The play’s the thing

The play’s the thing

Yavneh Academy's Holocaust education succeeds through dramatic art

Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, left, and Henry Frisch flank Frisch’s grandson, Jacob Rosenfeld. Photo courtesy Henry Frisch

In June 1939 my father left his mother and traveled to the safety of London. In August, scant days before the Nazis started World War II, my mother tearfully left her mother in Berlin and accepted an affidavit that assured her passage to England.

My father was reunited with his mother years later. My mother never knew what became of her mother.

Through Yad Vashem I came to know some details of my maternal grandmother’s end at Theresienstadt.

My maternal aunts’ fates still are lost to us.

This sort of background is not unusual for many of us who gathered in the auditorium at Teaneck High School on Thursday night to watch “The Bicycle Messenger,” the annual Holocaust play presented there by Yavneh Academy’s eighth graders, among whom were our grandchildren. We were watching young, dedicated actors connected to the events of the Holocaust via the blood that runs through their veins, which we have transmitted to them from their ancestors.

The stories we heard during our childhoods – those of us whose parents dared speak about the years of horror (many would not) – were of a lost generation. We heard about how survival hinged on the most peculiar of fortuitous circumstances. There was little in the 1950s and ’60s to help us make sense of the extraordinary events in our immediate forbears’ lives. We did not even think it strange that practically everyone among our peers had only a small number of relatives.

One of the purposes of art is to unite generations in contemplation of life’s truths. A fabled television series called “Holocaust” played to huge audiences in 1978 and triggered a worldwide examination that continues to haunt humankind.

The year before, my cousin, Rabbi Eugene Kwalwasser, an educator who went on to a long and distinguished career as Yavneh Academy’s principal, conceived an educational project that continues to employ the entire graduating class of Yavneh each year in a semester-long exercise. Students are turned into playwrights and actors who are immersed, though art, in the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that no academic study possibly could achieve. As Yavneh’s principal, Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, pointed out in pre-performance remarks, “At Yavneh, Holocaust education elevates.”

For the last 20 years a skilled director, Dominique Cieri, has shaped the students of each class into vigorous performers. This year has been no exception. The play, whose producer is Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, moved a full house (myself included) to tears.

According to Rabbi Burstein, “The most fulfilling part of this process is bringing back to life some of the people who perished during the war and celebrating the actions of the righteous.”

“The Bicycle Messenger,” like all the plays in Yavneh’s eighth-grade productions, involves the transformation of a story of particular survivors into drama.

The Teaneck Board of Education graciously offered Yavneh the free use of its high school auditorium, and the play was put on before an audience of students from Teaneck High School, Paramus Middle School, eighth graders from Yeshivat Noam and the Yeshiva of North Jersey, and fifth, sixth, and seventh graders from Yavneh earlier in the day. Teaneck High School is one of only a few public schools in the United States to have its own Holocaust Center. This was the first time in the more than three decades of the Yavneh Holocaust education project that it was put on in Teaneck.

Teaneck Schools Superintendent Barbara Pinsack welcomed the audience at the beginning of the evening show. The president of Teaneck’s board of education, Dr. Ardie Walser, was there as well.

The play is the story of a leading Italian athlete, Gino Bartali, who both used his skills as a bicyclist to deliver forged identity papers to Jews hiding in Italy in the 1940s and hid a Jewish family, the Goldenbergs, until liberation.

The production had many strengths. Sets, lighting, costumes and makeup, all of which had the dedicated assistance of parents, were of high quality.

The interweaving of macro historical events between the 1920s and 1940s with the details of the characters’ lives was handled shrewdly. The presentation of Gino’s Catholic religiosity and innate decency, along with other acts of goodness by church officials, both high and low, was impressive. They were in contrast to the unfortunate lapses by other church officials, as when the pope hesitated to help Jews because of his fear of Communism, and the way some Catholic families refused to release Jewish children back to their Jewish families after the war was over.

All the grandparents in the audience gave the show five stars.

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