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‘Irena’s Vow’: Jeannie Opdyke Smith Talks about the Film and Her Mother’s Faith and Legacy  

Irena’s Vow is a historical drama based on the incredible true story of Irena Gut, a young nurse who risked her life during the Nazi Occupation of Poland to save the lives of twelve Jews. The film—an adaptation of a Broadway stage play of the same name—will be released through Fathom Events on April 15th. You can read our review of the film here.   

We chatted with Jeannie Opdyke Smith, Irena Gut’s daughter, about the film, her mother’s legacy, and how her mother’s faith sustained her. (We also interviewed Dan Gordon, the writer of the original play as well as the screenwriter for the film adaptation, which you can find here).  

(Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full conversation above.)   

Daniel Blackaby: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your mother and this new film. 

Jeannie Opdyke Smith: Oh, it’s absolutely my pleasure. Thanks for asking me.  

DB: At the end of this film, it’s revealed that your mother didn’t share this story for many years after she was able to immigrate to the United States. What caused her to begin publicly sharing about her experiences?  

JS: My mom, like a lot of people that survived the Holocaust, ended up not talking about it. Some because of guilt, because they survived and other people didn’t. Some because they had to do things they never in their normal life would have had to do. And so when mom came to this country, she literally put a “do not disturb” sign over her memories, and it stayed up there until I was about 14. 

She, my dad, and I were having dinner one night, and she received a phone call from a young man, a college student who was doing a survey for a report in school, and his subject was that the Holocaust never happened. He believed that it was just propaganda by the Jews so we’d feel sorry for them. And he was calling random people to find out what they thought. 

That shocked my mother so much that someone who wasn’t even alive during that time could think that. All these words were tumbling out of her mouth. He finally hung up on her. He didn’t want to hear anymore, but she stood there holding the receiver. 

And she said, “All these years that I’ve kept silent, I’ve allowed evil, I’ve allowed the enemy to win. From now on, I will talk to anyone so that these things never repeat themselves.” And so that was the first time I heard it. And it took me years really to hear the whole story.  

DB: It’s amazing sometimes how God works. An unwanted phone call intruding on dinner and all of a sudden this powerful testimony is shared that has changed many lives. 

JS: Yes, he sure does. And his timing is perfect.  

DB: You’ve also had a unique opportunity to experience your family’s legacy through different mediums, first with a stage play and now through a feature film. What has that experience been like?  

JS: It’s been absolutely crazy, honestly. It was never my intention to be a public speaker. But when my mom passed away, she had 11 speaking engagements lined up for the future. When I called to cancel them, one was only two weeks away in Los Angeles and they said, “Can you please come? We can’t get somebody else in such short notice.” And I literally said, “No” and hung up the phone. But then it was heavy on my heart. God was saying, “Are you going to let the story die with her? Are you going to just let it go?” And I knew I couldn’t do that, so I called back, and we worked out a plan to make it a panel discussion and it just started slowly. And you know, I feel her presence every time I tell the story, and I hope she keeps showing up. 

DB: Is there anything, either an event that happened or a characteristic of your mother, that the film doesn’t convey that you wish it would have as part of her story? 

JS: Oh, there’s so much. My mom’s passion really was for young people. To tell them that we have opportunities every single day to make a difference, to show kindness, to befriend somebody. She would pray every morning, “God, give me a face to see hurt and suffering and pain and loneliness because those are gifts that we can give freely over and over again. And that truly was her passion. My inheritance when my mom died were letters and pictures and drawings from students literally all over the world letting her know what she did made a difference in their lives and telling her about the things that they were able to do for other people.  

DB: Your mother was a woman of strong faith. What role did her faith play, both in inspiring her actions and in helping her persevere through the horrific experiences she went through?  

JS: It was a huge role. It was the power that got her through. She grew up in a Catholic family who was very devoted. My mom said that her faith in God had nothing really to do with the denomination. It was just a real personal relationship and she just trusted from early on until the day she passed away that if God opened a door for her, he would be there to see her through. So she never felt alone, and she had a good sense of his presence and what she needed to do. She had a very childlike trust that saw her through her whole life.  

DB: You have had the opportunity to travel around the world sharing about her legacy and her faith. What has that been like?  

JS: Well, my audiences are pretty varied. One of the largest audiences I have are with the Jewish community, who I’ve just come to love and being able to share that story and to see their appreciation and be able to honor them. After all, Judaism is at the root of my faith. And so it just feels like a real honor to be able to speak with them.  

And then the students. It’s amazing to talk to middle schoolers and high schoolers. You sometimes wonder if they’re listening and then hear feedback or get notes or emails from them. We cannot put a limit on what good can happen, what someone hears and takes away and how it changes their life.  

DB: There have been a lot of World War II stories, but there is something unique about your mother’s story and the sacrifices she made as a young and abandoned woman. What do you hope audiences seeing the story for the first time will take away?  

JS: That’s a great question. Like you said, my mom was away from home. She had no parents, no family to back her up, no house to go to. Nobody. And she was young, but she was able to make a difference. 

My mom ended every talk stressing that one person can make a difference. We don’t have to be a superstar. She hated if somebody called her a hero, because it becomes, “Well, sure, they can do it. They’re a hero,” or “They’re an angel,” or whatever, all the terms she’s been called. 

It’s not true. She was a flesh-and-blood, flawed human being just like every single one of us is. But she saw an opportunity. She had a strong sense of right and wrong. And she walked the walk. She just took one step at a time. I’ve heard her say that if she would have had a chance to do it over again and not done any of those things, she certainly wouldn’t have been gang raped or had all the things that happened to her, but she said she would have never been able to live with herself knowing that she could have done something and didn’t. She appreciated every single day of her life up until the very end.  

DB: This is a powerful film and an incredible story of the power of one life to make a difference. I really appreciate being able to hear from you as you continue to share this amazing story with the world.  

JS: Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure. Thank you. 

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