When poet Gail Fishman Gerwin was seeking inspiration for her 1995 play, Bella’s Family, she had to look no further than her own family tree. Although the work takes place in 1920s New York City, in writing it, she tapped into childhood memories that led to her search for information about relatives who perished in the Holocaust.
“As a young girl, I asked my mother what happened to her brother during World War II. She always replied the same way: ‘Hitler killed him.’ And that was it. She never went into any details,” Gerwin said March 5 in Roseland. “When I was writing the play, I realized I needed an answer to my question.”
About 20 women attended the event, the monthly meeting of the Temple Sholom of West Essex Rosh Hodesh women’s group. It included dinner and a dramatic reading of Act 1 of the play and was held in the Roseland home of temple member Heidi Levine. Ruth Frankel, who cochairs adult education at the synagogue with Sharon Resnick, organized the event, casting 11 women in Bella’s Family roles.
Frankel told NJJN she was excited about the interactive aspect of the program. “We always want to make Rosh Hodesh fun and educational,” she said. “And what’s more fun than putting on a play?”
Gerwin, a native of Paterson who lives in Morristown, wrote Bella’s Family as the performance thesis for her 1996 master’s degree in fiction and playwriting from the Gallatin School at New York University. It was stage-read as a work in progress at the Barn Theater in Montville in 1995. According to Gerwin, the play is based on “the people I knew — my aunts, my mother, my father, my uncles by marriage. And those I never met: my mother’s brother who was killed in the Holocaust, my grandmother, who died the year I was born, and my grandfather, who died when I was very young.”
Bella of the title is a cousin, whom Gerwin fictionalized as a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. The play takes place over five years starting in 1920, and chronicles the life of a Jewish family, led by matriarch Augusta and patriarch Saul, as they evolve from immigrants just getting by as garment workers to successful restaurant owners. Their daughters embrace American popular culture as they grow up.
The work’s recurring theme is the family’s hope that their son and brother, Lunis, who stayed in Europe, will reunite with his family in America.
But Gerwin based the character on her mother’s brother, Leib, so Lunis never arrives in America.
According to Gerwin, working on the play prompted unanswered questions about her uncle’s death. She began to conduct research in earnest and found testimony at Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem — that established that Leib was taken from his home in Lissa, Poland, to the Lodz ghetto and was ultimately transported to the Chelmno extermination camp, where he died.
An aunt, Frieda, who also stayed in Europe, was taken from her home to the Tomoszow Mazowiecki ghetto. Gerwin said she could not find information on exactly where she died.
“Although it was painful, finally knowing the truth freed me in a way,” Gerwin told NJJN. She began writing poems that explored her own past with links to the previous generation. The result was her 2009 memoir Sugar and Sand (Full Court Press), a finalist for the 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize. She is working on a second poetry collection.
After the performance, Gerwin said she was “pleased to hear the tribute to my family in a new setting, and the interpretation of the language opened my eyes to many aspects of the play.
“I heard my mother in Augusta’s words, and until now, I did not realize fully how much of her infuses Bella’s Family.”