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 | Francesca Pollio Fenton | Catholic News Agency

‘Irena’s Vow’: The True Story of a Polish Catholic Nurse Who Hid Jews During the Holocaust

A new film depicting the incredible true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic nurse who risked her own life to hide Jews persecuted by Nazi Germany during World War II, debuts in theaters across the country April 15-16. 

“Irena’s Vow” is told through the eyes of strong-willed 19-year-old Irena Gut. When Gut is promoted to be the housekeeper in the home of a highly respected Nazi officer after learning that the Jewish ghetto is about to be liquidated, she makes it her mission to help the Jewish workers.

Gut decides to shelter them in the safest place she can think of — the basement of the German major’s house. Over the next two years, she uses her creativity and quick thinking to keep her friends safe until she is able to help them escape. 

Actress Sophie Nélisse portrays Gut in the film. She and Jeannie Smith, Irena’s real-life daughter, spoke to CNA about what they hope viewers will take away from the film and what it’s like for Smith to share and watch her mother’s story on the big screen.

“I immediately fell in love with Irena’s story because I felt it was just so relevant to this day, and I think there’s so much to learn from her story and a tale that brings a lot of hope, I find, despite all the horrific events,” Nélisse said. 

As a Catholic, Smith shared that her mother’s faith “100% played a role” in the work she did to save the lives of Jews. 

“She was raised that people mattered and that the differences in people did not matter,” she said. “They were all human beings and part of one human family and stood under God created by him.”

Smith added that Gut had “childlike trust.”

“[God] would open a path and she would walk in it and then it was up to him to take care of her, and her job was just to do what she was supposed to do — to follow. She kept that her whole life. It just was part of her. It wasn’t even something she had to think about,” Smith said.

Gut had no intention of ever sharing her story when she came to the United States, Smith explained. It wasn’t until she crossed paths with a “Holocaust denier” that she opened up about her experience. 

“She was faced with a Holocaust denier, over the phone, a young man who was just doing a report in school about the propaganda of it all,” Smith recalled. “That’s when she realized that if she didn’t start talking, history could easily repeat itself.”

From then on, her mother slowly began talking, but it was evident to Smith “how hard it was for her, especially that first time, and I stayed away from the subject.” 

“It wasn’t until I went with her to a school — I was almost 20, [and] I took her to a school so she could talk to kids — that I not only heard her story but saw the saw amazing reaction … and I thought, ‘Man, this story is powerful.’”

Gut received several recognitions for the work she did to protect Jews during the Holocaust, including being honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Holocaust Commission. This title is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jewish people during WWII. She also received a Medal of Honor in a ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and her story is part of a permanent exhibit in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., among other recognitions.

One that particularly meant a lot to Gut was the papal blessing she received in 1995 from Pope John Paul II for her sacrifice. Smith explained that her mother had a very painful experience when she went to confession, after enduring sexual abuse and being forced to have sexual relations with the German major.

Unable to confess to her usual priest one day, Gut went to a young priest who Smith said was “more anti-Semitic and told her she didn’t have a part in the Catholic Church, which broke her heart.”

“So [there was] this papal blessing where Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope, sent a delegation from the Vatican, and we had a ceremony in a Jewish synagogue in Irvine, California,” she said. “So the mixture was amazing, and it was just coming home for her. It meant a lot.”

Nélisse pointed out that Irena Gut’s life can inspire everyone. 

“I think we as individuals think that we can’t really make a difference or that we’re too small to really have an impact, and I think that she’s the perfect example that — I mean, she obviously did heroic things — [but] by doing tiny things that seem so simple, it could be smiling to someone or helping them with a bag or complimenting them, it does have a ripple effect,” Nélisse said.

Smith added that she has heard from kids who were thinking about taking their lives by suicide, but one day someone sat with them at lunch and that changed their minds. She hopes that her mother’s story reminds people that “we are all able to do amazing things.”

“People will call my mom a hero or somebody who’s special, and she wouldn’t have liked that and I don’t either, because you label somebody that way and it gives them permission to do things that you can’t, [but] the bottom line is we are all able to do amazing things,” she said.