From the Polish woods to the Paramus stage

From the Polish woods to the Paramus stage

Yavneh Holocaust play tells story of Monsey family

“It bothers me when I talk about those things,” Zelik Diamond said. “To somebody else it’s a story. It’s forgotten already.”

Mr. Diamond had just finished retelling what happened on Passover, 1942, in his native Polish village, Dolhinov, which was under German occupation.

It was a powerful, memory-searing account.

But for him, it was something more.

That gap he described, between painful, personal memory and remote, cold history, is what makes Holocaust education both urgent and impossible.

How do you teach the incomprehensible?

Mindl and Zelik Diamond survived the Holocaust, living with partisans in the Polish woods.

For 30 years, the Yavneh Academy in Paramus has made theater the centerpiece of its eighth-grade Holocaust education program. Each year, some eighth-grade students write a play adapting a story from the Holocaust, and all of the eighth-graders take a part in it.

This year, the play tells the story of Mr. Diamond and his wife, Mindl, who also came from Dolhinov. The two did not meet until their return to Dolhinov after the war, but their families knew each other. The play begins before the war, when the town of 4,500, 3,000 of them Jewish, had five synagogues and the life of young Zelik – his last name was Dimenstein then – consisted largely of school and shul.

“We lived a different life up there,” he said.

“When I was sick, what do you think my father bought for me?

“A Gemara. Baba Kama. He didn’t bring me a piece of chocolate.”

On Shabbat afternoon, when his father napped after lunch, “you didn’t get to just go and play. I had to go to Chaim Katz, of blessed memory, to learn Pirkei Avos.”

He pauses. He had choked up remembering Rabbi Katz. Later in the interview he will recall how Rabbi Katz was murdered. Death came to the Jews of Dolhinov in three waves. Rabbi Katz was killed in the first massacre – Mr. Diamond uses the Hebrew word “shechita,” slaughter – when 800 of the town’s Jews were butchered. The rabbi was holding a Torah scroll.

Mrs. Diamond’s mother, grandmother, and older sister were killed in this slaughter, three days before Passover. Mr. Diamond’s family made it through. Zelik, who was 20 years old then, had been out of town.

“We were cutting trees, about 18 kilometer from town,” Mr. Diamond said. “We found out there was the shechita. We headed back. I went to a goy I knew. He let us in. He brought us potatoes in the morning to eat. I sent him into town to take a look at what goes on.

“My father alav hashalom” – of blessed memory – “sent me back a note: I should come home.

“That was Pesach night. There still was snow. The snow wasn’t white, it was red.

“My mother closed up the windows. We sat down and put on a seder. They had the guts to sit down and put on a seder.

“Passover morning. You would go to shul? No. My father gave me a shovel and took me to bury the corpses.”

In the next round of killings, the second shechita, Mr. Diamond’s mother and one of his sisters were murdered.

“Each father made plans to get out and escape the ghetto,” said Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, who heads Yavneh’s Holocaust education program. “They anticipated the final third shechita that was going to come.”

Rabbi Burstein met the Diamonds through his mother, a neighbor of theirs, and has been commissioned by their family to write their story. Last year he brought them to speak at the school. This year, he asked the family if he could submit their story to Dominique Cieri, the playwright who has been guiding the school’s Holocaust theater program for 20 years. Rabbi Burstein submitted three stories for possible adaptation; the Diamonds’ was chosen.

Next week, Yonatan Gordon and Jessie Gronowitz, right, will play them in the annual Yavneh Academy Holocaust play.

Much of the play takes place in the forest, where Zelik and Mindl, separately, survived, living with the partisans.

“I asked if I could join them,” Mr. Diamond said. “‘Do you have ammunition?’ they asked. That went on the whole summer of ’42. Then I managed to join them.

“I got ammunition.”

How did he get ammunition?

“You fight for it,” Mrs. Diamond said.

The stories Mr. Diamond tells are dramatic. One New Years Eve, the partisans handed out sheets, made into coats. Dressed in white, they attacked and conquered a German airfield. Then they had plenty of ammunition. And also “wonderful cigarettes. They smelled so good. I used to smoke in those days.”

“We kept that airport a long time. Then we got in touch with the Russian government. They used to bring us ammunition. That helped a lot. One time they didn’t give them the right signal” – to prove to the Russian pilots supplying them that they were partisans, not Nazis. “They dropped the bomb right on us.”

“He was extraordinary close to his mom,” said his daughter, Leta Greenstein. “My grandmother was killed in the second shechita. After that my father was fearless.

“They found out there were 20 Jews in the forest, and the Germans were coming to kill them,” she said. “My father told his father he was going to try to rescue them. My grandfather was very upset. He said, ‘You’ll be killed.’ My father said, ‘Either 21 Jews will come out alive, or 21 Jews will die.’ My grandfather kissed him and said, ‘Your mother will watch over you.'”

“He saved a lot of people,” Rabbi Burstein said. “Whenever he saw people in peril he went out of his way to save them. Over a hundred Jews survived because of him.”

After the war, Mrs. Greenstein said, “My father’s father had decided there was nothing left there. ‘The ground is soaked in Jewish blood. We have to leave,’ he said. My mother and her sister said ‘We want to leave also.’ My father convinced my other grandfather to leave as well.

“They ended up in D.P. camp in the American Zone.”

There, Zelik and Mindl – six years his junior – decided to marry.

“The first wedding in the D.P. camp was my mother’s sister,” she said. “My parents were the second wedding.”

That was in 1946. In 1949, the Diamonds came to America, settling in Omaha, Nebraska, where two aunts had come in the 1920s. Their daughter has the trace of a midwestern accent; she came to New York for college and then settled in Monsey. It was only two years ago that she, her sister, and their mother convinced their father to retire, at age 90, from the furniture store where he had worked for nearly 60 years, and join his two children, 10 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren in Monsey.

Last week, several of the middle school students who are acting in the stage version of the Diamonds’ life traveled to Monsey and spent three hours talking to the couple.

“They’re really amazing,” said Jessie Gronowitz, 13, of Teaneck, who plays Mrs. Diamond in the play.

“Mindl is very sweet. She cares about others,” Jessie said. “Meeting the person you play is a very rare opportunity. I think it will help me in the play.

She has acted in many plays, both at the JCC and in summer camp.

“All the plays I’ve done have been either musicals or happy plays,” she said. “In a way this is a new experience because it’s so serious and also a true story. It’s a lot of pressure because they’ll be there.”

Jessie was part of the writing team that drafted the play over an intense two-week period, “where we just missed a lot of class and worked on it.”

Ms. Cieri, the playwright, who teaches drama at William Paterson University, coached them. She outlined the story, “then we had to visualize the scene and imagine what they were saying,” Jessie said. “We had to put ourselves in their position.” Their first draft was revised “to make it not sound so modern. There were a lot of phrases that they wouldn’t say.”

The play is also considerably less violent than the reality had been. Grenades and pistols are used as props, but violence happens only offstage.

In the play, Jessie said, Mrs. Diamond “doesn’t have a lot of lines. Most of the storyline is my husband’s. In the scenes I’m in, it’s mostly my father talking.”

“I have some pep talks. When my sisters are saying the Germans will not stop until they kill us all, I say ‘Shula, you have to live. You have to go on with life. Tati will watch over us. We’re together and we’ll go on with life.’ Or something like that. I don’t have my script with me right now,” Jessie said.

Yonatan Gordon, 13, is from Fair Lawn. He plays Zelik Diamond, whom he described as “very interesting. He has a lot of stories to tell.” And also: “Very tall.”

Mr. Diamond is six foot one.

Yonatan finds the character inspiring. “He didn’t really give up hope. He kept on going. He always wanted to help other people. I think any other person would have just tried to save their own life.”

Jessie said she’s “really honored” to portray Mrs. Diamond on stage. “Mindl and Zelig are such amazing people, and their story is so miraculous. It’s very important to remember the Holocaust and tell everyone’s story,” she said.

Mrs. Greenstein, the Diamond’s daughter, feels strongly “my parents should speak to young people. It’s part of their heritage.”

But Zelik Diamond has his doubts about the power of his words.

“Even with the kids – they are wonderful kids – but it’s a story. Some of them will remember, maybe, ‘Years ago the guy with the accent said whatever.'”

read more: