the number of production entities listed at the beginning of the Canadian-Polish production, directed by Louise Archambault, getting this film made was not easy.

“It didn’t take a village,” says Gordon. “It took a United Nations to get this made.”

Irena’s Vow follows close on the heels of Cabrini and Ordinary Angels, two other films centered on courageous and determined women.

I did a fun and enlightening interview with Gordon, who is also a director, novelist, public speaker, and a reserve captain in the Israel Defense Forces. The full video is embedded below, but here are some highlights.

Gordon on the Role of God in Irena’s Vow

Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse (Yellowjackets) stars as Irena Gut, a 19-year-old nurse in occupied Poland during World War II. She’s a devout Catholic, but a horrifying incident solidifies her desire to be a lifesaver.

Says Gordon:

I never thought of it as a Jewish story ever. I thought of it always as a Catholic slash Christian story because the Jews in this are actually very passive. They are what Hitchcock would call the McGuffin [a object, device or event necessary to the plot or the motivations of the characters].

But the protagonist in this piece is Irene is Irena, and everything she does comes out of this perfect faith that she has, that God will see her through.

I knew [the real] Irene, as I say, fairly well, and I’ve never known anyone in my life with such a perfect faith and such a absolutely true north moral compass. There was no hesitation for her.

And she always said, God doesn’t ask you to do what’s impossible, but God does ask you to do what is possible. When she saw a baby killed in front of her and then the mother shot, she said, “I couldn’t have done anything. If I had said one word, I would’ve been shot.”

But that’s when she made a vow that if it ever came into her hand to save a life, she would do it.

When Irena gets the job as housekeeper to a high-ranking local German officer (Dougray Scott) in a large, commandeered villa, she sees an opportunity to hide a group of Jews in the basement. Although the gambit comes at great personal danger and cost to her, she doesn’t hesitate.

Says Gordon:

In the basement of the highest-ranking German officer in town, which is insane. It’s nuts. It’s just flat out nuts. But her faith was such that she believed God, she didn’t have a plan.

She’d be the first to tell you, “Oh, I didn’t think of this, that and the other thing of this contingency. What would we do?” She wasn’t even making it up. She was leaving it up to God.

How a House Becomes a Character in Irena’s Vow

In perhaps a nod to the original play, in which the audience followed the characters through the set depicting the house, the villa itself becomes a character in the film.

Says Gordon:

Partly because of the theatrical experience, the screenplay has a very definite sense of geography of where things have to be, because that’s what makes certain things work.

It did matter tremendously, because you had to buy the notion that an elderly German major in the German army doesn’t realize he’s got 12 Jews in his basement. And that situation persists for the better part of a year.

So you have to understand why would that work, why would that be plausible? And the geography of it has a good deal to do with that. So part of that certainly was in the screenplay. An awful lot of that was in the production design and the location manager.

Not Letting Hitler Have Another Jewish Baby

The issue of abortion also comes up in Irena’s Vow, when one of the concealed Jewish couples discovers that the wife is having a baby. Fearing discovery, the group decides that it’s too risky to go through with the pregnancy and asks Irena to help get necessary supplies.

Even though it’s a part of the original, true story, the scene bothered some reviewers, as Gordon explains (he calls Irena Irene, as she preferred to be called in her postwar life in America):

Some reviewers said, “Oh, and then they stuck in this compulsory anti-abortion scene.” And I went, what? …

But at the end [the  Jews in hiding thought] it just was too dangerous. Irene had a different sense of it, and her sense was not really dogmatic or religious. Irene said, “Hitler is not going to get another Jewish baby.” That’s the way she saw it. And it was so simple to her. …

Wanted to give voice in the play to one of the Jews who was very secular, and I thought represented that point of view. And he said, ‘Wait a second. How do you guarantee that Hitler’s not going to get it?” And she said, “God will not let any harm come to us because of this baby.” …

And I thought that was the most beautiful thing in the world, that this young girl who had had the courage to stand up for what she believed, and then left [that declaration] to work on these other secular folk.

The Importance of Life Experience to Writers

As someone who saw war firsthand with the Israel Defense Forces, Gordon believes that life is the best teacher for any writer.

You can’t learn about life from movies about life. You have to live a life, and then you can try and write about it and try and get to that experience and transmit it either on the page or on the screen to other people.

But you honestly do have to get out there and live something other than the virtual reality. And you’re going to get bumped, you’re going to get bruised, and you’ve got to bless all of those things. You honestly do. You have to.

Click here for theater information and tickets for Irena’s Vow.

And here’s my full interview with Dan Gordon:

Image: Quiver Distribution

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.
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