In September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and soon after Jews living in ghettos in Poland’s cities were identified, sequestered, rounded up, shipped off to work camps or concentration camps, and exterminated as part of what we know of today as the Holocaust. Several Jews managed to avoid being arrested by pretending to be something else, and some of those stories have been written up as histories or biographies.
One such story is that of Sabina S. Zimering. Sabina lives in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities today, and her grand daughter was in Amanda’s class a few years ago. Sabina has visited the school and spoken to the kids about her experience, and a few years ago she wrote her autobiography, called Hiding in the Open. (There is more than one book with a similar title.)
Sabina had spent time as a child in Catholic school, so she had some idea of what it was like to be Catholic. The things that separate people of different ethnic or religious identities are often subtle, and depending on where you live and what your experiences have been, you may think of ethnic or religious distinctions such as “Irish” vs. “Italian” or “Jewish” vs “Protestant” as either very subtle and hard to detect, or very overt and in your face. These things change over time and vary across space, so different people would have different experiences. I am fairly sure, however, that Jews living in urban Ghettos in Poland and “working class” urban Catholics would have had very distinct identities. It would be hard for a Jewish girl to pass for a Catholic. But since Sabina had gone to a Catholic School, she could have managed with sufficient focus and skill, and that is in fact what she did.
Sabina, her sister Helga and their mother obtained papers from a Catholic neighbor, and these papers allowed them to travel away from their Ghetto the very day it was liquidated by the Nazis. Counter-intuitively, they traveled not away from the Nazis, but directly into the German Maw, and into the Motherland itself. Sabina would later find out that the woman who got them the papers was part of a Polish resistance movement that helped many others to escape as well.
I don’t want to give you the details of Sabina’s story, because it makes for a great read. Just one or two high points: She lives through it (obviously); She had a lot of close calls; Not all of her family survived (not unexpectedly) and she spent a good part of the war, just before her rescue by Americans, working in a Hotel that catered especially to Gestapo officers and other German military personnel, mainly as a cleaning maid.
The reason I mention all this now is because the high school her grand daughter attended (and probably others in her family) produced a play based on this autobiography, and we attended it today. Ninth and Tenth graders at Wayzata High School produced “Hiding in the Open” as part of their “Black Box Theater” program. It was a three act play showcasing some excellent acting. The style of the play is post-modern and semi-abstract, with walk-on narrators made out of various characters and modern-style dance movements used here and there to signify actions and reactions (the train starting and stopping, sudden acts of violence, etc). The story stuck with Sabina’s original manuscript, with lots of detail left out of course, but nothing important held back.
It was a great production based on a great story, but to me there was a bit more going on than just this. Wayzata is a public high school, but one in a wealthy suburb and one that is decidedly privileged. It is a large high school with lots of resources, and their theater program is tops in the country among non-specialized public schools. I have no idea what the Jewish population in the school is, but I am more than a little familiar with the local Jewish community in general. This is a very long way from the family into which I married way back in the late 70s, in New York. At family gatherings there, it would be difficult to find a person over 45 or 50 who could not name anywhere from a few to dozens of relatives who had died at the hands of the Germans during World War II, mainly in concentration camps. Also, it would have been hard to find a Jew at any of the family gatherings who was not an Atheist. Here in the Twin Cities, the Jewish community (in the Western Suburbs) is far less “Jewish” by my New York standards, mildly religious, and many descend from either Russian immigrants (with their own horror stories, but not the Holocaust, as recent family history) or come from much earlier Midwestern immigrations that predate even World War I. The nature of the identity is different, and the nature of remembering is somewhat different as well.
It was interesting to see these 9th and 10th graders engaged in this play. Some of the actors were themselves clearly moved, even though this was the last performance in the run, weeping in the reception line afterward, trying to keep a straight face during the poignant closing scene. Or maybe they were just overjoyed to get what must have been a burden on their time and energy behind them; I suppose I can’t really be sure. I wondered, in any event, about how engagement in this project would foster remembering for them. And how it would affect trusting. I think a lot of upper Midwestern Jews have come to trust their country, their government, and their society to a level not seen among most Jews in most places over the last century or so. And I’m not sure that is entirely a good thing.
Plays like this are important, and this was an interesting interpretation and a well done High School production. When Amanda and I got home after the play, the babysitter asked “so, was the play fun?” and I answered “Well, no, it was the Holocaust.”
I didn’t mean to make her feel bad for asking, but I think I might have.