When most American Jews think of the Holocaust, images of German and Eastern European Jews being led to slaughter spring to mind. But there were many Sephardic victims of the Third Reich as well, although their story has less often been told. In Shmuel Rafael’s one-man play, “Golgotha,” a Holocaust survivor from Salonika, played by the Baghdad-born Iraqi-Israeli actor Victor Attar, grapples with the horrors of his past as he has to decide whether or not to light a torch in an annual Israeli commemoration of the Shoah. The hour-long, one-act “monodrama,” timed to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, runs next week for three performances only at La MaMa E.T.C. in the East Village. When it ran in Tel Aviv in 2005, Naomi Doudai of the Jerusalem Post hailed Attar’s performance as “poignant and deeply moving.”
The northern Greek city of Salonika, also called Thessaloniki, is located in the northeast part of the country, near the Turkish border, on an inlet of the Aegean Sea. It was a haven for Jews expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century, and became the only major city in the world that retained a majority Jewish population for centuries.
But the 20th century brought cataclysms, beginning with a fire in 1917 that destroyed half of the city’s 32 synagogues and left tens of thousands of Jews homeless. Many Jews immigrated to Israel after the First World War, but there were still about 50,000 left by the time that the Nazi occupied the city in 1941. Of that number, only about 2,000 survived, despite Primo Levi’s description of them in “Survival in Auschwitz”: “admirable and terrible” … “tenacious, thieving, wise, ferocious and united, so determined to live, such pitiless opponents in the struggle for life.”
“Golgotha,” which is directed by Attar’s wife, Geula Jeffet-Attar, was adapted by Haim Idisiss and translated into English by Howard Rypp. It premiered in Israel in 2003 and then was performed over the next few years in New York, Washington, D.C., and Stockholm. The production employs recorded Ladino music, as well as projected films and photographs of Jewish life in Salonika. Rosine Nussenblatt and Jean Carasso wrote in La Lettre Sepharade, a French Jewish newspaper, that “Golgotha” is a “welcome addition to the relatively small, but growing, spectrum of testimonies and works on the Holocaust of Greek Jews.”
In the play, Albert has been invited to accompany his friend, Daniel Schwartz (a Polish survivor), whom he met when both were in a slave labor camp in Birkenau, to an annual ceremony at Yad Vashem to which Schwartz has been invited to light one of the ceremonial six candles. When Schwartz suddenly passes away before the ceremony, Albert has to decide if he is worthy — given both that he is Sephardic, and that he was unable to save his wife and children — to step into his friend’s role and be a torch bearer for the Jewish people.
In an interview in the lobby of La MaMa, the Attars, who have been called the Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne of the Israeli theater, talked about their long association with the play. “We always thought that the Holocaust was the property of Ashkenazic Jews,” Geula said. But when the couple was doing a show about the medieval Spanish poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol at a theater festival in Akko in 2003, they met Refael, who teaches Sephardic Jewish literature at Bar-Ilan University.
Refael had written a book, based on hundreds of hours of interviews with Ladino-speaking Holocaust survivors, called “Routes of Hell,” which was published in Hebrew in 1988. After that he wrote a three-hour play about a Greek Holocaust survivor that no Israeli theater was interested in producing. When they read it, the Attars realized that it could be drastically shortened but successfully and turned into a memorable evening of theater.
Much of the play’s power, said Victor, comes from the “deep sorrow” that his character carries around with him and his “vacant and wrecked” state at the end of the play.
In an introductory note to a printed version of the play, Refael (whose father was from Salonika; his mother was from Corfu) has praised the Attars for taking on the play as an “almost sacred mission” and for “serving as the voices of the dead whose cries and stories were suffocated in the smoking chimneys of Auschwitz-Birkenau.” The process of interviewing the survivors, he wrote, made him realize that the material needed to be dramatized. As he put it, “The held-in pain, the frugal words, the tormented narrative so characteristic of those testimonial interviews are what guided me to speak for them and to find other ways to express what had not been said in the book.”
In an email from Israel, the playwright noted that few Israeli playwrights have paid attention to the experience of Sephardic Jews in the Holocaust, and that Sephardic Jews were rarely invited to participate in Holocaust commemorations. The play’s aim, he said, is to “close this gap and pay respect to the thousands and thousands of Sephardim who were annihilated.” He explained that the play’s title, which refers to the place where Jesus was crucified, refers to the suffering of Sephardic Jews.
As one of his interviewees told him at the end of their conversation, “No sabes ue Golgotha pasimos,” which in Ladino means “Our pain is indescribable.”
Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos directs the museum at Kehila Kedosha Janina (KKJ), the Lower East Side synagogue founded by Romaniote Greek Jewish immigrants from Janina (in the northwest region of Epirus, near Albania) in the early 20th century. She pointed out that it was not until the early 1980s that the first memoirs were published by Greek Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, and that many stories remain untold, given that Greece lost 87 percent of its Jewish population. But she said that a Jewish community still remains in Greece, including in Salonika, where the Monastir Synagogue, which survived the war because it was requisitioned by the Red Cross, recently reopened.
“Golgotha,” which Ikonomopoulos saw when it ran in New York in 2005, “tells the story very well through the eyes of someone who survived the camps,” she said. She called it “definitely worth seeing,” noting that her community “is very hungry for everything having to do with Greek Jews.”
“Golgotha” runs Jan. 26-29 at La MaMa E.T.C., 74A E. Fourth St., Performances are on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets, $18 ($13 students/seniors), call the box office at (646) 430-5374 or visit www.lamama.org.