Sunday, November 18, 2012

Episode Four

A word to the sensitive reader:  It is impossible to write about the Holocaust without at some point uncovering the underlying horror of it. Itzhak’s story is one of those. By a miracle, he escaped death in the gas chamber; his family and millions of others did not. So please be aware of what is to come, as you may wish to skip parts of this episode. But in tribute to him and to those millions, read at least part of his story. 

And please read the end for sure, for it reveals that Genia and all of those in the house are coming into a time of terrible danger. 

In the last Episode, Episode Three, Itzhak and the Rabbi were quarreling about God, and whether God exists. In this Episode Four, the quarrel continues as Itzhak explains why he believes that God is dead, and gives harrowing justification for his belief. To preserve continuity, the last two bits of dialog in Episode Three are repeated here--

Itzhak said:  “Ah, now we're going to have the Talmud. Give us some of your fool wisdom, Rabbi, the wisdom of a dead God.
       The Rabbi responded by giving Itzhak a stinging slap. Maury and Wachter rush to separate them.
The Rabbi said: “Disbelieve if you will, but do not mock my God! [Then he is struck with remorse.] Itzhak, forgive me!”
Now, let’s carry on--

Itzhak:  Forget it. I deserved that. And I apologize. You are not a fool, Rabbi. You just don't know what is going on out there.
Rabbi:  Why…what's going on?
Itzhak:  You believe that if we're caught, they’ll send us to a work camp, described as a very pleasant place. That's what you believe, isn't it?
Rabbi:  Yes. This is a civilized country. These are civilized people.
Itzhak:  Not so, Rabbi. Let me tell you a story, and at the end, you tell me whether God is dead.
Rabbi:  I’m listening.
Maury:   Perhaps we should not go into all this….
Wachter:  Let him speak, Maury. But first let us make sure the doors are closed--and speak softly. [They check doors, closing those that are open.] Go ahead, Itzhak.
Itzhak: It was a day just like this. To quote your words, Rabbi-- "…a beautiful day, cool, with fluffy white clouds." But the day wasn't starting well.
Wachter: Where was this?
Itzhak: Auschwitz.
Wachter:  Oh… 
Itzhak:  You know?
Wachter:  I've heard some…some disturbing things.
Itzhak: And you Maury. Do you know?
Maury:  I too have heard…things. But we don't know, for sure, do we.
Itzhak:  Well I know for sure--I was there. And you don't want to tell them--the others?
Wachter and Maury:  [Answering together.] No!
Itzhak: But I must tell someone--don't you see that?
Wachter: Yes. But only us. Not the others.
Itzhak: They drove us out of our homes with clubs and dogs. They herded us like animals into cattle cars, I, my family, and a thousand others. We were in those stinking cars for three days without food, with only an occasional bucket of water. No toilets, of course, so we stank. Destination-- Auschwitz. They herded us like cattle out of those cars. Left behind were at least a hundred dead of starvation and suffocation, including many of the children crushed underfoot.  They herded us like cattle into filthy barracks where they kept us for weeks. Then one fine day--a day like this, Rabbi, with beautiful white clouds--they drove us out of those barracks. They made us undress—told us that we were to be "disinfected." As they herded us toward a concrete chamber, they said: "Breathe deep, it will be good for you” All at once it came to us, except perhaps to the children that they were going to kill us.

Genia:  No!  No!  Oh, NO!

 Rabbi:  [Half whisper.] No!   
Itzhak:  Oh yes, Rabbi. We knew, as sure as if they had told us is so many words, that we were going to be dead very soon. [Itzhak’s face is still a mask. but it is obvious that he is in the throes of a terrible grief, a grief made more terrible by its suppression.]
Rabbi:  Itzhak…
Itzhak:  And they all laughed--laughed in the face of death--Laughed! [His voice becomes a thread of sound.] My brother’s joke wasn't a very good joke, not one of his best, something about “complaining to his travel agency.” But they laughed! Was there in all the terrible history of this world so gallant a people who could so laugh in the face of death?  
     There is a long silence as the agony of Itzhak becomes more visible. He is crying inside, yet tries to suppress it.  
Maury   But you escaped…
Itzhak:  Oh, yes, I escaped. I turned and ran. They swung at me with their clubs, shot at me, but I got away. As I ran, and before the doors closed on that chamber of death, I heard them singing--singing like this…I couldn't make out the exact words, and I didn't hear it very clearly, running as I was. [He sings the first few words of the Kaddish] “Yitgadal v’yitkadash s’mei Rabbia…” I forget the rest.
Rabbi:  [Taking up the refrain] “…Rabbia b'al-ma di-vra chir-u-tei…”
Itzhak:  What is it, Rabbi?
Rabbi:  The Kaddish--the prayer for the dead. "Magnified and sanctified by the Glory of God … Hear our voice O Lord….” But surely you know the Mourner's Prayer, Itzhak?
Itzhak:  Not I, Rabbi. I never learned it. Didn't want to learn anything about that sort of thing.
Rabbi:  You are an unbeliever--an apikoros?
Itzhak:  Yes. Yes, I am. And even more so, now. But they…they sang it, this prayer of yours.
Rabbi: There was no one to sing it after them, so they sang it for themselves--the soon-to-be-dead.
   There is a moment of silence which Maury breaks to distract Itzhak.
Maury   Itzhak… Itzhak?--how did you escape?
Itzhak:  I ran like a hunted animal right into a latrine--a big pit of excrement with a plank at each side for sitting on. As I sunk in, I hoped I could hide there.
Wachter: Lieber Gott!
Itzhak:  [Barking a mirthless laugh.] Any old port in a storm--right? I lowered myself into that hellish pit and kept still.
Maury:  Couldn’t they see your head?
Itzhak:  My head was not visible.  I wore a helmet of flies. The worst of it was I was not alone in there. There must have been half-a-dozen others, some of them children put there by their parents before they were sent to the gas chambers. 
Wachter: Yet you escaped. How?
Itzhak:  All day and night I stayed quiet in that gehenna.  Just before the sun came up—up on another beautiful day, Rabbi, a line of trucks went by, headed out of the camp. I crawled out of that pit like some kind of hideous bug and got onto one of those trucks, I don't know how. I fell on a pile of naked bodies apparently on the way to burial pits. I must have slept. I was awakened by the red rays of the sun shining on the faces of my joking brother, and one of my sisters. The others—father and mother--must have been deeper in that pile … I tried to reach them, to pull the bodies off.  Why I didn't go mad right then, I don't know. I don't know now.
Rabbi:  Itzhak…
Itzhak:  I'll make it short.  The trucks slowed, I got off, ran into the woods, was found by a peasant woman--bless her, bless her--cleaned up, given clothes, helped to escape. Herr Wachter found me. End of story. But don't talk me of God, Rabbi. He is dead to me. He didn't "rise up in His wrath and smite the oppressor," did he? Perhaps He was out to lunch?--maybe taking a long vacation?
Rabbi:  For God's sake, Itzhak: cry, weep!--get rid of this terrible grief!
Itzhak:  I can't, Rabbi. If I ever let go, I would never stop…I think would die of it.
Rabbi:  Itzhak, Itzhak, say no more. I can't answer you now, Itzhak. I must think about this. I didn't know… didn't know.
Itzhak:  The world doesn't know, either. Someday it will--if enough of us live to tell it.
Maury:   [Briskly.] Well, now--that's our job, now, isn't it--to live? So let's get to work. Itzhak, go help Marek.  He is creating new papers for Lusia and Genia.
Rabbi:  I shall prepare for Sabbath. I…I must change my sermon.
    Itzhak and the Rabbi find themselves going out the same door. There is a momentary hostility. Then the Rabbi puts his arm around Itzhak's shoulder, and they exit together.
    The sound of hammering is heard overhead.
Maury:  Herr Wachter, will you accompany me to the roof?--there seems to be the problem of an unstoppable leak. Perhaps you will have some ideas.
   The flushing of a toilet is heard, followed by triumphant cries.
Maury: Ah, I feel Shakespeare’s Macbeth coming over me! [He becomes the grandiose actor] Act Two, Scene 1--“Is this a dagger I see before me, its handle toward my hand! Come, let me clutch thee!” 
     The toilet is heard again.
Now, a slight change in the script:  “Is this a toilet I see before me, its handle toward my hand?  Come, let me flush thee!”
Wachter: [suppressing a laugh] M-a-u-r-y!
Maury: Come, Herr Wachter. On to the roof, except for a slight diversion on the way.
       They exit.  The door to the kitchen opens with a bang and a cloud of smoke roils out, followed by Mrs. Winkelman, waving her apron.
Mrs. Winkelman: Ach! [She opens the front door and flaps her apron to drive out the smoke. She then returns to the kitchen, leaving the front door open.]
  Genia enters from right-stage doorway. She is bouncing her yellow ball. The doll Rivke is peeking from her pocket. Genia trips and the ball leave her hands and bounces out the door.
Genia:  [Runs to the door, cries out in alarm.] My ball! It's rolling down the hill! [She runs out.]
                                                     End of Episode Four


Little Genia is gone!—gone chasing her yellow ball out the door, and with Rivke in her pocket.  Will she be found?  She’s never been out of the house—when she and her mother were found by Wachter, night had fallen. And remember, Gestapo headquarters are just down the street from Wachter’s house. If they find Genia and force her to talk, death will come to all of them.

 In the meantime, the Playwright would like to make a comment, perhaps even an apology: That nonsensical bit with Maury playing Macbeth and the toilet is to establish the fact that Maury is a fine actor, one in the classic tradition. When he acts the role of Macbeth, his voice is a growling thunder, as was Macbeth’s, and very much unlike Maury’s regular speaking voice. And remember, please—Maury is a superb mimic.

                                           The cap of an SS General

Another comment: You may recall that Itzhak questioned the Rabbi: “You believe that if we're caught. They’ll send us to a “work camp,” described as a very pleasant place. That's what you believe, isn't it?”

  That the camps were a “pleasant place” was a lie promulgated by the Nazis to ensure a pacification of those who were about to be transported to the camps such as Auschwitz. Carefully crafted letters were sent back home to relatives-- presumably by those transported there - that stated that “they had good food, that the work was light and pleasant, and that they were enjoying themselves.”  The probability was that the “writers” of such letters were already dead.

   But that it was convincing ploy as shown by the fact that the majority of the Hungarian Jews and others destined for Auschwitz-Birkenau went peacefully to the camps.  But what a horrible realization it must have been for them when they arrived at the camps and learned the truth! 

  Incidentally, any camp prisoner who tried to send a letter of warning from the camps was hanged at the camp gates. That is what happened to the four women who tried.

Another  word to the sensitive reader:   As noted in the first words of this Episode, it is impossible to write about the Holocaust without at some point uncovering the underlying horror of it. So from now on, the image of little Genia holding her ears will be used to herald any revelations that might offend the sensitive reader. 

No. No! Oh, NO!

Now, Back to the Play.  Genia is gone from the house.  Will she be found?  The odds are against it.  But there is always hope.  Until then, please go to the blog Interval Four, which will be published on Monday, November 26. There we’ll review God On Trial, one of the finest short movies and with the finest actors that you will ever see on the Internet.  The characters are condemned to the gas chamber and debate the question as to whether God has broken his covenant with the Jews and abandoned them to a horrible fate. To seek an answer, they form a judicial court and actually put God on trial. It is a gripping story, deeply moving and unforgettable. 
So—goodbye, until we meet again on Monday, November 26.

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