Tag Archives: Jackie Fishman

Grit and Endurance at Birkenau – and Urgency Today

Review: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042

By Perry Tannenbaum

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For those of us who didn’t endure or survive it, talking about the Holocaust can be awkward, uncomfortable, and disturbing. I should know: Invited to a 1991 production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Children’s Theatre, my own uncle – brought to Charlotte as a pre-eminent authority on gifted children – turned down the opportunity to see a fine Teen Ensemble in action. Very likely, the I in the title was the biggest red flag for Uncle Abe – the threat of hearing a first-hand account of the horrors, the inhumanity, and the suffering. Even from teens.

Ah, but what if you weren’t the child of Jewish American immigrants, safe from the Nazi killing machine and the misfortunes of growing up Jewish inside the Third Reich? If you had grown up Jewish in Berlin and Vienna, if you had seen the belly of the beast as a concentration camp prisoner at Auschwitz and Birkenau, smelled the smoke of the crematorium from the moment you arrived, dreaded every morning roll call, and reverted to your animal instincts just to survive – even then, after surviving this unfathomable ordeal, you’re unlikely to feel comfortable talking about it.

Come to Duke Energy Theater and you’ll see why.

The screening of Surviving Birkenau at the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival late last month was a preliminary reminder. Like Three Bone Theatre’s world premiere of Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, now at Spirit Square through Sunday, Ron Small’s documentary was all about the early life of Dr. Susan Cerynak-Spatz and how she managed to outlast her brutal captors – ultimately escaping Adolph Hitler’s infamous “final solution.”

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After the film, there was a panel discussion and time set aside for audience questions. Among those on the panel were Three Bone Theatre artistic director Robin Tynes-Miller, Charles LaBorde, the actor-playwright-educator who adapted Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir, and Dennis Delamar, who is directing it. Joining the panel was Jackie Fishman, Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, who had appeared briefly during the film and was instrumental in greenlighting the new play.

It was Fishman who inadvertently delineated the key difference between the Cernyak-Spatz we had just seen onscreen at the Levine Jewish Community Center and the one who I would see portrayed at Duke Energy the following week. Asked about how her mom had discussed the Holocaust in their home while she was growing up, Fishman recalled that the subject was rarely mentioned. Avoided.

We had just watched a woman who, already well into her 90’s when Surviving Birkenau was filmed, had spoken – and as a UNC Charlotte professor, lectured – all over the US and around the world for decades about her Holocaust experiences and studies. She hadn’t been at all uncomfortable about doing so once again for the cameras. The woman that LaBorde would have us meet, Leslie Giles playing the role, is 40-something according to the script, about the same age Cernyak-Spatz was when she and Fishman attended the same Midwest college together.

[Getting an actress who could replicate the 97-year-old today is borderline impossible. Recently felled by a stroke, Cernyak-Spatz willed herself out of her sickbed and attended last Sunday evening’s performance. Brava, Susan!]

What LaBorde has done, taking the author who published her memoir in 2005 and making her some 40 years younger, isn’t exactly unusual for adaptations we see onstage, in movies, or in opera. But when you’re dealing with Holocaust material, the discomfort factor needs to be part of your calculus.

For LaBorde, audience discomfort is definitely a consideration. You can see it and hear it as the play begins. But what LaBorde, Giles, and Delamar didn’t calibrate – or consider – was Susan’s discomfort four decades earlier.

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Instead of immediately plunging us into the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 and all that she and millions of other Jews experienced after that, in a gradual crescendo of horrific inhumanity, Susan introduces us to a rack of clothes that – with a Dresser, portrayed by Paula Baldwin – will help her to guide us through all the major transformations that befell her from the days of her relatively idyllic childhood in Vienna onwards. It was during the lighter pleasantries opening the show that Giles faced what nobody had anticipated.

Whether it was because so many theatrefolk were in the audience on opening night or because of the grim subject, this wasn’t the kind of crowd that shouted back a greeting if you started off with a “Good evening!” or a hearty hello, Nothing came out of us in response to Susan’s welcome. Not even enough for Giles to come back with the obligatory, “Aw, you can do better than that!”

It was an awkward moment – but also a momentary glimpse of what we would see if we were being addressed by a Susan who had real trepidations about broaching a story that might be uncomfortable or disturbing for us to hear. Or for her to relive. Giles proceeded to tell Susan’s story with all the confidence that’s on the pages of the original Protective Custody memoir, in a voice that, benefiting from fruitful time spent with Cernyak-Spatz’s audiobook, occasionally replicated Susan’s with chilling accuracy.

And what a story it was, a powerful no-bull account of what life was like in the showcase Theresienstadt camp and the more harrowing living conditions at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Nor was there any sugarcoating of what it took from Susan to survive. Actually, the show is pretty amazing when you consider that Three Bone Theatre skipped the preliminary processes of a full staged reading or an intermediate workshop version. The entire production team was learning for the first time how an audience would react to the full script.

All that I saw on opening night was at a surprisingly advanced state of development. LaBorde, Giles, and Delamar have delivered far more than a mere chronology of a descent into hell. There are a couple of times when the highly detailed narrative is paused. One happens when Susan ponders how a bad decision by her mom changed the course of both their lives – and poisoned Susan’s attitude towards her to this day. Another recounts how Susan lost her faith in God.

Giles makes these into moments that challenge us – and LaBorde gives her another at the end of the evening when Susan turns her unflinching gaze on today’s world and the question of whether we have learned anything from the history she has devoted her life to preserving. She frames the Never again question in a way calculated to make us uncomfortable one last time.

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More moments such as these, with Susan speaking her heart, voicing her sense of urgency, or simply engaging us directly would help in fleshing out Prisoner 34042, which now has a somewhat boney 80-minute runtime. I’ll be surer of whether LaBorde has mined all the details from the memoir to give his drama maximum power when I finish the ebook, but what I’ve already read convinces me that the task of distilling the book was as daunting as he has said.

Paying more attention to the drama inherent in becoming comfortable with the Holocaust conversation – or at least usefully informed by it – might also turn up the temperature, but there were also times that I felt more dialogue between the two women onstage could spark more tension, light and warmth. Even though she rarely spoke, Baldwin brought me some of the most touching drama of the evening. Curiously enough, her most affecting moments came at the end, when she ditched her Euro accents and became a couple of Americans who welcomed Susan to freedom. Choked me up.

Of course, we can credit much of Baldwin’s liberating impact to the vivid narrative Cernyak-Spatz had written, LaBorde had adapted, and Giles had so deeply immersed herself in, taking her audience along with her on her journey. Already portraying Susan’s mom and various Nazi jackboots, Baldwin could be helping to make Giles’ journey even more intense along the way. But I won’t disagree with anyone who emerges from Spirit Square feeling that Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042 is informative, intense, and impactful enough as it stands.

Disturbing? I hope so.

Charlotte’s Witness to Genocide

Preview: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, a Three Bone Theatre Production

By Perry Tannenbaum

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At age 97, Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz can look back on a life well-lived – and a life well-told. Neither outcome seemed possible on May 7, 1942, when Cernyak-Spatz and her mom responded to an invitation from the Nazi invaders who had occupied Czechoslovakia. It was an invitation that Jews could not refuse. They assembled at a large public square, where they were marched across the city of Prague in broad daylight, herded to a freight station, loaded onto trains, and transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camps.

Survival was already against the odds. Those odds grew slimmer on January 31, 1943, when Cernyak-Spatz was transported from Theresienstadt, the “showplace” camp built to deceive International Red Cross inspectors, to Birkenau, the belly of the beast in Adolph Hitler’s genocide machine.

Yet Cernyak-Spatz did survive. She survived a transfer deeper into the belly, to Auschwitz, and an attack of typhus fever brought on by the toxic living conditions there. Even after the Russians began “liberating” Eastern Europe, Cernyak-Spatz survived a grueling death march in the custody of her captors.

And oh baby, since arriving in the US nearly three-quarters of a century ago, Cernyak-Spatz has told her story – well and often. New generations have heard it at Jewish Sunday schools and at UNC Charlotte, where she is still a professor emerita in German literature. In classrooms, in lecture halls, and in synagogues across America and Europe – including Germany – she has opened fresh eyes to Nazi atrocities. In books she has authored about her life, the Holocaust, and Theresienstadt, Cernyak-Spatz has chronicled the unthinkable horrors she survived – horrors that millions of other Jews did not survive.

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The story keeps getting told. At the upcoming Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, filmmaker Ron Small’s documentary biopic, Surviving Birkenau, will be screened on October 26. And next week at Spirit Square, a project initiated by Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, Jackie Fishman, and notables of the QC’s theatre community comes to fruition. Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Cernyak-Spatz’s memoirs, Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, opens on November 1 in a Three Bone Theatre production directed by Dennis Delamar.

The idea for presenting a one-woman show focused on his longtime friend Susan’s life had been moldering in Delamar’s mind since 2005 when he directed the Charlotte premiere of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning I Am My Own Wife, an adaptation of transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s autobiography.

“That survivor’s story carried us through the Holocaust and also the fall of the Berlin Wall and made me start visualizing something similarly possible about another person’s unique Holocaust story. Someone I actually knew and cared for very much – Susan! Since then, I thought the idea was a really good one, but it stayed in the back of mind, dormant. Cut to eleven years later.”

Pieces began falling into place when Fishman, education coordinator at the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, brought Delamar and LaBorde to Queens University for a reading of Address Unknown in April 2017, reviving one of multiple Holocaust plays LaBorde had already written. Almost inevitably, Delamar broached his long-gestating idea with Fishman during rehearsals.

“Jackie was immediately ecstatic over the idea,” he recalls, “as if I had said some magic words. ‘Let’s do it! Mom has already written her story down, the book she published in 2005. Have you read it? I’ll get you a copy.’ At that moment, Jackie became a key driving force behind this play getting done, a mission she has continued to energize as a daughter’s gift to her mother.”

Though Fishman had been one of his most valued teachers back when LaBorde was principal of Northwest School of the Arts, he didn’t see a natural transition of Protective Custody from page to stage: “too many people, too complex a story to pare down enough for an audience to follow.” LaBorde was prepared to walk away – until he came face-to-face with Fishman’s enthusiasm for the project. So he gave the book a second look.

With Three Bone Theatre aboard – and Cernyak-Spatz greenlighting the project – Delamar and LaBorde returned to Queens University, where the Greenspon Center hosted an even more exciting event last December than they had the year before. For Cernyak-Spatz was seated in the front row of a packed house at a reading-stage performance of a new LaBorde play, doubly honored at the occasion.

Nor did Cernyak-Spatz sit idly by as the latest incarnation of her life story took shape. She and her daughters, Jackie and Wendy Fishman, have been intensively involved in the process, checking facts, suggesting enhancements, correcting pronunciations, and fine-tuning the voice of the Susan we will see onstage.

“My favorite bit of research,” LaBorde reveals, “was to ask Wendy and Jackie if their mother would say the line I had written early in the play, ‘Somebody fucked up.’ Their reaction was to look at each other and then say simultaneously, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

My own research for this momentous Three Bone premiere took me to Prague last month – and from there to the fortress site of the Theresienstadt camps, the town of Terezín, and the Museum of the Ghetto. In Prague, my wife Sue and I stood in one of the squares where Cernyak-Spatz may have been marched to the transport awaiting her at the freight yards. Our guide told us that we were standing on pavement made from the shattered gravestones from a demolished Jewish cemetery.

At Theresienstadt we saw the barracks where Jews were warehoused in hall-length beds three and four levels high, no toilets provided. We saw a washroom built to hoodwink the Red Cross, lined with sinks where no water has ever flowed. We saw cemeteries near Theresienstadt and Terzín larger than football fields – with marked graves, unmarked graves, and mass graves. We were guided to the Secret Synagogue where I read the most heartbreaking plea to God that I’ve ever seen in a house of worship, written in Hebrew:

“PLEASE RETURN FROM YOUR WRATH.”

And outside Terezín, adjoining one of the burial grounds, we saw the crematoriums, restored by the Luski Family, a name familiar throughout Charlotte’s Jewish community. Maybe the most chilling and revelatory things I saw were the records displayed at the Ghetto Museum of the transports, punctiliously kept by the Nazis: dates, points of origin, and numbers of Protective Custody prisoners brought into Theresienstadt via the transports. Of the hundreds, sometimes thousands who were loaded into the cattle cars, I never saw that even 100 survived any of these horrific transports. More than once, the number was zero.

Clearly, Cernyak-Spatz bucked prodigious odds to arrive at Theresienstadt, to survive her journey to Birkenau, and finally reach Ravensbrueck, the destination of her January 1945 death march. Susan does use the word “miracle” in LaBorde’s script to account for her eluding “the gas.” Once.

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Benefiting from the guidance of the Fishmans – and the sound of the real Cernyak-Spatz’s voice (yes, there’s a Prisoner 34042 audiobook!) – Leslie Giles takes on the daunting challenge of being Susan at Duke Energy Theater, assisted by Paula Baldwin as The Dresser.

“Oh my gosh, daunting doesn’t even begin to describe how it feels to take on this very special project about this incredible person,” says Giles. “The amount of lines would be enough to scare some actors away, and then to top it off with the very real and gritty details makes it overwhelming at times. That said, it is absolutely worth it, probably the most important piece of work I’ve ever performed in my entire career. It is one thing to read about these events in a book. It is another thing to watch the story coming alive in front of you.”

Reflecting on the wonder of her survival, Cernyak-Spatz scoffs at the notion that she had any special wisdom. “Our entire day was taken up with thinking of survival,” she declares. “We had to be alert like wild animals. Wild animals don’t do much thinking. They survive. We ate anything that wouldn’t eat us. There was no time to dwell on faith or God; you had to give up your expectations of a normal universe. Perhaps my naivete allowed me to take great risks that paid off.”

If it weren’t for the war, Cernyak-Spatz says she would have likely become a dancer or an actress. Indeed, she has occasionally performed onstage here in the QC, most recently when I called her one the “islands in a stream of ineptitude” in my review of Theatre Charlotte’s production of A Little Night Music in 2006. No wonder she treasures the gift of a new drama dedicated to her in her twilight years.

There’s also a twinkle of artistry in the title of her memoirs. The Nazis didn’t simply record your prisoner number in a ledger or stitch it into your prison clothes – it was tattooed into your forearm. They fancied themselves the master race, so they could house Jews and brand Jews and liquidate Jews like cattle. The 34042 that endures in Cernyak-Spatz’s title does not signify their triumph.

“The title serves my purpose of explaining the steps and the de-humanization of a group of human beings. When one is ultimately reduced to no more than a number, the extrapolation is that there’s no worth to this life and it can be easily disposed of. I have outlived the Third Reich, triumphed over them, with a successful and productive life – raised a Jewish family and have told my story all over the world. Anyone who sees the tattooed number on my arm becomes a witness to this history.”