Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck
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Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck

Yavneh students tell the story of Berga slave camp in annual Holocaust play

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Director Dominique Cieri, left, with Joan Daub, the wife of Gerald Daub (the GI featured in the play) and Keren Farajun, the Yavneh eighth-grader who played Mr. Daub. Ruti Galandauer

Glen Rock eighth-grader Shmuel Berman took on the role of murderous SS Sgt. Erwin Metz in Yavneh Academy’s recent Holocaust play about the little-known slave-labor camp at Berga in eastern Germany, where hundreds of American prisoners of war were interned along with Holocaust victims.

What was it like to portray a real-life Nazi?

“It was hard,” Shmuel said. “I had to try to get into the character of someone who was not a good person and did terrible things to people.

“I was hoping the audience saw that Erwin Metz considered himself a ‘normal’ person, yet he lied during the court scenes, claiming that he didn’t mistreat anyone. We can learn that evil could happen anywhere; it doesn’t require an evil person.”

About 1,000 people came to two performances of the play, performed March 19 at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

Every year since 1977, Yavneh’s eighth-graders have researched, written, and presented a Holocaust-related play using factual background material.

The American POWS interned at Berga – many of them Jewish – were taken there in cattle cars in the winter of 1945. The men were forced to work in dangerous slate quarries building an underground munitions factory. At least 70 GIs died at Berga or during a forced march near the end of the war. Berga’s fatality rate, nearly 20 percent, was the highest of any camp where American POWs were held.

“The goal of the play is to allow the people portrayed to live once more, albeit briefly, so that their memory will not be forgotten,” said Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, Yavneh’s Holocaust studies coordinator for the past 14 years. “The annual play is very dear to me because I feel an obligation to keep the memory of the 6 million murdered Jews, and in this case the American GIs, alive, and the play allows us to do that. It’s experiential, historical, educational, and I would say even spiritual.”

All 60 eighth-graders appeared on stage, portraying prisoners or their tormenters. Six of them wrote the script, working under the guidance of playwright, actress, and director Dominique Cieri, who has been involved in producing and directing the Yavneh play for 20 years. One student, Abe Spectre-Covitz of Teaneck, took it upon himself to track down one of the GIs portrayed in the production.

“I’m still baffled by how he did it,” Rabbi Burstein said.

Abe managed to locate Morton Brooks in Florida just days before the play, and guided the war veteran in using Skype to speak to the audience about his experiences.

Abe said that initially he went online and found an ex-POW website that listed Mr. Brooks’ phone number and email. “But neither seemed to work, so I thought about it and realized I could call realtors in his neighborhood to ask for information about him.”

Realtors weren’t giving out such information, yet Abe persisted. He made phone call after phone call and finally connected with another vet in Florida who knew Mr. Brooks and promised to have him call Abe.

“That was Monday morning,” Abe said. “On Tuesday morning we were practicing at the Jewish Center and I got a call from a New York number, and it was him. I brought my phone to Rabbi Burstein and they talked for about half an hour. The original idea was to fly him to New Jersey to see the play, but it was too late. So we decided to Skype with him instead. But I didn’t hear back from him although I tried to call him tons of times.”

It was only during the Thursday morning performance that Mr. Brooks reached Abe, just before he was due onstage. They arranged for Mr. Brooks to speak via Skype at the conclusion of the evening show. Projected on a screen for the audience to see, “he told us about life in Berga and about the death march. Almost word for word, he told the story we’d just acted out. It was really cool; it was amazing that he was a real person,” Abe said.

Sammy Greenberg of Teaneck does not know if the American GI he portrayed in the play is still alive. But he learned a lot from him nevertheless. “He worked in the tunnels and didn’t give up. He tried to stay positive although he got angry a lot,” Sammy said.

Keren Farajun of Fair Lawn played Private Daub, one of the Americans in Berga. She also helped write the play. “Dominique gave us pages from the book and she had us write dialogue,” Keren said. “I learned that those GIs were very young, 19 to 21 years old, and that even going through the hardest things you can come out of them and find the good. The survivor we Skyped with said the message we should take is to stop hate in the world.”

The tragic story of Berga has been documented in Roger Cohen’s “Soldiers and Slaves – American POWs Trapped by the Nazis’ Final Gamble” as well as in “Given Up For Dead: American GIs in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga” by Flint Whitlock; and in the PBS production “Berga: Soldiers of Another War” and the National Geographic film “Hitler’s G.I. Death Camp.”

The idea of adapting the story for the Yavneh play was suggested to Rabbi Burstein by Drs. Zalman and Dora Suldan of Teaneck, parents of eighth-grader Eliana. Zalman Suldan said that several years ago he attended a talk by Mr. Whitlock at the Classic Residence in Teaneck, where one of the Berga survivors lived until his death a few months ago.

“Dora had read the announcement in the Jewish Standard and thought I’d enjoy it since I had been doing so much research into my father’s time while he was stationed in England during World War II,” Zalman Suldan said. “He was a navigator for a B17 and was shot down on his 24th mission and was a POW himself in Stalag Luft 3 for a year before being liberated by General Patton.”

“One hopes that the lessons of the past will inform our awareness of the present and provide lessons for the future,” Rabbi Burstein said. “Especially as the Jewish people and the free world continue to confront threats to our very existence, it is important to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust.”

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Yavneh’s graduating class played all the roles in the play about the slave-labor camp at Berga. Courtesy Yavneh Academy
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