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Remembrance of Holocaust resonates in Ukraine invasion

Jesse Folks
Heartland Theater Company

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a horrific echo of the Holocaust, says the director of the new production from Heartland Theatre Company.

Marcia Weiss notes the invasion has displaced millions of people and the play, "A Shayna Maidel," looks at the aftermath of the dislocation caused by the Holocaust for those who survived. Weiss said there is a lot of dramatic tension in having two sisters reunite in New York after the war — one who experienced the Holocaust, the other who didn't.

“There is a gulf of guilt. Rose, the sister who came over from Poland earlier, is very aware that she was spared the experiences of the other sister Lucia," said Weiss. "Tension also comes from the fact they were separated when Rose was very little. They're put in a position where they have to kind of develop their relationship on speed dial, which is very challenging considering that their experiences are radically different.”

The two negotiate that gulf through a sense of duty on Rose’s part. She also wants to know what happened to her mother, said Weiss. Lucia has nowhere else to go.

“They need to work through Rose’s wanting to find out what happened and Rose’s angst at knowing she was spared. Lucia is just trying desperately to make a connection with somebody she doesn't know, who means a lot to her,” said Weiss.

She said today’s audiences may receive the play differently than when it was written in 1984 because at that time, there were many more people who lived through the Holocaust — the murder of six million Jews and up to 17 million people overall killed by the Nazis in their extermination program — than are living now.

For those who lived through World War II, the story has a greater immediacy and relevance to their personal experience. Now, it's history, especially for young people who may not even aware of what happened in Vietnam. To go back to World War II is way back.

“But it couldn't possibly be more relevant,” said Weiss. “It's memory and it’s a warning. There's never a time we can forget. With what's going on in Ukraine and the way people are being slaughtered, particularly people who are Jewish are probably feeling even more terror in fear of what Russia will do. Sadly, it's contemporary.”

The title of the play, "A Shayna Maidel," means a pretty girl. It's also symbolic of youth, hope and good times when somebody has a lot to offer. It’s an aspirational title of what they hope will return, said Weiss.

“I wanted to tell the larger story through a more personal framework. I think it's very hard for our brains to wrap around the numbers related to World War II: six million Jews slaughtered at the hands of the Nazis. I think that's very hard to process. To hear the story of individuals makes it accessible, not palatable, but something I think people can relate to better,” said Weiss.

Playwright Barbara Lebow faced a difficult task, dealing with a tough subject and weighty issues without being unrelentingly grim for the audience.

“I can't say enough about the strength and beauty of the script. Instead of staying in the realm of reality, to recount what has happened to the characters, Lucia and her mother, Lebow ventures into the realm of fantasies, memory scenes, and other characters who aren't in the physical reality of 1946. They intrude upon the play and enter into the mind of the character of Lucia. You get to see her thought process through these fantasies,” said Weiss.

She said the memories and drama are a vehicle to convey information in a way that’s easier for the audience to process.

"A Shayna Maidel" is memorable, added Weiss, noting she has talked to people who saw the play decades ago. It made such an impression on them, she said, they can still recall scenes and parts of dialogue and the deep emotion it invoked.

“There's a scene where Lucia and her father Mordecai compare notes. He wants to know what has happened to members of his family. He’ll ask about a person and, quite tragically, she'll tell him what happened over and over again. It's a repetitive kind of trauma. It's a ritualistic scene,” said Weiss. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Heartland Theatre picked the play two years ago and had to wait for the pandemic to ebb to produce it.

“This play is about the miracle that Lucia survived, that anyone survived, and what people do who have survived such a horrible humanitarian catastrophe? How do they go on?” said Weiss.

"A Shayna Maidel" opens Thursday with a what-you-can-pay preview on Heartland Theatre’s stage in One Normal Plaza, 1110 Douglas St., Normal.

Performances are: 7:30 p.m. March 31, April 1, 2 | 7, 8, 9 | 14, 15, 16; matinees at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 10, and Saturday, April 16.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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