To many children of Holocaust survivors, bridging the gulf between their own lives and their parents’ horrific wartime experiences seems virtually impossible. But opening in New York next week are two one-person plays that attempt to do just that by both elucidating and strengthening the bond between the playwrights and the memories of their parents.
Coincidentally running on different floors of the Abingdon Theatre Complex in Midtown, both plays are being staged around the time of Yom HaShoah and run through the first weekend in May.
In Oscar Speace’s “Janka,” the dramatist’s mother, Janka Festinger (performed by his wife, Janice Noga) describes the horrors of Auschwitz. After the war she married a non-Jewish soldier and moved to New Jersey (June Havoc Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., theatermania.com). In Jane Elias’ “Do This One Thing For Me,” performed by the playwright, a daughter grapples, despite being unmarried and childless, with her Greek-Jewish father’s fondest wish: to be able to dance at her wedding (TBG Arts Center, 312 W. 36th St., brownpapertickets.com).
Directed by James Philip Gates, “Janka,” was inspired by a 60-page handwritten letter that Speace and his twin brother, David, discovered after their mother’s death in 1994. Penned in 1945 to an uncle in Cleveland, the letter revealed an aspect of her past that she was to keep hidden for more than half a century. “Do This One Thing for Me,” directed by Tracy Bersley, is based on testimony of his time in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belson that Elias’ father, Beni, gave to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, along with written recollections that he asked his daughter to transcribe.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Speace said he was “always frustrated” by his mother’s refusal to discuss her past. “We didn’t understand why we couldn’t have friends over, why she didn’t think that it was safe. But anyone outside the family was a stranger to her.” Writing the play linked him to “what I’m made of” as well as to his mother’s roots, he said.
Elias went on the March of the Living in order to connect to her father’s story. “It was such a moment of discovery,” she told The Jewish Week, “being in that place where my father had been, and sending him footage of the ceremony in which we read the names of the relatives whom we had lost.” Honoring her father (who died six months later) in this way gave Elias, she said, “the greatest sense of accomplishment in my life, even bigger than the opportunity to walk down the aisle.”