Judith Hayman reviews the Jewish Theatre Company’s latest production ‘Conversations’.
Being the child or even the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor affects people profoundly. Children who know the full details of the survivor’s journey into hell often react differently from those who only glean the sketchiest of details.
Psychiatrist Trevor Friedman, formerly of Nottingham, lost his father when he was 24. All he knew was that his father was in Auschwitz before arriving in Windermere via Prague. A chance meeting with a survivor 20 years ago at the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Nottingham provided Trevor with the details of his father’s and grandfather’s harrowing story.
Trevor and his drama graduate wife Stacey wrote a play out of the conversations Trevor had with the Holocaust survivor who shared his father’s experiences. The characters are given fictitious names. Ivor Farley takes the part of Holocaust survivor Shlomo. His performance was so moving that I found myself believing Ivor was an actual survivor. His Polish accent never wavered and the pain he showed when relating his experiences was palpable. Howard Yaffe sympathetically played the part of David whose gentle interrogation of Shlomo revealed so much pain. Jaysen Lewin played grandson Joe who became increasingly agitated as he learnt the details of his family tragedy. Liz Rueben portrayed Shlomo’s daughter Devorah while Jennie Goldstone brought us back to the present via the role of radio producer Stephanie.
The play was produced by Shelley Blackston and performed by The Jewish Theatre Company. The fact that the play was introduced by Trevor Friedman, directed by Stacey Friedman, and staged at The Manchester Jewish Museum made the experience deeply moving. At times the details were so harrowing that I could scarcely catch my breath. The way the actors managed to sustain this level of intensity earned my respect.
The play centres on the questioning of Shlomo by David. David’s grandson Joe and Shlomo’s daughter Devorah witness this conversation. When David’s father and grandfather entered the Lodz ghetto in May 1940 there were 250,000 souls. By the time the ghetto was liquidated there were only 70,000 left. The pair survived because they were ‘indispensible workers’. After a 12 hour day of slave labour on subsistence rations they saw dead and dying bodies on the pavements of the ghetto. They witnessed how men were stripped of their dignity before their murder and the visit to the ghetto of Nazi Minister Albert Speer.
Chillingly we hear how Shlomo’s cousin had to open the stomachs of his gassed brethren. He explained: ‘The Germans knew that the Jews swallowed their valuables.’
We learn that Shlomo took a blanket, water and a family photo album when he was herded out of the Lodz ghetto to Auschwitz. He recalls the petty cruelty of the German guard who kicked aside this precious album. We hear of the ‘Angel of Death’, Dr Josef Mengele, making his grotesque and random selections of his victims. Shlomo muses: ‘The world was turned upside down here. Only brutes, sadists and murderers were in charge.’
We learn how David’s father and grandfather and Shlomo witness the murder of women and children in the Stutthof concentration camp. Once the small dexterous fingers of the women and children were no longer necessary for the German war effort they were slaughtered. Young Joe regularly interrupts the conversation when it becomes too painful to bear, or to learn more. Devorah is more controlled but even she asks how the men could stay alive after seeing their loved ones murdered. Tragically David’s grandfather is killed shortly before the end of the war. David speaks of the ‘huge responsibility’ of being the son of a survivor. And young Joe marvels at how his father and grandfather could have been normal parents.
The audience, like the wedding guest in The Ancient Mariner, were left ‘sadder but wiser’ souls at the end of Conversations.