Volume 74, Number 22 | September 29 - October 5 , 2004

“I Can Cry”
By Miri Ben-Shalom
The Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
Sun, Oct 3, 3, 7:30 pm,
Tues, Oct 5, 7:30 pm

Actresses Kathy Searle (in foreground) and Barbara-Bleier in “I can cry” a play by Village resident Miri Ben-Shalom about her aunt’s experiences during the Holocaust. It runs for three performances at the Center for Jewish History.

Speaking the unspeakable

Daughter of Holocaust survivor confronts her family’s history


Ester Holtzberg was a 14-year-old when the Nazis came to Krakow, and a battered, hollowed, starving but indomitable young woman of 85 pounds and 20 years when the U.S. Army liberated Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
Indeed, it was her 20th birthday, May 7, 1945.

“Ever since, she has loved Americans,” says her niece, Miri Ben-Shalom, a documentary-film editor and playwright and, as it happens, longtime resident of the West Village. “They gave her the ultimate birthday present.”

Between Krakow 1939 and Mauthausen 1945 the young Ester Holtzberg had endured and/or witnessed just about every brutality known to so-called mankind — mass killings, ferocious beatings, degradation, forced nudity, SS dogs, slave labor, forced viewing of hangings, a 30-mile death march in below-freezing temperature from Krakow to Auschwitz, a transport in roofless boxcars from Auschwitz to Belsen-Bergen, where the Germans didn’t need gas chambers to kill Jews (among them, Anne Frank). Typhus and typhoid did it.

And from there, a 16-day transport by cattle car, under bombardment, without food or water — except sparse rainwater — to Mauthausen.

Miri Ben-Shalom has crafted what she calls “a theatrical documentary” out of her aunt’s experiences — it gets two performances Sunday, Oct. 3, one performance Tuesday, Oct. 5, at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street — but it wasn’t her aunt who’d unloosed this project to begin with, it was Ms. Ben-Shalom’s mother. Or, rather, it was what that mother, Shoshana Sinai Ben-Shalom, left out — which, over many years, was everything.

“My mother, who was from Lodz, Poland, was also a Holocaust survivor,” the Israel-born Greenwich Villager said over a cup of pea soup one recent afternoon. “But she never spoke about any of it. We could feel it every day, every hour, every month, in many other ways than spoken words. She didn’t want to tell, and I didn’t want to hear.

“I’d read a lot, and knew about the Holocaust, but I couldn’t imagine my mother in it. Then, ten years ago, she got sick, with pancreatic cancer. I knew it was fatal, she did not, but one day she handed me 16 pages that my Aunt Ester had written and given her years earlier. ‘Here,’ my mother said, ‘I think you should read this, and when I get better I’ll tell you what I went through.’

“But my mother died in 1991 and I never heard her story.”Ester Holtzberg — Mrs. David Herschberg — is still alive and well and, going on 80, still running a hardware store with her plumber husband, just outside Tel Aviv.

Five years after Miri’s mother died, her father, Ester’s brother Henek, who had survived both the Germans and the Russians, also died of pancreatic cancer.

“That,” says the daughter, “is when I realized I knew nothing of their stories, and that’s when I read those 16 pages and went back to Israel and started to interview my aunt.

“At first I thought of making a documentary film about it, but then I saw that she could never do the traveling, to Auschwitz, Belsen-Bergen, and so forth. So I undertook the long process of interviewing her, five years.”

Out of those five years comes this play. “I Can Cry,” a drama for three live actors — two women, one man — intermingled with documentary footage.

One woman plays the Ester of today, looking back, remembering. The other plays Ester age 14 to 20, here called Erna by way of dramatic differentiation. But they are one and the same.

“I took what I had on tape from my aunt, 15 hours at least, and decided to make it into a one-woman play. But as I was writing it,” says Miri Ben-Shalom with what might be a suppressed giggle, “it became a two-woman play. Ester’s younger self jumped out and said: ‘I’m here too!’ “

The third character, or characters, are German officers and soldiers rendered by a single actor. The players at the Center on 16th Street are Barbara Bleier (Ester), Kathy Searle (Erna), and Lance Spellerberg. The piece is co-directed by Miri Ben-Shalom and Harvey Stein.

After well-received readings at two New York City high schools and six full performances at the Greenwich Street Theater in the 2003 New York Fringe Festival, it went on to acclaim this year at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre uptairs over a London pub. And then — “very rewarding” — the entire month of August 2004 at the Edinburgh Fringe itself.

“And now,” says the author, “we’ve been invited to do a full week in Romania.”

Her other current endeavor is “From Home to Homeland, Inc.,” an anti-bigotry, anti-hatred project founded and run by her.

Miri Ben-Shalom’s husband — “he supports me every step of the way” — is mathematician/computer scientist Bob Kurshan. Their children are daughter Peri, 24, who’s in a neuroscience Ph.D. program at Harvard and son Eri, 19, an undergraduate at Bard.

“This story,” says the playwright, “is the story of the Final Solution.” Ester Holtzberg Herschberg long ago declined to be solved.

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