By: Alix Cohen
August 27, 2023: One almost never sees a play whose every aspect feels exactly as it should be. This is unquestionably one.
“The worst of all fears is the fear of living! There are some problems in life that have no solution. There are some situations that simply must be lived through. Survival calls for the ability to hope and determination, but most of all: a will to live.” Helena Weinrauch
This is a true story about life, not death. Helena survived the “bestiality, cruelty, and deprivation” of three Concentration Camps to emerge from trauma and ashes a warm forgiving woman. Her story makes something intimate out of that which is, to many, distant, inconceivable statistics. Dramatizations concerning the Holocaust often attack an audience. Here, you’ll feel deeply moved – and angry.
We meet Helena Weinrauch (Masha King) in 1945 recovering from imprisonment at Bergen–Belsen at a Swedish hospital. She weighed 54 pounds when the camp was liberated. With no idea how she got there or how long she’s had the hospital view, the young woman is silent, staring for hours at a white light on the water. She habitually hides food under her mattress. Those who tend to her can never understand. “I have no family, health or strength…just nightmares…Maybe the day will come I’ll talk again.”
Shedding a robe, she takes us back to her 16th birthday in 1939. The family had a beautiful home with servants. Mother was a famous concert pianist. In September, Germany invaded Poland. Soldiers politely occupied two rooms. Then the Russians came and took everything. Her parents fled to a cottage outside the city, but Helena “had to stay” and finish school. She found an office job and became their sole provider. In June, war was declared. Jews were murdered and deported. She saw and heard things. We listen.
Staying on various couches, the teenager was able to skirt incidents with Nazis because she spoke German. Close calls were frequent. She was helped to a relatively safe house in another town. Forged documents garnereda bed with a friendly couple who thought her husband was at the front. Proud to have been asked, they took her to a fancy SS party. Recollection of hiding in plain sight is riveting. Again, the passionate teenager was almost found out. Unwilling to put her hosts in danger, she flees only to be recognized by a soldier – now Gestapo – from her home town.
Helena defiantly insists she’s the person her papers indicate. She even has a viable backstory prepared. That she delivers it during a beating is fantastic. (She’s not believed.) Here we begin six years of man’s inhumanity to man. The girl is shunted from the Jewish Ghetto to Plaszow, Auschwitz, and ultimately Bergen–Belsen.
Physical labor is harsh. Volunteering for office work helps alleviate the worst in several instances. To the listener, it’s merely the difference between sucking on a potato and being given a small piece of chocolate. To Helena, despite starvation, cold, exhaustion and both witnessing and suffering violence (not rape), it’s another day of survival. Writer and actress express literal joy at the smallest gestures and gifts. Her rickety bookkeeper’s desk seems like a corner office with windows on the park. Environment and routine are vividly, verbally conjured – not shown. (Wise.)
The girl seems preternaturally calm. There’s neither naiveté nor self pity. A number of characters who influence Helena’s days are persuasively sketched. Each time she comes face to face with her death, we tense with the character expecting not the end, as the lady lives, but brutality. Each time she resigns herself and each time something or someone prevents demise. It’s impossible to imagine that torment and wrench. Actress and director make these moments viscerally real. History leads to near death and rescue.
An epilogue (written in 2006) delivered by actress, Masha King, contemporarily dressed, takes us through Helena’s life in America. The author eventually felt fluent enough to translate her memoir from Polish and German to English. Discouraged by just a few readers, the piece was relegated to a drawer until an accidentally viral Facebook post (in her 75 year-old blue Passover sweater) caught the eye of filmmaker Karen Goldfarb who created the documentary Fascination (after a tune, which the protagonist associates with her freedom).
In 2019, the film was show at Chain Theatre’s Film Festival garnering the award for Personal Stories. It’s Available at Prime Video.
On screen, taken from a talk back at the festival, we then see and hear current thoughts in her own voice, a clip from the documentary, and a glimpse at what keeps this remarkable woman buoyant at 99 years old. (I won’t tell you.) Helena Weinrauch was present when I attended. A graceful, elegant, petite woman, formally dressed, she quietly sat through the juggernaut of those six horrific years and was afterwards toasted smiling by the theater.
Chain’s Artistic Director Kirk Gostkowski formatted the piece into a play, something he tells me was not a stretch as the writing was already first-person and “brilliant.” In fact, the script is immensely articulate, astonishingly detailed, yet never excessive. Paced highs and lows are unlikely to have been original to Helena’s work, however. Sequence is unchanged.
“I have always been struck by the structure of the memoir and we were on the same page about what needed to be included as hard as some of those stories were to tell,” he comments. “I hope that my story may bring hope and love into the lives of those who hear it,” Helena wrote.
Director Rick Hamilton brings the play to vibrant life. Orchestration of visual and audible aspects is exceptional. His actress’s timing is impeccable. There isn’t a gesture or move that doesn’t seem organic. Incidents of viciousness are effective, never sensationalist. Hamilton gives us the unvarnished Helena, not an everywoman. Character is consistent and specific, not, she’d undoubtedly concur, a heroine.
Masha King is a Ukrainian immigrant; a founding member of the award-winning theatre troupe The Lost and Found Project, which is made up of all former Soviet Union Jewish immigrants. King is emotionally translucent, indelibly human. She inhabits the heroine with complete, yet understated commitment making both horror and delight credible, epitomizing extraordinary facets of Helena’s survival instinct as if she herself is surprised in the moment. A virtuoso performance.
David Henderson’s wonderful projection design never distracts from his minimal set. Grainy images, often huge close-ups, look like faded photographs or memory gauzed over, but not erased. Textures are as aptly employed as I’ve ever seen. A background of endless mud and flies gives one chills. The approach is remarkable for its discretion.
Masha King and Helena Weinrauch– photo by David Zayas Jr.
Lighting by Michael Abrams is so integral, we hardly notice the practitioner’s indispensable influence. When Helen is beaten senseless, for example, we see her in a chair but not where she’s fallen. Consciousness gone= darkness. There are times the heroine literally walks into or out of light. We see only what she sees.
Debbi Hobson’s costume design is authentic and without theatrical pretension. Sound design (Greg Russ) is insidious, preceding awareness. From the subtlety of voices or footsteps to startling gun shots it convinces.
Featuring the voices of: Anne Kraft, Martin Harris, Josef Urban, Anna Krezel, Tim Andrews, Ida Barklund, Anni Baumann, Deven Anderson
Production Photos by David Zayas Jr.
On the eve of the German occupation of Poland in 1939, 3.3 million Jews lived there. At the end of the war, approximately 380,000 Polish Jews remained alive, the rest having been murdered in ghettos and the six death camps. Helena’s unpublished memoir is a part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives. The play should be published. In a year when both Prayer for The French Republic and Harmony are coming to Broadway, one can only hope for increased awareness and abhorrence of Anti-Semitism.
Chain Theatre presents the World Premiere of
A Will to Live by Helena Weinrauch
Adapted by Kirk Gostkowski
Directed by Rick Hamilton
Starring Masha King
Chain Theatre 312 West 36 Street, 3rd floor
Through September 16, 2023