By Kendra Jones

“It wasn’t a good Jew that survived the war.”

It’s 1986 and we’re in the den of Holocaust survivor, Henryk Altman. In a roomy leather chair, surrounded by photos of his three children and wife, Henryk (Frank Blocker) speaks to us: a stream of surfaced responses from several interviews. From the Warsaw ghetto, Henryk escaped Treblinka–one of the three killing centers during the Holocaust, which began as a forced-labor camp–twice, lost most of his family during WWII, and navigated his way through various camps and brushes with death by looking white, speaking German, and pure luck. Even when he was identified as a Jew, he was given jobs and responsibilities that offered him a chance at survival, at the cost of his morals. “Good Jew, like a dog they call me.”

Good Jew begins with Henryk in conversation about his mother, school—topics that are at the forefront of childhood memories; but also those that can hold the darkest underlinings. As the interview touches on many general questions involving the war and Henryk’s place in it, I wait for him to go deeper, to expose his emotions. I’m curious whether this character can or is willing to recall specific emotions associated with memories. With my own extensive experience interviewing people living during WWII and the Holocaust, I expect Henryk’s story to be all over the place in terms of timeline–and rightfully a good bit of it is. “My family says I never go in the order of things and I never finish a story.”

But, it is rather the individual stories themselves and the moments Henryk allows us into his reflections and self that are the most crucial to understand his Holocaust experience.

He shoveled out the ashes from crematory ovens, fixed the train station clock, gave other Jews orders. When Henryk was in Treblinka, he was afraid of being murdered by other Jews. After six days in Treblinka, he escaped for the first time: “I rode out of Treblinka with the ashes.” And he got himself captured so he could return and find his mother. He was just a child, a teenager. An innocent child following morals and love before submitting to survival mode.

The telephone rings twice—once its his daughter, another time he’s exclaiming to a friend he’s won bingo; there’s a knock at the door: these are moments that allow us to see into Henry’s character beyond the interview, his attitude, a glimpse of his personality. The fear he still carried with him until his passing. Shirley, his wife, recently passed away, and he often forgets he is the only one home—nobody else is there besides himself and his interviewer.

His tone while telling stories of death, encampment, and starvation, blowing up trains, asking a Nazi guard for a cigarette, has the same casualness as when he speaks of his marriage, children, joyous moments throughout his life. I’m intrigued by this common tone I’ve noticed among those living during this time period. When they tell their stories, whether it’s the first time or the fiftieth, it always seems to have this matter of fact tone. As if what’s happened has happened, and what’s done is done.

“Even I forget,” “I don’t remember”–reoccuring lines I find among those living during that time period, whether Jew or German–there seems to be so much that a human forgets–or which they may choose to forget or disclose. Henryk avoids talking about police, his time in Minsk, the hard memories. The shame, the regret, the guilt is all so present, so real, so vivid.

Good Jew is centered so fully not just around Henryk’s tremendously moving and unimaginable survival story, but around morals. Whether it involved prostitution, faith, humantity, hiding culture, outing other Jews, trading heirlooms for bread, stealing, accusing, Henryk’s honesty and casual story telling allows the audience to see a glimpse just how far one often needed to go just to make it to the next day.

Aside from the projected backdrop of Henryk’s den, we view photographs associated with camps and ghettos Henryk finds himself throughout the war, donated from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington D.C.

Frank Blocker found inspiration and motivaion to co-author this work with his late partner Murray Scott Changar, whose father Henry Changer, compiled his numerous interviews and conversations with Henryk. In the after-show talk back, we are offered snippets of many other stories–too many of course (and quite much emotion, turmoil, and death) to be heard in a single performance.

This show needs to return, somewhere, anywhere; it is crucial now, it’s crucial for our futures, and our future generations, to experience Good Jew, and other stories—told out loud. The theater brings these stories to life: it offers a voice, a face, a backdrop. This performance gives us just over an hour to experience a handful of conversations from hours worth of conversation. This piece highights the importance of oral testimonies and how these historical documents can live on, well after those individuals speaking and sharing them have passed. These voices can live on forever.

 

Written by Frank Blocker and Murray Scott Changar; Directed by Jamibeth Margolis.

Good Jew returned for one night only at the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Edmond J. Safra Hall, 36 Battery Place, NYC, presented by Peculiar Works Project, after a sold-out performance at NYC’s 2022 United Solo Festival.