|Frank Osmers, Shiva Kiani, Mara Karg, Lauren Muraski, Felipe Valente, and Emily Bosco appear in the Bergen Players’ production of “A Shayna Maidel.” Frank O’Leary|
When people ask Carol Fisher of Teaneck about the play “A Shayna Maidel,” she tells them that it’s very touching – “a sweet show.”
“It’s very powerful, but there is laughter,” said Fisher, who is directing the show for the Bergen Players in Oradell. “It’s not ‘Schinder’s List’ or ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ It’s moving and touching and sweet, and there are all kinds of tears – tears of joy, of sadness, and of shock.”
The play tells the story of a Polish family split in half for more a decade. Rose Weiss emigrated to America as a young girl with her father, Mordechai. Her older sister, Lusia, ill with scarlet fever, stayed behind in Poland with her mother, expecting to follow later.
The play opens in 1946 as Rose, now a young woman living in Manhattan, learns that Lusia survived the concentration camps, although her mother did not. Lusia is on her way to New York. After being separated for more than 15 years, the two sisters struggle to reconnect.
“It’s really about two sisters learning about each other,” Fisher said. “The one who was brought here is trying to make peace with being a survivor and also letting her mother go.”
Fisher, who during the day is a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital who deals with such rare genetic disorders as Gaucher’s disease, is the first to admit that while she pitched the show to the board members of the Oradell theater, she was surprised by how quickly they embraced the idea.
She said the board made its decision in two days.
“I didn’t have to sell them on it,” she said. “I was pleased, and shocked, and overjoyed. I knew it had appeared Off-Broadway, though I didn’t see it. Someone told me I had to read it. I did, and I knew I had to do it.”
She also realized that she had seen an adaptation of the play on television.
“It was called ‘Miss Rose White,'” she said. “It was a nice show but not true to what [playwright] Barbara Lebow had written. She was not happy with it.”
While the story takes place after the Holocaust, Fisher wanted cast members, ranging in age from 21 to 69, to understand what the characters had lived through during the Shoah.
“We talked a lot about the Holocaust – how it happened, what the people went through, survivors’ guilt,” she said. “We painted a picture of what it was like, what the chaos would look like. We had to paint a picture of that nightmare, to be as specific as possible.”
At least one cast member, a non-Jew, had a particularly difficult time coming to terms with the horrors the director described.
“It was rough on her,” Fisher said, noting that another cast member, who is Armenian, had an immediate understanding of the situation, because throughout her life she had heard about the genocide perpetrated on her own people.
Fisher’s college major had been theater, and she spent years working with professional theater companies in the New York region, but she put her career on hold while she raised children. When she decided to re-enter the workforce, she chose nursing, attending school at night for 3 1/2 years.
“But I did it,” she said. “All that science and chemistry.”
As her children, now 14 and 23, got older, she also decided to return to theater work. This play, she said, is particularly poignant, “hitting home” when she thinks of her husband’s parents, Getzle (Gilbert) and Fannie Gertner, who came to the United States after surviving the Holocaust. She has dedicated the play to them.
Both of her in-laws fled to Russia when the Nazis invaded Poland.
“They met in a factory,” she said. “He supported them by making clothes, mending, doing things for the Russian soldiers, and selling anything left over on the black market.”
Her mother-in-law did the actual selling. That way, if she was arrested – which she was, several times – her husband could bribe the guards to release her. He, on the other hand, would have been sent to the Russian front. After the war, the couple refused to return to Poland, ultimately finding a relative in Baltimore who would sponsor their emigration to the United States.
In America, Fisher said, “they lived frugally, buying things on clearance and making them fit. My mother-in-law even made her own cottage cheese.” Raising three children – a fourth died – “they were content, never complaining.
“Knowing their story really hit me,” she continued. “While they weren’t in the camps, they lost everybody. My husband had no grandparents and only one cousin, while I grew up with a million cousins.”
Fisher thinks that the play will be well received.
“I think people still have an interest and are moved by these things,” she said. “Why do people go to see sad shows? Something about these shows punches you, stretches you as a human being, emotionally and mentally.
“We find it cathartic.”