Last Jew In Europe, on the New York stage as of March 4, 2007
By Tuvia Tenenbom
The Jewish Theater of New York invites New Yorkers on a trip, lasting one-hour, twenty-five minutes, to a city that’s an anti-Semite’s Paradise, existing today, and located right in the middle of the EU. Welcome to Lodz, Poland, where anti-Jewish declarations are graphically exhibited in almost every street corner and calls for sending Jews back to the gas chambers go unchallenged.
Sounds strange? Well, reality is quite often stranger than fiction.
I’ll get to Lodz soon; let me start first with Lublin.
Lublin, Poland, is a place I always wanted to visit. When I was a child, my parents lived in a house right next to the Lubliner Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel. Hours and hours on end, every Friday night with no fail, hundreds of the Yeshiva students would sing, “God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” I’ve always wondered why those words were sung and danced to; to me they sounded pretty sad. Still, the devotion of the students, I must admit, was warming and touching.
Finally, late last year, 2006, I made my way to Lublin and found myself standing next to the original building of the Yeshiva. I was accompanied by a Polish-American friend and by a Polish pastor (more about him later). The Nazis, I was told, kept the building and used it for their own purposes (I didn’t bother to listen to the details). Evening soon arrived, and with it the night, and I was wondering aloud where I should stay the night. I was given a choice: Some great Western hotels, or the local monastery. Well, hotels I have in New York aplenty; Polish monasteries, I’m not so sure. So, naturally, I chose the monastery. Nuns always fascinated me, and for 40 Zlotys I could have the pleasure. As things turned out, not many nuns roamed the hallways of this great monastery, but some other Polish folks did. I had a cold that night, and I was coughing for quite some time—which made sleep close to impossible. I felt like smoking, but nuns don’t like the smell of my Gitanes (that excellent French cigarette) so much and they told me that if I needed to smoke I should go to a designated room. At 1:30am I found myself slowly parading to the smoking room. There, to my surprise, I saw a man sitting by the window and smoking nervously. Bidding the Polish stranger Hello, I asked him what made him sleepless at this time of night. Was he also suffering from cold? “No,” said the stranger. “What is it, then?” I asked. Drawing deeply out of his cigarette he said, in a broken voice, “Too many Jews in the world.” The “Jews,” it turned out, come to him in his sleep and cause him nightmares. “Where you from?” he asked. I didn’t think that it was quite a good idea to say Israel or the United States, so I said, “Austria. Linz.” My new friend liked that. Drawing yet again on his cigarette, he focused his gaze on me and said: “Herr Hitler didn’t kill the Jews.” Lighting up my own Gitanes, I asked: “Who did?” He looked at me, the Coughing Austrian, and said: “It’s too late in the night to explain this to you. Next time.”
For the following 45 minutes or so he went on a raging speech full of hate for the “Jews.” “What happened in Poland,” he shared a thought with me, “will happen to America. The United States allowed the Jews in, and they will pay for it.”
The next morning, after I had my share of the nuns and their visitors, I made my way to Radzyn, to visit the town where my great grandparents once lived and where one of them established a Hasidic dynasty that was to be known as "The Radzyner Court."
No Jews live in Radzyn today, a town that once boasted a Jewish majority, so I went to the cemetery to see the graves and, perhaps, unfold some details that I didn’t yet know. But soon I found out that the cemetery was razed by the Nazis, all the headstones long gone; the Nazis, apparently, needed marble for their rebuilding efforts in the East. As if this was not enough I soon learned that the graves themselves were nowhere in sight either. The Polish government, long after the war was over (to be precise, in 1957), erected a neighborhood on top of the Jewish cemetery, never bothering to move the graves.
With the help of the pastor that I met the day before in Lublin, I finally located the house built on top of my family's graves. A cheerful lady greets me as I come in. Her name, she says, is Basha ("Barbara") and she is very happy to live here. The dead bodies of Jews under her house have brought her much luck. "I am a blessed woman," she joyfully says.
Years ago she turned her backyard into a little "field" where she grows vegetables and "very sweet" apples.
"The bodies of dead Jews," she explains, "make the earth very fertile when they get mixed with the soil."
I almost collapsed. I couldn't believe my ears and eyes. To see the woman cheerfully telling how she uses the dead Jews underneath--my great grandparents--as a fertilizer, was horrific. But she saw no reason for sadness. "Do you want an apple?" she asks. She's surprised that I don't grab an apple or two. "These apples are so good, you couldn't find apples like them in any store. Anywhere"
Basha enjoys having guests and loves chatting with her visitor. A few years ago, she recalls laughingly, a man's hand came sticking out from the earth (obviously she can recognize different bone structures and knows what they once used to be). When her teenage daughter, Dorota, saw it she got scared. But Basha told her not to worry. She put the hand back in the earth and then plowed her little field, grinding that hand to get the maximum effect. "Look at my apples, the best!" she says, smiling heartily.
She really likes her dead Jews. Sometimes, she tells me, she lies down at night and dreams of Jews who come to her bed to sleep with her. "At my age," she muses, "I don't mind if a Jewish man comes to visit my bed. Nobody else does." She laughs again. "A dead Jew will one day come to my bed through the window; maybe" she adds.
All in all, she enjoys seeing me. The Jews, as she sees it, have been good to her.
"Many skulls underneath my house and my apple tree," she says and laughs a bit more.
When I ask her if she would feel as elated had the dead underneath her house and backyard been Christians instead of Jews, her cheerfulness suddenly disappears and she completely stops laughing. "No Christians; that would be terrible," she says. I ask her what's the difference between Jews and Christians, but she can supply no response. "Christians, no." And that was it.
Then another man comes in to greet me, the former mayor of Radzyn. "It's not their fault," he says to me; "it's the Communists who did it; not the Poles."
After the mayor had his say, the pastor takes me aside and asks for forgiveness for the atrocities against my family. He assures me that he will pray in church; he'll definitely ask God to guide him and his flock.
But nobody offers to remove the remains out of this place.
I left the scene; it was just too hard to stay there any, any longer.
I head back to Lodz, my favorite city in Poland. The anti-Semitic graffiti all around the city doesn't bother me today: No one here, at least as far as I know, uses my dead grandparents as a fertilizer for his or her apple tree. That's an improvement.
Yes, in case I forgot to mention it: Lodz, the second largest city in Poland—population over 820,000—has the unique distinction of being the “Anti-Semite’s Paradise on Earth.” Scrawled on buildings in almost every street in Lodz are some quite interesting thoughts about Jews. “F—k the Jews,” is one. “Jews to gas chambers,” is another. My “favorite”: “Juden Raus!” which is German for Jews Out! A battle cry used by the Nazis some 60+ years ago. Here in Lodz, they know this—and they apparently miss those glorious days.
If you ever wondered how many Jews live in Lodz, go to the Jewish Center. I did it. I went there a few times. All in all I counted 15 heads, not including the occasional American-Jewish visitor. Most are around 80 years of age or so, three were younger—converts, I was told. On one visit I met a young Jewish guy, no convert. He made a good impression on me, so I started chatting with him. Are there many Jews of his age in Lodz today? “Not really,” came the reply. Is he dating anyone? “Yes, I have a girlfriend.” Does he love her? “Yes, I do.” Is she Jewish? “No, she’s Catholic.” Does she mind that he’s Jewish? “No; she doesn’t know it.” Is he planning to marry her? “Yes, I do. I love her.” Naturally, I assumed, he’d tell her before marrying her that he’s a Jew. He almost jumped at me when I shared this thought with him. “No, I will NOT tell her!” I wondered aloud why he wouldn’t tell her, but he didn’t miss a beat before saying: “If I tell her, she’ll throw me out!”
The play LAST JEW IN EUROPE is based on this young man’s story. LAST JEW IN EUROPE is a tragicomedy that tells the story of Polish anti-Semites who brag about their hate, and Polish Jews who hide from them.
How many “hidden Jews” are in Lodz nowadays? It’s hard to tell. Most estimates put the number between 200 and 300. Whatever the right number, it is a drop in the sea of close to one million inhabitants. Why, then, such strong hate? There are many answers for it, most of which make no much sense anyway—so I won’t go on listing them. The bigger question that I have has to do with Jewish leaders and organizations. Why is it that we, a theater company, have to be the ones telling the story of Lodz? Where are the Jewish organizations that raise millions and millions of dollars to fight anti-Semitism, and why are they so quiet about this issue?
To find an answer, I made my way to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and spent considerable time with its legendary leader, Abraham H. Foxman, known to all as Abe Foxman. Abe is an interesting man, wise, smart, and one of the best fundraisers in existence today. Abe is also Polish-born. Abe likes to pick fights. The President of Iran is one of Abe’s most cherished targets. And he has many others he likes to pick on. With budgets in the hundreds of millions, Abe can do whatever he wants and expose anyone he wishes. But when I was in his office, he almost threw me out. “Why are you here?” he derisively asked, looking aside and avoiding any eye contact. “Why are you wasting my time? You think I have time for you?” He got me. And he got to me. The history of Jewish leaders who refuse to call a spade a spade is still fresh with me: Only a few years ago I did two shows about Jewish leaders collaborating with their Nazi counterparts, and I was not ready today to be preached to by anyone on this subject, even if he happened to be the leader of the ADL. I got up, I looked him in his face and I simply said: “F—k you, Abe.” I don’t think anyone dared speak thusly to Abe Foxman for the past 40 years or so, and Abe turned red. Visibly shaking in his chair. As if this was not enough, I added: “Sorry for using the ‘F’ Word; what I really should do is tell everybody what you’ve just said to me.” Abe got up, left the room, and left me to my own devices. A few minutes later he came back, two books in his right hand, and he offered them to me as a gift. “To Tuvia, In friendship,” he wrote. Then he said, “I support what you do.” Well, since we’re friends—always good to have friends like Abe, whatever you think of him—I asked him to help in fundraising for the production, which actually was the other reason why I came to him in the first place. He promised to do so for this “worthy cause.” And promised again. And again. For months, he promised. Not one penny came through. “No one wants to support this,” he said. So, being naïve as I sometime am, I asked if the ADL itself might be interested, since our show is about anti-Semitism. Abe is a man of good wits and he graciously shared one smart observation with me: “The ADL takes, but we never give.” Good to know; I won’t bequeath my worldly possessions to this organization.
I tell you this story not as a way of getting back at Abe. Honestly, between you and me, I like the man. I really do. He’d be a wonderful friend to spend an afternoon in a café with—and a pleasure to listen to. But there’s something in him that I really don’t like: Abe, like most Jewish leaders, picks and pokes at some favorite human targets, and lately--after my meeting with him--he also took aim at some minor Polish leaders. But he never attacks the big shots of Polish government, community and religious leaders. With them, he feels at peace. Including the famous twin brothers, the Polish President and Prime Minister, who have never lifted a finger against the anti-Semitism raging in their streets and in their churches. That, it seems, a Jew cannot attack. Why is it, I wonder, that no one demands of the Polish government to erase the thousands upon thousands of anti-Semitic graffiti on Polish streets? Why is it that no one “suggests” to the Lodz city government to outlaw calls to send Jews to the gas chambers? Like in Germany of the 30’s, Jewish leaders prefer to be quiet.
Late last year, in an interview with the British BBC, the Chief Rabbi of Poland said that Poland is the “least anti-Semitic” of all European countries. The Rabbi, Michael Shudrich, is a really nice guy. A New Yorker who divides his time between the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the Polish capital of Warsaw, Rabbi Shudrich is a man blessed with a healthy dose of humor and much charm. The other day I met him at Starbucks, here in New York, and asked him why he says these things. “Don’t you know,” I asked, “that this is a lie?” He took a sip from his Starbucks tea, ice cold, and he said: “I like you, Reb Tuvia.”
I told you: He’s a nice man. Not that I always understand him.
I have no agenda against Abe or Michael. On the opposite, I really like them as people. What’s more, to be totally honest, I have no agenda against the Polish people in general. Whenever I am in Poland, I meet people I like. The food there is ten-fold better than what I eat here in New York. Polish is a beautiful language. And Polish humor can warm my heart in the most freezing of temperatures. Poland is where my family comes from; where my dead still reside. I deplore their anti-Semitism--and it is in their name, as well as for their own future, that we must embark on a fight against their racism. It will be better for them, not only for us, if we dare expose their strange hate and fight it together. With the ADL, or without. With rabbinical blessing, or without. On the stage, or off it.
LAST JEW IN EUROPE opens at the Triad Theater on the Jewish holiday of Purim, 4th of March 2007. I hope to see you there.
Press Release, from The Jewish Theater of New York:
For Immediate Release
Contact: Liz Lauren, 212.494.0050 or TheJTNY@aol.com.
Show Title: LAST JEW IN EUROPE.
What: A tragicomedy about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in today’s Europe.
Producer: The Jewish Theater of New York, in association with Peter Martin.
Location: The Triad Theater, 158 W. 72nd St., NYC – between Broadway/Amsterdam & Columbus Aves.
First Performance: The Jewish holiday of Purim, 4th of March 2006 at 3:00pm.
Schedule: Sunday at 3:00pm, Monday and Tuesday at 7:00pm.
Duration: Open Run.
Tickets: $55, available at TheaterMania.com, JewishTheater.org, or by calling TheaterMania at 212.352.3101.
“Jews like to eat feces; very similar to gays, they like to drink urine. Everybody knows it.”
From: LAST JEW IN EUROPE.
LAST JEW IN EUROPE, written by Tuvia Tenenbom, is jointly directed by a “Directing Team” that includes Mr. Tenenbom and Andreas Robertz of Cologne, Germany. The cast includes actors from Poland, Serbia, Hungary, Brazil, and also one American Jew. LAST JEW IN EUROPE, which uses documentary materials, tells the story of love between a young Polish Jew and his Christian fiancée. Fearing that she would walk out on him if she knew he's Jewish, he refuses to divulge his Jewish identity to her. But two days before their wedding, a young Mormon from Utah on a mission to uncover Jewish families in Poland, arrives in Lodz and meets with the girl…
LAST JEW IN EUROPE, which is based on a real story, was selected by the venerated Mülheim Stücke Festival in Germany to represent the USA at the “intellectual tract” of the World Cup Games 2006, where it won outstanding praise from the prestigious Theaterheute and Südddeutche Zeitung papers.
The Jewish Theater welcomes inquiries from the media. Please call Liz Lauren at 212.494.0050 or visit our web www.JewishTheater.org.