Playwright’s script gives new voice to survivor

Playwright’s script gives new voice to survivor

Competition inspired Montclair artist to pen a play about the Shoa

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Playwright Melissa Schaffer, right, at a staged reading of her new play Windows, which won a local competition. She portrays the survivor’s mother, who, with her father (played by Clark Carmichael), pushes their daughter (Hillary Brotscho
Playwright Melissa Schaffer, right, at a staged reading of her new play Windows, which won a local competition. She portrays the survivor’s mother, who, with her father (played by Clark Carmichael), pushes their daughter (Hillary Brotscho

Scores of local bar and bat mitzva students have heard Eugenia’s story. She is adamant about keeping a promise she made to her parents when they pushed her out of the cattle car to live as they traveled to their own certain death at the Majdanek concentration camp nearly three quarters of a century ago.

Now, thanks to Melissa Schaffer, a playwright from Montclair, Eugenia’s harrowing story of surviving the Holocaust has been told in Schaffer’s new play, Windows. (The survivor has asked that her real name not be printed here; Eugenia is the name used in the play.)

The play took first prize in a competition sponsored this year by the Jewish Plays Project in collaboration with the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, thanks to a two-year, $12,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, matched by the Darivoff Family Foundation.

To qualify for the competition, entries had to focus on the Holocaust and tell the story of a local survivor. The playwrights also had to have local connections, and the play had to be appropriate for an educational setting. Twelve plays were submitted.

“It was a very narrow call for scripts, for plays by people in our community about people in our community, but we got about a dozen, and there were some very good plays,” said council director Barbara Wind.

A panel of community leaders judged the entries, under the supervision of the council.

The winning play had a staged reading at the council’s Cecile Seiden Memorial Workshop for Educators, held March 22 at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. With a focus on using the arts to teach the Holocaust, the event attracted about 45 people.

In an interview with NJJN following the staged reading, Schaffer said she first heard Eugenia tell her story a few years as part of Schaffer’s son’s “Twin with a Survivor” bar mitzva project.

“I knew immediately I wanted to write a play with music and act in it, and I wanted everyone to come and see it. There’s not a soul alive who cannot learn from her experience,” said Schaffer, who trained as an actor and singer at Boston University.

But she never managed to get around to it — until the competition was announced. When she found the call for plays in her inbox in September, she said, “It was like God sent me an e-mail. If that’s not a message, I don’t know what is.”

Schaffer lives in Montclair with her two sons and her husband, Don Rifkin. Windows marks her first foray into serious playwriting, although the Pittsburgh native said she has been writing since she was 17. “Eugenia made me a playwright,” she said.

The two spent dozens of hours together as Schaffer pieced together the various characters whose lives intersected with Eugenia’s — the priest who gave her a fake Polish identity after she had escaped; the people who hid her at risk to their own lives; and the people she lost, including her brother.

While Eugenia had told her story many times to many people, Schaffer found herself looking for details the survivor doesn’t often focus on.

“She would say, ‘You have enough. You have more than anybody else,’” Schaffer said, in Eugenia’s distinctive accent. “But I had to imagine all the characters. She would say, ‘That person is not important.’ I had to tell her that person is important to me. She knows what’s really important in her story, but I needed to bring certain people into the story.”

Schaeffer also wanted to know more about Eugenia’s childhood before the war started and certain basic details — even what the stove in the house looked like.

“I wanted to show her whole life and how the warm and loving family deteriorated and went into horror, and that at some point she was able to enjoy life again and even to love,” she said.

‘So kids can learn’

In Windows, Eugenia looks back on different pieces of her story.

At the reading, Schaffer performed two songs, one her own composition (she has written several), the other the setting of a psalm composed by Dave Sanders of Montclair.

It was music that brought the playwright and the survivor together. Schaffer had trained in Jewish chanting with Rabbi Shefa Gold of the Jewish Renewal Movement and leads chanting at her own congregation, Bnai Keshet in Montclair. She also serves as a cantorial soloist at Bnai Keshet and at United Synagogue of Hoboken, and she teaches music to preschoolers at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield and an exercise-to-music class at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.

Schaffer met Eugenia at a rally for Darfur, where Eugenia was representing Holocaust victims and Schaffer was singing with a gospel choir. Eugenia asked her to sing at Cafe Europa — a social gathering for Holocaust survivors — which she has done several times a year.

Eugenia was in the audience for the reading. Just before it began, she told NJJN, “I’m not nervous for myself — I’m nervous for her. I want it should take off for her. And it will be good so kids can learn from it.”

Schaffer hopes the play will be performed locally at schools through 2013, and then perhaps it can travel. “I would love to do the play around the country, and even in Israel. And I would love to perform it at Auschwitz,” she said.

Schaffer said she hopes the play “forces viewers to ask themselves, ‘What kind of person do I want to be? Would I hide someone and not turn them in to the police even when I was told to do so? Even if I could get a kilo of sugar if I did?’

“If you ask these questions when you’re young, you can start to become the kind of person you want to be.”

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