Tovah Feldshuh immortalizes life of young Shoah heroine in ‘Irena’s Vow’

In a small theater just off Lexington Avenue in New York City, a Southern California heroine comes to life. For 90 minutes, the wonders of great theater, personal strength, history and humanity combine in a play that transcends and empowers each.

“Irena’s Vow” is the story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a young Polish Catholic woman who took unimaginable risks and paid an unspeakable personal price to save the lives of 12 Jews by hiding them in the basement of the villa where she was virtually enslaved by a German major during World War II.

The teenage Irena also saved countless others by smuggling food and information to the nearby resistance, when she selflessly, courageously and, perhaps, almost inexplicably defied the Nazis. What she saw, what she experienced and what she endured are beyond comprehension. How this young girl stepped up, looked her own death in the eyes and triumphed, is a story that goes well beyond theater.

As depicted in the play, Opdyke emerges from the torture of her youth late in life. Living in Southern California, she decides to lift her emotional veil after hearing a Holocaust denier spill his venom. She believes she had to stand up again, and she tells her story to a new generation of children.

Opdyke’s tale is eloquent and powerful. She talks about forced labor, of escaping into the forest, of losing her family and of being raped and nearly killed. She describes the evil she saw by explaining its impact and cruelty. Her story of a baby being ripped from the arms of its mother, tossed into the air and shot as target practice is just one example of the horrors she witnessed and would never let be denied.

For those of us listening, there are few moments like that in our lives. For Opdyke, there were only a few moments not like that in her life. For its off-Broadway audience at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, the honesty and emotion is overwhelming.

It was one of the great honors of my life when, on behalf of Bet Tzedek, The House of Justice, I agreed to represent Opdyke in a suit brought to restore to her the disputed rights to her own remarkable life story. Together with a heroic pro bono effort from Carole Handler and Jeff Tidus, who gave us invaluable expertise as trial co-counsel, we gained far more than just another client. We learned a lesson about a lifetime of dignity. And we made a friend and found a hero, forever.

After the trial concluded, we helped Opdyke sell the rights to her story to Dan Gordon, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. He has turned her tale into compelling theater that is as personal and intimate as it is historic and powerful.

The 12 Jews in the basement are cleverly depicted through the eyes and words of three — a frightened young woman and a married couple. When the couple becomes pregnant, the dilemma it presents is one of life or death during the Holocaust. Issues of abortion, faith, safety, majority rule and hope are real and moving. The Nazi major is a beast of unspeakable magnitude, yet there is just enough of a hint of humanity that the decisions he ultimately makes are understandable, compassionate and repulsive, all at the same time.

The final message of the play, a plea from Irena for tolerance — for carrying forth after the last survivors and eyewitnesses are gone — is not a clichéd speech but instead a prayer from one woman, slight in stature, gigantic in character, coming from a personal will that after a stunning performance from acclaimed actress Tovah Feldshuh is full of reality and understatement.

Although she died in 2003, Opdyke comes alive on stage. Although her accent is not as thick as Opdyke’s and her halting English not as cumbersome, Feldshuh’s poetic license only brings the deceased more to life. She captures the humanity, vulnerability, naiveté and strength that defined Opdyke as no other. She also captures the will, despite seriously ill health, that pushed Opdyke to travel the world, visiting classrooms full of children dubious about listening to an old woman but soon to fall completely in love with her.

In the end, we are left to wonder why Opdyke risked everything. What would we risk to do the right thing? What would we risk to save a life? How far would we go to save a stranger? The play profoundly and subtly explores those difficult, universal questions. It’s hard to explain the answer. But for Opdyke, there seemed not even to be a question.

The play’s producers hope to raise enough money to take “Irena’s Vow” to Broadway. A sold-out eight-week run gives them hope. But if that means later taking the play on the road, visiting cities around the world as Opdyke did, then great theater and a personal story of strength will live on, teaching tolerance, just as she wanted.

David A. Lash is an attorney with the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles. While serving as the executive director of Bet Tzedek from 1994-2003, he and pro bono volunteers Carole Handler and Jeffrey Tidus represented Irena Gut Opdyke.

Face of an Angel, Tongue of a Devil

“My Nana was a survivor of the Holocaust — I’m sorry, alleged Holocaust,” comic Sarah Silverman says sheepishly. “Thank God she was at one of the better concentration camps. She had a vanity number. It said, ‘Bedazzled.'”

The joke comes early in the comedian’s new film, “Jesus Is Magic,” based on her successful off-Broadway show. The taboo-busting is vintage Silverman, who is known for gasp-inducing jokes on subjects such as rape, race, sex, Jews and the Holocaust. Not to mention a tongue filthier than a truckdriver’s. Los Angeles magazine called her “America’s favorite trash-talking nice little Jewish girl from hell,” and she pushes that persona to new limits in “Jesus.”

She gets away with it because her lines are delivered in mischievous or naive tones.

“I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl,” she says innocently.

Later she describes the half-black boyfriend who broke up with her because she told him “he would have made a really expensive slave” and suggests a new slogan for American Airlines: “First Through the Towers.” She bemoans the dearth of Jewish women in porn, which she suspects is because people think Jewesses are homely. The movie cuts to a clip of a babelicious Silverman acting in a faux X-rated movie, in which she encourages her partner to do ineffable things to her “tuchis.”

“I’m a bad Jew, a dirty Jew,” she tells the audience.

Critics disagree. The Los Angeles Times has called Silverman’s act “Voltaire level satire in stand-up guise.”

“The Lenny Bruce of the 21st century might be this hot, foul-mouthed, button-punching stand-up best known [thus far] for getting in a heap of trouble for using a disparaging [C-word] to describe Asians on ‘Conan O’Brien,'” Entertainment Weekly reported.

Silverman told The Journal that viewers have walked out of her show: “Mostly middle-aged Jews and long-finger-nailed black women,” she says. They don’t get that her bits “are not racist jokes, but jokes about racism,” she adds.

Her intent is to ridicule bigoted and self-loathing impulses — and to lambaste the kind of political correctness that makes people close-minded.

“Every once in a while someone says, ‘Do you really think the Holocaust — or AIDS or whatever — is funny,” she told Playboy. “And I’m like ‘No! I think the ignorant or insensitive d— I’m being is funny.”

The 34-year-old Silverman seems more thoughtful than nasty during a recent interview at Samuel Goldwyn Films in Los Angeles. Wearing jeans, a ponytail and no makeup, she exudes a sweetness that is the opposite of her “Jesus” character. She talks about missing her late Nana and also about her late landlord, an elderly Holocaust survivor from whom she rented a small apartment in the Miracle Mile district.

“He lost his wife and children during World War II, and he had a new family, but he lived alone,” she says. He would call and complain that Silverman was using too much hot water, and demand that she rush downstairs to discuss the matter. Initially Silverman was nonplussed.

“But then I realized that was just an excuse to have me visit,” she says. “I loved him.”

So why did his concentration camp number inspire that “Bedazzled” tattoo bit? “It’s not a very sensitive joke,” she admits. “But I’m always going for the laugh, and like all my material, the joke comes from a heart-wrenching place. I talk about AIDS, Sept. 11, child abuse. I don’t think it’s a conscious choice. For many comics, the work comes from a source of pain or humiliation.”

Silverman grew up culturally Jewish in Bedford, N.H., where, she says, “no one was Jewish and no one was funny.” In school, she told her friends, “‘I’m Jewish but I’m totally not’ — like I was afraid to be judged for it.”

After her parents divorced when she was 6, she became a bedwetter well into her teens.

“I’d go to sleepovers and overnight camp and pinch myself awake all night,” she recalls. “It was long-term humiliation.”

She says she suffered panic attacks and missed three months of ninth grade due to depression, which runs in her family. Upon returning to school, she developed a crush on her history teacher, Mr. Berk.

“I remember thinking, ‘He’s Jewish, Russian and Polish, exactly like me!'” she says.

The teacher made her feel less marginalized as one of few Jews at school.

She also felt ashamed that she looked, in her opinion, like “a hairy little monkey” — darker and more hirsute than her classmates.

“I’m only recently unhairy,” she adds during the interview, running a hand over her newly waxed arm. “I wax every time I have to wear a cocktail dress, otherwise I’d look like a transvestite.”

Becoming the class clown helped her to survive on the periphery of student cliques.

“It’s very powerful to be able to make people laugh, and I discovered that power young,” Silverman says. “My father thought it was hilarious to teach his toddler swear words; so I was this little kid saying ‘bitchbastarddamns–t’ while the adults laughed hysterically. That positive reaction fed itself, and I wanted more and more.”

By age 22, Silverman was a professional stand-up and a cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” where she began exploring her Jewish identity by writing Jewish jokes. It helped that her sister Susan, a rabbi, had married future Jewish Family & Life CEO Yossi Abramowitz. On SNL’s Weekend Update, the comic declared, “So now my sister’s name is Susan Silverman-Abramowitz. But they’re thinking of shortening it to just ‘Jews.'”

The joke “kind of kicked things off for me in a Jewish way,” she says. “I’ve never felt more Jewish than as a stand-up. I’ve become like this Jewish comedian, but I’m discovering it at the same time as the audience.”

She admits her very Jewish act may also be a rebellion against producers who, in her opinion, don’t want to put Jewesses onscreen. “Hollywood is run by self-loathing Jews who don’t want to see themselves reflected in their work,” she says. Once a TV executive told her the only hot Jewish actress in town was Winona Ryder (nee Horowitz) — and even Ryder wouldn’t have a career if she had kept her real name.

Without a name change, Silverman managed to build a modestly successful resume. She appeared in films such as “There’s Something About Mary” and “School of Rock” and on TV shows such as “Greg the Bunny.” She has portrayed a Jewish American Princess character on Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers.”

But she saved her best Jewish material for “Jesus,” which includes an ironic sequence on Jews who buy German cars: If companies like Mercedes “could only have seen … the amount of money they’d be making from Jewish consumers, maybe they’d have helped not kill the Jews. But instead they helped facilitate a genocide of a people who would ultimately become their best customers. Any Jew will tell you that’s just bad business.”

Not every Holocaust topic is fair game, however. Silverman recently removed a joke from her act involving Bayer aspirin’s alleged experimentation on Jews. “You give them the aspirin,” goes the joke, “and they’re like, ‘My headache is better than the hunger, but not as bad as how much I miss my family.'”

The punch line “just wasn’t funny enough to counteract the pain,” she says.

Not to worry — Silverman has plenty of other Jewish-themed bits. One of her newest satirizes the embracing of Jewish mysticism by celebrities such as Madonna. “Kabbalah comes from inside US … Weekly magazine,” she says.

“Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic” opens Friday.

Observations by Sarah Silverman

Observations by Sarah Silverman

On her boyfriend, late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel: “I wear this St. Christopher medal sometimes because I’m Jewish but my boyfriend is Catholic. It was cute the way he gave it to me. He said if it doesn’t burn through my skin it’ll protect me.”

On raising interfaith children: “We’d be honest and just say, Mommy is one of the Chosen People and Daddy believes that Jesus is magic.”

On anti-Semitism: “Everyone blames the Jews for killing Christ…. I’m one of the few people who believe it was the blacks. I don’t care. Good, I hope the Jews did kill Christ. I’d f—- — do it again in a second, if I heard his Birkenstocks clacking this way.”

On her 2001 clash with an Asian American group: “[They] put my name in the papers calling me a racist. And it hurt. As a Jew — as a member of the Jewish community — I was really concerned we were losing control of the media.”

On her edgy reputation: “I don’t care if you think I’m a racist. I just want you to think I’m thin.”