Left, Stuart Rudin (as Nossig), right, Robert Fitzsimmons
The Judenrat were Jewish-manned governing councils, of a sort, that the Nazis set up throughout the ghettoes of Eastern Europe after 1939 to ease the skids toward the Final Solution make it easier for themselves, that is, to transport an entire peoples toward extermination.
One point of view is that the Jews (elders and others) who served on the Judenrats were - well, rats. Another point of view is that they were doing the best they could, and had no choice in the matter anyway.
The truth a thousand truths must surely lie somewhere in between.
In Nossigs Antics, an absorbing new drama by Lazarre Seymour Simckes at Theater for the New City through May 23, it seems as if a thousand truths are being applied to just one human being, a certain Dr. Alfred Nossig (1864-1943), writer, sculptor, poet, playwright, librettist, essayist, philosopher, Zionist, wheeler-dealer, sometime member of the Warsaw Judenrat.
On an unknown date in late January or early February 1943, three teenagers of the Warsaw Ghetto fighting forces Abraham Dreier, Motek Fiinklestein, and Feivel Schwartzstein burst in on 79-year-old Alfred Nossig and executed him with three bullets to the head. They are believed to have believed, rightly or wrongly, that he was stooging for the Gestapo, informing the Germans where the bunkers of the Jewish resistance were.
In the Simckes play Nossig gets assassinated (via newscasts) over and over and over again, in various years and various locales up to and including present-day New York.
VOICE OF RADIO ANNOUNCER: Another Alfred Nossig was killed today. Like all the other Nossigs, he was 79 years old, one day shy of 80. The number of Nossigs killed in the past week has risen to 6, the first in Vienna, the second in Berlin, the third in Jerusalem, the fourth and fifth in Buenos Aires, and now the sixth in New York City, Upper Manhattan . . .
Nossig himself in the Simckes play is a dual (or split) persona and personality a tired, cynical Old Man (actor Stuart Rudin) who spends more time than he likes fending off the questions of a hot-tempered, depressed, unsure, intrusive Young Man (Robert Fitzimmons), all of it, if you believe the fatalistic Old Man, adding up to a Nossig that equates to Nothing. To be more exact, various forms of nothing.
The real Nossig was married to a woman named Felicia, and Felicia enters this piece under that and many other names. Also central to the probing is a very shrewd old psychoanalyst named Dr. Prochnik. Both she and all the Felicias are played by Mira Rivera. The director of Nossigs Antics is a woman with, as it happens, a built-in antic sense of humor, TNCs own Crystal Field.
Multitalented Alfred Nossig, whatever else he was, was clearly a bit of a Renaissance man, and Lazarre Seymour Simckes, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, teacher, Hassidic scholar, therapist, culture-bridging youth worker, parent, is something of a antic-humored (if endemically dour) Renaissance man himself.
Nossig was a complicated man, Simckes, the son of a rabbi, says.
Nossig ran the gamut from science to art, secular and cultural. I dont think he was religious, but I also dont think he was anti-religious. Back in Lemberg, Poland, which today is Lvov, he used to sit around the Crystal CafÇ with Max Nordau and all the other intellectuals.
Alfred Nossig, says Lazarre Simckes, was a refugee like anybody else. He was transported by the Germans from Berlin to Warsaw, where he was appointed to the Judenrat. Considered a laughing stock and a nuisance, he was executed as an old-syle Jew, a man who went around saying: The Germans cannot disrespect us for being unhygienic, unaesthetic. Jews from Moses on have been the most hygienic people in the world. All of German science was anticipated by Moses.
In short, he was living in delusion.
The play is a colliding of two forces. One, it seeks to put Nossig back into history, for us to learn the consequences of being a fabrente yid, an ardent Jew. Two, directly in conflict with that is my own nihilism, the sense that all this brouhaha of life ends in nothing. The Ecclesiastes notion: Were all going to end in ashes anyway. Its not despairing, but . . . Lazarre Simckes lets it lie there.
Here is one way a play begins:
I was well into my career as writer, teacher, and thereapist when, it could have been eight years ago, I was visiting my brother, a Conservative rabbi in Queens. I reached up for a book of his, I think it was called Tumbling Walls, about the Warsaw ghetto.
My eye fell on one tiny little paragraph about a man who was executed by these three teenagers of the Jewish underground after theyd had a secret trial.
This, says Lazarre Simckes, was a seed. Off and on, after that, I would look up the name Nossig and read whatever I could about this Jew who was seen as an outsider by his own people.
I wrote an early version around two years ago. Set it aside. Then recently rewrote it in about three weeks. Even got in touch with a woman named Sue Nossig in Israel. She said: Yes, were related, Alfred Nossig and I, but I dont know anything about him.
You know what Dr. Prochnik says to the Young Man in the play? Here are some blank pages. If you want to be Nossig, go ahead, rewrite it.
And when, at the end, the Young Man says: I am Nossig, I wanted that to be in astonishment. Well, I got hooked on this, says Lazarre Simckes, whose dark comedy about the death of a Jew in 1943 is deliberately sprinkled with anachronisms like Homeland Security and Dont ask! Dont tell! and whats going down I got hooked on it. How do you get unhooked?
Simckes has known and trusted Crystal Field since 1973, when her TNC did his Ten Best Martyrs of the Year, a play about the 10 fighting rabbis who were tortured to death for supporting the revolt of Bar Kochbah, the Jewish hero who defeated the Romans and ruled Judea from 132 to 135 A.D.
I tend to make tragic comment in a mixture of styles. So what did I do? I wrote a play as if as if through the eyes of Hadrian, the Roman emperor, watching the genocide of the Jews from his balcony.
Some call it Judea, some call it Palestine. Harvard graduate Simckes (Ph.D. in Shakespeare), who wrote the screenplay for Sidney Lumes unmade The Last Temptation of Christ, and who translated Yoram Kaniuks The Commander of the Exodus into English, and who spent four years as a therapist working with sex offenders at the Massachusetts Treatment Center at Bridgewater, has also conducted a program in which Jewish kids in Massachusetts and Arab kids in Haifa communicate with one another by satellite mutual validation, he calls it, by sharing life experiences.
He does not think Jews should dry up and go away. I still believe the more the world gets anti-Semitic, the more it gets Jewish. The Jews impregnate the world by dying.
Unless, that is, theyre killed by other Jews three shots to the head, in Warsaw, in Vienna, in Berlin, in Jerusalem, in Buenos Aires, in New York City, Upper West Side.