Playing for time

Playing for Time
Arthur Miller

Peter Henry Schroeder

"Playing for Time' in Memorial : 2 Death Camp Prisoners Bear Witness; Their Experience Helps in Staging Tale of Survival


IRVINE — He was 134923. She was 82890. They got their numbers in the camps--he in Auschwitz, she in Birkenau.

You can see the blue digits tattooed on their forearms--his on the outside, hers on the inside--because it is a warm day and they are both wearing short-sleeve shirts.

Mary Kress' grandchildren sometimes ask about her tattoo. She tells the youngest it's her telephone number. When they're older, she'll tell them the real story. Even then, they may never truly understand. How do you explain the impossible?

"There are not enough words in the vocabulary," says Henry Kress, who speaks four languages besides English.

He is tall and tan, still handsome at age 70. She, too, looks vibrant and attractive, younger than her 69 years.

When he was deported to Auschwitz as a teen-ager in the early summer of 1943, he already had survived three years in different camps. She was deported to Birkenau, the women's camp about five miles from Auschwitz, during the summer of 1944 after 14 months in hiding with nine other Jews. They had lived in a windowless 7-by-10-foot room built behind a fake wall in the home of a Polish tannery worker who ultimately turned them in.

"Let's say you tell a guy an unbelievable story," Henry said. "He's gonna walk away thinking you don't know what you're talking about. He's gonna think it's a hard-luck story. So we tell people what we understand that they will understand."

Sometimes they understand so little, it surprises him.

"I had an experience with an educated guy. We were in a business meeting. He says to me, 'Henry, when you were in the concentration camp, did you go to school?' If a guy like that can ask me such a question, what is the point of telling him?"

The point, of course, is bearing witness.

And today in particular, on the 50th anniversary of Yom HaShoah--the Jewish Day of Remembrance to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and all the other Nazi concentration camps--it is sacred to bear witness to the Holocaust.

Of the approximately 6 million Jews and millions of others exterminated by the Nazis, those who survived need to tell their stories, not just to mourn the dead but to honor the living.

"We don't want people to forget," Henry says. "We don't want to forget our loved ones. But I think it's more for us than for them. I don't like to pretend that this is only for them."

To that end, they have been acting as technical advisers to director Peter Henry Schroeder for his Menorah Theatre staging of "Playing for Time," the Arthur Miller teleplay based on a memoir by Fanya Fenelon, who also managed to survive in Auschwitz.

The production opens tonight at the Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa as part of this year's observance of Yom HaShoah. Vanessa Redgrave won an Emmy for her portrayal of Fenelon in the original telecast on NBC during the early '80s. Robin Dunne will star in the role at the community center.

Neither of the Kresses, both from Poland, met Fenelon, a Jewish cabaret singer from Paris. But Mary marched past her twice a day for about seven months whenever she worked outside the camp.

"There was a women's orchestra at Birkenau," Mary recounts. "And she was in the orchestra. It played at the gate every morning and every night. We went out before dawn, and we returned after dark. The orchestra played when we left and played when we came back. Unbelievable."

No more so than the infamous words inscribed on the gate of every Nazi concentration camp from Auschwitz and Birkenau to Dachau and Ravensbruck: "Arbeit macht Frei." Work makes you free.

Schroeder asked the Kresses to advise him about the authenticity of production details as well as the credibility of the play itself.

"He is very determined to make sure that nobody deviates from the way it should be," Henry says. "And we have adjusted quite a bit of it."

The play is true, he notes, but not everything happens exactly as it did in reality.

"For instance, there is a sex scene between a Kapo and a prisoner," Henry says. "The Kapos ran things. They supervised the work crews. But they were prisoners too. The way the play had it, you'd think they were Germans. Everybody wanted to be a Kapo because they got privileges. But they didn't get as many privileges as you'd think. Occasionally, they got a little more food than the rest of us.

"Their main privilege was that they didn't have to work. They could assign you to the worst of it. I said everybody wanted to be a Kapo, but not everybody could be that brutal. For instance, the Kapo would report to the SS guard that he's taking out a hundred prisoners. The SS man would tell him, 'I want you to bring back 90.' It was the Kapo who had to decide which 10 are going to be killed. But at least the Kapo was safe. That was the big privilege."

If Henry learned anything in Auschwitz, he learned that there are no absolutes. For example, some Kapos were kind.

"We cannot say that all of them were evil," he says. "People have a tendency to think in black and white. It was not that way. There were many shades."

Indeed, Mary owes her life several times over to the woman who supervised her barracks, not a Kapo exactly but also answerable to the Germans. This supervisor, a rabbi's daughter from Czechoslovakia, realized that Mary and the woman who bunked with were daughter and mother. To reveal it, however, would have been the equivalent of a death sentence.

"This woman did not say anything," Mary explains. "All the time we were in Auschwitz, nobody else knew. My mother and I had made a pact not to admit it, because the Germans separated families. If you clung to somebody, they purposely tore the two of you apart."

When Mary came down with typhoid and rheumatic fever, she would not have survived had her mother not been there to care for her and help keep her illness secret from the Germans. If they found out you were too weak to work, she explains, you were almost invariably left to die or gassed and sent to the ovens.

The supervisor also saved Mary from Josef Mengele, the "butcher of Auschwitz" also known in the camp as "the angel of death," who performed gruesome medical "experiments" on prisoners that almost always killed them.

"One time there was a role call for our barracks in the middle of the day," Mary remembers, "and here comes Mengele. Now I didn't know who Mengele was. I was new there. He goes up and down the line, very slowly, and he picks me out of the lineup. I didn't even know what I was being picked for.

"This rabbi's daughter, she sees me being picked out. She didn't know what to do. Mengele walks away somewhere. Maybe it was back into our barracks. I didn't see. But this woman walks toward me. She was very upset. She says from behind me in Czechoslovakian, a word that meant, 'Get away from here!' That's all I heard.

"Where am I going to go? Well, there was a group of women talking not far away from the lineup. So I stepped out and joined them. Mengele comes out from wherever he was and starts to holler, 'Where are the 10 girls?' He picked 10 girls. He didn't remember who we were because he didn't write down our numbers. We all looked alike. We all had shaved heads. We all wore rags. We all disappeared.

"He had no girls. For some reason--don't ask me why--he left from our barracks and didn't pick more. So this woman didn't just save my life. She saved 10 lives. How do you explain what happened? There is no explanation."

Schroeder, who teaches an acting workshop at the community center and has directed at the Tiffany Theatre in Los Angeles, says the Kresses have inspired the entire cast in "Playing for Time."

"When you talk to Henry and Mary," he says, "they'll tell you that survival was just luck. You were at the right place at the right moment, and you got out. But they are an inspiration. They represent courage, the ability to survive the darkest of circumstances, the will to fight back, which is exactly what this play is about."

Last year Thomas Keneally, the author of "Schindler's List," spoke at the community center on Yom HaShoah. But this production, Schroeder says, is the center's most ambitious undertaking yet to observe the remembrance of the Holocaust.

"For all of us," Schroeder says, "it has been one of the most moving experiences we've had. I hope the audience will feel that way."

"Playing for Time" opens today at 8 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center, 250 E. Baker St., Costa Mesa, where it continues Saturday at 8 p.m; Sunday at 2:30 pm., and May 4 and 6 at 8 p.m. $12.50. Discounts for students and senior citizens. (714) 755-0340.

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O.C. Theater Review : 'Playing for Time': Music to Combat Nazi Horrors


COSTA MESA — There probably could not be a better play than Arthur Miller's "Playing for Time" to commemorate the ultimate horror of the Holocaust, especially on Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Day of Remembrance of those tragic years.

Miller's stage adaptation of his screenplay is based, like the film, on the book by French singer Fania Fenelon, about her years at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

This quite capable production of the play, which inaugurates the Jewish Community Center of Orange County's Menorah Theatre at its new home at the Jewish Federation Campus, shows both the uncomfortable disadvantages and the unconquerable power of Miller's work.

It remains a television film script, with its brief scenes, its inclination to bounce around to various locales, and the inherent difficulty of staging it in any space, particularly a level-floored auditorium with its inevitable sight problems.

Director Peter Henry Schroeder takes full advantage of every staging possibility, using the stage for the major scenes and employing the aisles freely for large movement scenes that pull the audience into the action.

He also handles a cast of more than 40 actors of widely varying skill, both professional and non-professional, with a wisely even-textured tone that generally gives the production a high gloss.

If along the line there are flaws in performance, the central figures are strongly outlined, and the drama itself retains a sense of reality in its remembrance that keeps the echoes of the Holocaust resounding. Its action is played out from the time that Fenelon boards a camp-bound boxcar in Paris to the moment of the liberation, when she's in another boxcar bound from Auschwitz back to Germany.

Part of that reality comes from the taut, nervous and totally honest performance of Robin Dunne as Fenelon. Watching her assurance slowly disintegrate, until she can no longer think even of eating, by itself hammers home the feeling of hopelessness coupled with unreasoning hope that informed the lives, hearts and minds of Fenelon and her associates.

Immediately upon her arrival at the camp, she was requisitioned for the camp's female band, led by Gustav Mahler's niece, Alma Rose. She drags a new acquaintance, the naive Marianne, into the group with her. It is the orchestra that lets them survive, for even the Germans like music when they're not crazed by militarism. Hence the title: The orchestra literally is playing for time.

Jill Weisz is strong as Marianne, both in her early scenes of frightened innocence and later as Marianne learns the lesson of bestowing favors on men in the camp in return for food.

Eliza Lorenz's Alma also makes a vivid impression as the classically trained conductor, whose uncle and father left her a legacy of pride and confidence in her art that helps her present her totally inadequate orchestra in its best light.

As female German officers who hold tight reins on the orchestra, Penelope VanHorne and Frauke Bell provide vivid portraits. Though VanHorne is inclined to overdo the nastiness throughout, Bell's gentle villainy is almost touching as it breaks down when the end nears.

In the immense supporting cast, Harv Popick stands out for his frightening aura in the small role of the twisted medical experimenter Dr. Mengele, who wants to see how his insane patients react to music before they're wheeled into the gas chambers.

The effect of the stage version always depends on the quality of music, which ranges from professional in some cases to painfully incompetent in others. Here, musical director Michael Voronel makes them all flow together with the charming balance that entertained the Nazis and distracted them, in a few cases, from their ultimate goal.

* "Playing for Time," Menorah Theatre, Jewish Community Center of Orange County, 250 E. Baker St., Costa Mesa. Thursday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sunday . $10 to $12.50. (714) 755-0340. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.


Robin Dunne: Fania Fenelon

Jill Weisz: Marianne

Eliza Lorenz: Alma Rose

Frauke Bell: Maria Mandel

Harv Popick: Dr. Mengele

A Jewish Community Center of Orange County/Menorah Theatre production of Arthur Miller's play based on the book by Fania Fenelon, in association with PHS Productions and the Actor/Artist Group Workshop. Produced and directed by Peter Henry Schroeder. Scenic design: Peter Henry Schroeder. Lighting/sound design: Matthew Schleicher. Musical direction: Michael Voronel. Costumes: Penelope VanHorne. Production stage manager: Michael Jay.

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