Tovah Feldshuh is that rare actress who has been on Broadway in a drama, a musical, a comedy, and a one-woman show -- and received Tony Award nominations for all of them. Now she's got a new Off-Broadway project, Irena's Vow, at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, in which she plays Irena Gut Opdyke, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Polish Catholic woman who rescued a number of Jews in 1939. Feldshuh recently sat down to discuss her role in this fascinating play.
THEATERMANIA: How did Irena's acts of heroism happen?
TOVAH FELDSHUH: She was studying to be a nurse and was caught in the web of the war as the Nazis advanced from the west, and the Russians advanced from the east. While looking for her parents in western Poland, she was rounded up by the Nazis, and sent to a munitions factory there. The commandant, Major Eduard Rugemer, saw her and took a shine to her because her German was fluent and her looks were Aryan -- so he made her the head of laundry in the barracks.
TM: Did he expect sexual favors?
TF: Not then he didn't. He was a very strict schoolmaster type, a proper man in his sixties. But he did expect her to make sure the Jews toed the line. Then she saw a mass killing of Jews, people murdered in front of her -- old people, young people, women and children -- and at the time, she could do nothing. She felt that God put her at a crossroads and gave her a choice between a moral and an immoral life, between complicity and redemption, between death and life. She didn't ask for it, but He put all those people's lives into her hands.
TM: But how did she manage to hide 11 people?
TF: That was the problem. The youngest one -- someone around her own age -- turned to her and said, "You hide us." Irena said, "Where can I hide you? I live in a room that's barely big enough for my cot. I can't hide you in my pockets." Another Jew said, "Then we're dead." But around the same time, Rugemer decided to move out of his barracks to a big villa once owned by a Jew on the outskirts of town, and he made her his head executive housekeeper. There, Irena heard that the entire ghetto would be liquidated on July 22, and got a notion that she could hide the Jews in an air vent over the Major's toilet.
TM: That sounds utterly impossible.
TF: This is a documented story; 11 people have corroborated this. So, on July 21st, she snuck the Jews into the air vent, which ran the length of the bathroom and, as luck would have it, connected to the other rooms on that floor. They stayed there for over 24 hours, and certainly couldn't use that bathroom below them. When the soldiers arrived, Irena took them into the cellar; when they finished searching and they came and rested on the main floor, she managed to get the Jews into the cellar before they searched the attic.
TM: If it weren't so serious, this would seem to be a French farce. TF: It was crazy. But as the likelihood of their getting caught was increasing, one of the Jews said: "This was originally a Jewish house. There's got to be a secret room in it somewhere." And they found one: A hollowed-out area of a coal chute in the cellar that went to a tunnel that led to a room with a wooden slat roof -- because it was actually the floor of the gazebo out in the lawn. They stayed there when they couldn't use the actual cellar.
TM I know plenty of Jews who can't bear to hear a word about the Holocaust. You face it square in the eye, don't you?
TF: It's very important to. Interesting, though, when Hermann Goering came to see the killings in Auschwitz, he threw up. That was the end of any high-ranking German officer coming to see what was going on in the camps. Some of the Germans themselves couldn't stand to witness what they were doing. That's why they put the gas chambers underground, so no one would have to see them. When they turned the lights off, that was for the soldiers, not the Jews. They made one or two holes in the ground so that they could drop in the gas pellets, close off the hole, and walk away. They soundproofed the gas chambers so they couldn't hear the screams, and, just in case, Germans ran their motorcycles loudly. Really, if you go to Auschwitz, I won't say you'll feel as if you're at Brown University, but it looks -- forgive me now, I'm sorry -- cozy, with its terra cotta buildings and grass growing.
TM: You went to Poland and did research for this play. What did you find there?
TF: Poland is beautiful, but I also have to say that I saw a wood carving of a Jew holding money. "What is this?" I asked a Pole, who told me matter-of-factly, "Oh, the Jews are good with money." I said, "In my country, that's called racial profiling." The Pole said to me, "Why? We'd put an Arab next to an oil well." So this is their "compliment" to the Jews.
TM: The country has had a controversial relationship with Jews over the years, hasn't it?
TF: To say the least. Poland was the only country where helping a Jew was punishable by death. Remember Miep, who helped Anne Frank and her family? After the Franks were found in the attic, she wasn't killed by the government. But the Polish people who helped any Jews were strung up in the town square, along with their spouse and children, along with the Jews that had been caught. Hundreds of Polish Jews who were able to survive the war and the camps came back home to reclaim their property which had been appropriated by the Poles -- and were shot in the head. On the other hand, let's not overlook the thousands of recorded acts of heroism in Poland to save victims of the Reich -- Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and Communists. And Irena was one of them.