Alan Breindel is an investment banker and real estate financier, not a playwright. But he was moved to take up that art after getting to know a Holocaust survivor whose story “piqued my interest. It was unlike anything I ever heard before,” said Breindel.
It was after his move from New York City to Short Hills, N.J., in 1987 that he first met the man, a neighbor. In 2012, Breindel turned the interest aroused by the survivor’s experiences during the Shoah into “Through the Darkness,” which runs through April 1 at the WorkShop Theater (312 W. 36th St., workshoptheater.org).
Breindel began by dramatizing his neighbor’s narrative. As a teenager, he left his family in the town of Radzyn, Poland, from which some 6,000 local Jews were sent by the Nazis to the Treblinka extermination camp.
The boy was forced to make “unbelievable life-and-death decisions on a regular basis when he fled to the Soviet Union and worked in Siberia,” said Breindel. To him, translating his neighbor’s experiences to the stage was a way of helping preserve the history of the Holocaust, which, he said, “is beginning to fade.”
Breindel has Holocaust ties in his family — many members of his mother’s family perished. She and his father “were always very determined that their memory remain alive,” said Breindel.
In approaching his first foray into playwriting Breindel felt that a particular aspect of the tragic era required additional attention.
He felt that the suffering of those interned in the ghettos and concentration camps — places “brutal beyond the imagination” — is usually the focus of Shoah-related art, but that the survival stories are ones “that many people are not aware of. They are stories of great adventure and the pursuit of freedom,” in which individuals had to make decisions “geared to keeping people alive for one day at a time,” said Breindel.
Moving beyond his neighbor’s story to those of other survivors, he interviewed 10 more people who had lived through the war and used their experiences to create three composite characters.
One is a woman who managed to escape from Dolina, Poland, where thousands of Jews were executed. “Because of her blonde hair she was able to pass as a Christian,” Breindel said.
Another survivor in the play is a Jew who escaped from Germany and fled to the United States. He joined the Army, was sent to fight in Europe, and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.
Another of Breindel’s characters is a woman who was forced to live in the ghetto of Lodz, Poland, and was deported to Auschwitz, where she was interned until she managed to escape.
Although Breindel’s neighbor is deceased, three of the survivors he interviewed live in New Jersey, and two of them are planning to attend the play.
The narrative of “Through the Darkness” speaks to the strength of individuals to survive and make life-and-death decisions and how fragile freedom is,” Breindel said. “Once you lose your freedom, it is almost impossible to get it back. These people understood that.”
Breindel said there is a message in the play “about what goes on in the world on a regular basis.”
One section of his work deals with Dachau, near Munich, which in 1933 became the Nazis’ first concentration camp.
“The Jews were not the first to come to Dachau,” said Breindel. “They were preceded as prisoners by leftists, criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the physically and mentally challenged, and Roma.”
He said the part of the play about Dachau “speaks to a tremendous parallel about what is going on all over the world. Each genocide is different, but there is universality, and the notion of preserving your freedom is universal.”
Director Leslie Burby said in a press release that Breindel’s work takes on special importance because “we are getting close to forgetting.”
She said his characters are, “very resourceful people — came up with crazy ways and luck to get through. The play is a dark journey to go on with these folks, but very inspiring. It’s also an opportunity to grieve for the people who didn’t make it and the children who were never born.”