The tag line for the new Holocaust play “Vilna,” currently at Theatre at St. Clement’s on West 46th Street, is “If God created monsters, He also created heroes.” The heroes playwright Ira Fuchs refers to are two historical figures, Motke Zeidel and Yuri Farber, who were part of the “burning brigade.” The Nazis sent this group of 80 men and women to the Ponar killing fields outside of the city of Vilna to dig up and burn corpses so there would be no evidence of the Nazi slaughter of civilians. The women were responsible for cooking and laundry; the men excavated and burned many thousands of bodies, sometimes coming across the corpses of people they knew. My uncle was a member of that brigade and found the bodies of his mother and sisters. He told that story in Claude Lanzmann’s film “Shoah.”
Knowing that they would be killed whenever they completed their grisly work, some of the men decided to dig an escape tunnel. Most of the escapees were shot as they ran from the tunnel, but eight survived the war, my uncle among them. Recently, a group of scientists and archaeologists discovered the remains of the tunnel using specialized equipment called Electric Resistivity Tomography. That effort was described in an episode of the PBS science series “NOVA” titled “Holocaust Escape Tunnel.”
The play “Vilna” begins long before–too long before–when Motke and Yuri are schoolboys. We see the embedded anti-Semitism among the Poles (Vilna was part of Poland at the time) when Motke’s elegant physician mother must bribe an official to enable her husband to continue his glove manufacturing business. Yuri, an orphan, joins the Zeidel family as he and Motke become best friends at school. The boys’ personalities are lightly sketched: Yuri is a by-the-rules straight ahead boy, destined to be an engineer; Motke is the looser, more-resistant-to-authority type. He eventually becomes a lawyer.
These early scenes, which take up a lot of the first act, establish the general atmosphere of Jew hatred as well as emphasizing what a spiritually and culturally rich Jewish environment existed in Vilna (now Vilnius in Lithuania), where almost half of the population was Jewish before the war. They also contribute to the exposition-heavy dialogue, which adds to the didacticism of the play. That may be necessary for audience members who are not familiar with the history of the Holocaust, but it makes for less than riveting theater at times.
The most original and intriguing aspect of “Vilna” is Fuchs’ bold choice to make heroes of members of the Judenrat, the Jewish governing council of the ghetto. In most survivor communities, these people who collaborated with the Nazis were considered traitors and worse. Fuchs makes the reasonable, if chilling, argument that many more Jews would have died of hunger, disease, and plain wretchedness if the Judenrat had not organized bathhouses, soup kitchens, hospitals, schools, and other community services and enforced strict adherence to the rules. The fact that the Judenrat also provided the Nazis with selections of Jews to be killed and cooperated with thugs and criminals to maintain order is presented as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good.
The characters Motke and Yuri are part of the Vilna Ghetto Judenrat, which is led by the historical figure Jacob Gens. I couldn’t find any confirmation that the real-life Motke and Yuri were part of the Judenrat, but that doesn’t matter for the play. The two young men struggle with the difficult choices they have to make until the Nazis resolve their moral dilemma by sending them to Ponar as part of the burning brigade.
“Being a Jew is like gravity, it always pulls you back,” a Vilner rabbi tells Motke when he objects to studying his bar mitzvah portion. The same is true of the Holocaust. No matter how many books, films, plays, or TV series are produced, there is always some new tale that pulls us back in. And in these days, when the familiar crude anti-Semitism of the first half of the twentieth century seems to be making a comeback, it’s useful to be reminded of where it once led.
Another take on the Holocaust I saw recently is less successful than “Vilna” and doesn’t even have the benefit of good intentions. At least, I couldn’t fathom any in Jeff Lipsky’s “The Last,” one of the most mystifying films I’ve seen in a long time. The plot involves a Jewish family who learns that their oldest member–a great-grandmother–was a member of the Nazi party in Germany and still has fond feelings for her coworkers at Auschwitz. That could be an interesting story, certainly, but Lipsky tells it in the most uncinematic way imaginable. The film opens with a long, tendentious discussion of a young woman’s conversion to Judaism, her husband’s lack of faith in God despite his modern Orthodox lifestyle, and his parents’ agnosticism. Who cares? There’s nothing remotely interesting about these people, and the awkward screenplay is not aided by the amateurish acting. And what does their level of observance have to do with anything? Does Lipsky think secular Jews would be blase about a Nazi bubbie? The heart of the film is an endless monologue by the great-grandmother (the one decent acting job by Rebecca Schull) on a beach, where she tells her great-grandson and his wife (the convert) how she came to be a Nazi and why their ideas about the Jews had some merit. This goes on, with only occasional cuts to her great-grandchildren’s faces, for 45 minutes!
Lipsky has made other films, but in “The Last” he doesn’t seem to believe that motion pictures should move. His camera is static, just staring at the actor speaking. Maybe that could work if what was said was well-written but it isn’t. Many scenes have no relation to the overall plot. In short, “The Last” stinks, but it’s so ostentatiously bad that it demands discussion. Why didn’t Lipsky write a play, a medium where language is paramount? Why a movie, if nothing moves? What was the New York Times reviewer thinking when he gave this a relatively positive review? What is going on in the world?
Okay, end of rant. I’m taking a deep breath and going back to my Passover cooking. Happy Passover, everyone.