By Myra Chanin
I am enraged, infuriated, maddened by the use of phrases like “The Holocaust” or “The Shoah”—politically correct, less disturbing words which attempt to normalize one of the mankind’s most horrendous, barbaric aberrations: the brutal, awful, deliberate, carefully organized and planned, starvation, torture, beating, humiliation and ultimately gassing and cremation of seven million European Jews including newborns, the elderly and the infirm. Derived from the Greek holokauston which is a translation of the Hebrew word olah, “holocaust” means a sacrifice to God. “Shoah” is the Hebrew word for catastrophe. Neither word is appropriate. Both words lack causality or blame, as if no human beings were responsible. Neither forces you to imagine how the millions gassed, starved and beaten must have felt after being snatched from a civilized existence and plunged into the doom of waiting for life to be wrested from your body. It must be similar to how one would feel if he or she were sitting beside an imploding airplane window which would then allow gravity to send you plummeting toward certain death.
Jews had lived in the city of Vilna in Lithuania since the 10th Century. They made it into a remarkable, highly evolved Jewish center of economic, cultural, education and charitable activity where Jewish industrialists and merchants manufactured and traded contemporary products like ready-made clothing and gloves and operated mills and tanneries. It was also the center of Jewish learning in Europe with dozens of synagogues, libraries, schools, theaters, medical facilities, scientific institutions, newspapers, periodicals and books. Renowned scientists, teachers, writers, sculptors and musicians lived in Vilna. It was the Jerusalem of the North.
Vilna, the play (presently running at the Theatre at St. Clement’s through April 14), depicts the complete annihilation of Vilna’s 80,000 Jewish inhabitants by Nazi invaders, with the help of similarly-minded locals. Only several hundred people managed to survive. The stories of these atrocities must be told, seen and remembered to, ideally, stop them from reoccurring. Vilna was a very difficult play to write but playwright Ira Fuchs, inspired by the discovery of an underground escape tunnel dug by a few survivors silently and secretly moving handfuls of dirt, manages to cover significant moments in 18 years in the lives of one Jewish family, the Zeidels. Most of the characters in the play were real people. And while the scenes depicted are fiction, they align with actual chronological events.
The father, Josef Zeidel (Mark Jacoby) is a leather goods merchant who has been beaten by Polish officers for being Jewish even before the Nazis arrive, which has caused him to become incapacitated and lame. His wife, Dr. Naiomi Zeidel (Carey Van Driest) is a gynecologist. Their only son, the initially unmotivated Motke Zeidel (Sean Hudock) studies law, and when he is no longer able to practice, becomes a Judenrat administrator. Motke’s closest friend, Yudi Farber (Seamus Mulcahy) is a German-Jewish orphan who becomes Motke’s emotional if not quite legally adopted brother. He becomes a mechanical engineer who does what he can to incapacitate the German gas chambers he’s forced to design by adding defects that continually make them non-functional. Other equally moving performers are Nathan Kaufman as Jacob Gens, in the very difficult role of the head of the local Judenrat whose job seems to be keeping the Jews forced into the Vilna Ghetto healthy until the Nazis decide to kill them. And Gens did. Practically no one died from starvation and disease due to the Judenrat structure, where health professionals prevented outbreaks of cholera and typhus by implementing rigorously enforced health and hygienic procedures, including bathing in public baths in order to receive food rations. Paul Cooper is outstanding as Bruno Kittel, the arbitrary Oberscharfuhrer of the Einsatsgruppe, the Head Nazi Murderer who might be inclined to kill you for doing good or doing bad.
How was Vilna different from all other Ghettos? Thousands of Jews and others were shot and stacked up on the bodies that preceded them into death. They were then sprinkled with lye to shroud the killing activity from those who still lived. At the end of the war, Motke is one of the approximately 80 Jews tasked with exhuming and burning these bodies to hide evidence of genocide. He was one of those that dug the escape tunnel with handful by handful of dirt and one of the handful who succeeded in escaping.
The afternoon I saw Vilna, one of the geophysicists who discovered the tunnel was at the Q & A. If there is one when you attend, stay. I found it very interesting. Vilna is ably directed by Joseph Discher, cleverly lighted by Harry Feiner, with very convincing fight direction by Rick Sordelet.
Vilna. Through April 14 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46 Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). Two hours, 15 minutes with one intermission. www.vilna-the-play.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg