It happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. It's a true story.
And it could happen again. Swastikas are being splashed across Los Angeles synagogue doors; vandals are trashing Jewish schools and business establishments in the San Fernando Valley. It's time people were reminded about what happened half a century ago. They seem to have forgotten.
Jack Eisner lived through it then. He was "The Survivor" in Susan Nanus' drama about teen-agers in the Warsaw Ghetto, opening Thursday at Hollywood's Hudson Theatre. Eisner now lives in Israel, but he promised to tell the story if he survived. Playwright Nanus stumbled on his story in the late '70s.
"I met a woman," says Nanus, a Yale Drama School graduate, "who was assigned to direct a play of mine at the Henry Street Settlement House. She took me to the Bronx for a home-cooked meal. Her mother was a survivor of Warsaw. I had always thought of the Holocaust as 6 million people \o7 dead. \f7 You can't even comprehend it, so you sort of block it out. It's not real. I'd never contemplated the people who survived. I had this epiphany of all these people walking around with these stories. This was 1978. There was dead silence about it at the time. I thought, 'I've got to write a play about this.' "
Nanus eventually met Jack Eisner, whose memoirs were in manuscript form. He was 13 when the war began and 18 when it ended. "He was from Warsaw," Nanus says, "and experienced every aspect of the war, the ghetto. And he fought in the uprising, he was in the cattle cars with the partisans, in the concentration camps, and then he was liberated by the Americans. The story was about his entire family. He lost 100 members of his family. And there were his pals, the kids. They were fighters.
"The food ration for the Warsaw Ghetto was approximately 250 calories a day. People were dropping dead. So these 14- and 15-year-olds were crossing the wall, which was incredibly dangerous, posing as Aryans, buying food and smuggling it back in. Then they smuggled guns and joined the Resistance. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first armed Resistance to the Nazis in all of Europe. Not one country, not one national army fought before these Jews."
So Nanus wrote her play, which opened at Broadway's Morosco Theatre--the last play to appear there before the Morosco was razed by real estate developers. The play wasn't a success.
Nanus smiles as she explains why. "This was part of Jack Eisner's life. He was invested in certain information that doesn't necessarily work dramatically. I was very young, and I was a woman, and they intimidated me, and I didn't have the guts to stand up for my convictions, which I do now. It was very choppy. The play did \o7 not \f7 succeed."
A powerful idea, however, can't be kept down. Last summer, Susan Nanus' sister, actress and director Sasha Nanus, was holding a theater workshop at a Jewish summer camp, Ramah, in Ojai. She pulled out Susan's 160-page script and looked at it.
"Because I didn't want teen-agers playing adults," Sasha admits, "I just cut out all the adults. I edited and pieced together the series of events involving these kids. When it was over, there was this standing ovation. They were spellbound. I called Susan in New York and said, 'You have to expand this to a full-length play.' She expanded it."
There's only one adult in the new version of "The Survivor." Susan says he is, in a way, comic relief. He's played by Stu Levin, who admits to being "past 50." Levin is a familiar face. He was the first movie critic on "Entertainment Tonight," does weekly radio reviews on KGIL, and has a recurring role on TV's "Brooklyn Bridge."
Levin recalls that while in Paris last year, he visited the point of deportation behind Notre Dame Cathedral where, he says, "they sent 100,000 Frenchmen off to the German camps, and not just Jews. They have 100,000 lights there representing the people who were sent, and a replica of a gas chamber, and the grinding wheels for the mills where they ground up bodies. I looked very academically at all this, then I walked away from it and burst into tears. It had the same effect this play has on me. It makes you realize on a one-to-one basis, what these people went through."
The twentysomething cast members, playing Eisner and his friends as teen-agers, have known about the Holocaust, but the reality has hit them hard on stage.
"I haven't been emotional, as much as: All the information has been numbing me," says Adam Philipson, who plays Eisner. He played 500 performances on Broadway as Eugene Jerome in "Broadway Bound," with Joan Rivers, and is in an upcoming Disney Channel film, "Still Not Quite Human."