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Over the years, I have been to many, many theatrical productions, most in Toronto, some in Israel and of course, in New York – on Broadway, off-Broadway, and even off-off Broadway. At times I have been entertained, amused, moved, and educated by what I have seen ( and on the negative side, sometimes bored or disgusted or angered) but I don’t think that I have ever been imbued with a much needed sense of hope.
That was until I saw a performance of Irena’s Vow, (now showing at the Walter Kerr Theater in Manhattan). I actually walked out a bit more hopeful about the future of my children and grandchildren, living in a world exploding with putrid anti-Semitism and malignant anti-Zionism.
I grew up the child of Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland, and was all too aware at a very young age of how my grandparents, uncles, aunts and numerous young cousins – probably 50 of them – were murdered by Jew- hating Nazis – and Poles. My mother’s only brother, Isaac, who was blond, almost successfully walked out of the Bendziner Ghetto but was pointed out to the Nazi guard by a former classmate, a Polish Catholic. He was shot in the back and his young life ended. I guesstimated that he was 22 years old.
My playmates, survivors’ kids like myself, had similar stories of mindless mass murder of family, young and old – because they were Jews.
That and a very thorough Jewish education that included the history of the Jewish people in exile, colored my view of the gentile world, with the result that despite being raised in a country, that like the US, one was presumed “innocent until proven guilty” – my “default” view was that all non-Jews were Jew haters – until proven otherwise.
After all, it wasn’t so many years earlier that a Canadian government official, no doubt educated, proper, and well-mannered – in advising the government about taking in Jewish refugees, declared, “None are too many.”
Seeing “the enemy” everywhere you look can be scary, burdensome and soul-draining, but that has been my reality ever since I realized what the numbers branded on my mother’s arms – and on the arms of most of the grownups I knew – meant.
And current events of the last few years in Israel, the Middle East, Europe and North America – basically everywhere on this planet – have only cemented my ingrained negative view of the non-Jewish world.
However, Irena’s Vow surprisingly penetrated my unwanted but existential armor of gloom, and gave me a glimmer of hope and optimism.
Though intellectually, I knew that there were and are righteous gentiles, good and kind and altruistic people who harbor no ill towards me or anyone because of race and religion, a skeptical inner voice whispers to me to be wary, that there must be an ulterior motive to their loving-kindness. As much as I want to silence this gloomy voice of doom, to be free of the icy grip it has on my psyche, I cannot let go – for I know deep in my soul that it is the voice of my murdered ancestors, trying to ensure my survival.
As I watched the performance, I for the first time got insight as to why a young Polish Catholic girl risked everything, her safety, her security, her reputation, and her life- to save Jews she barely knew. Young Irena, a nurse, witnesses a brutal Nazi massacre of Jewish women and children, and vows to save lives if she can – because not doing so is morally unacceptable to her. She does not see race, religion or ethnicity – she just sees human beings, who have a right and the desire to life – as she does.
The baby-boomer-aged Tovah Feldshue, who I saw in the play “Yentel” over three decades ago in the title role -convincingly portrays the 20 something Irena and creates a very real and believable character that allows the audience to understand how the real life Irena did what she did- successfully hide 12 Jews, including a new born infant- in the basement of the Nazi commandant she was forced to housekeep for. Ironically, the baby owes his very existence to the Catholic Irena’s plea to his parents to not abort their pregnancy, a choice they heartbrokenly thought was necessary to save themselves and the other hiding Jews. Irena then realizes that an abortion is the lesser of two evils, and agrees to help them – but her message of faith and hope changes their minds.
Years later when the baby, a grown man living in Israel, shows up at Irena’s home in the States to invite her to his son’s bar-mitzvah – and tells a disbelieving Irena, who has only one child, a daughter- that she is his mother – he explains that he has two- the one who gave birth to him and one who gave him his life. With many in he audience, loudly weeping, I emotionally understood the dictum that I intellectually knew – that he who saves a life – saves a world.
Knowing that a young gentile – with a lot to lose – nonetheless selflessly took it upon herself to save strangers’ lives – because they were lives – left me feeling that there were others like her – perhaps more than I would ever believe – and that has at least quieted, if not silenced the cynical voice that history created in my soul.