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Theatre in Review: Amid Falling Walls (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Museum of Jewish Heritage)

The company. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene has given us some mighty revelatory things over the years, including the lost 1920s operetta The Golden Bride and a heartbreaking Yiddish-language Fiddler on the Roof. In terms of illuminating history, however, the company has topped itself with this revue of songs, curated by Avram and Zalmen Mlotek, from the ghettos and camps of World War II. So many popular films and plays make it seem as if the Jewish communities of Europe remained largely passive as Fascism spread its poison across the continent; Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent) tells a different story, fueled by songs and poems that constitute a powerful literature of resistance.

"All throughout the war, Jews sang, played music, and created songs in ghettos, concentration and labor camps, in the forests, in fighting, and in clandestine cabarets and theatres," a cast member comments. And, as reported here, the awful facts of those years provided plenty of material: "Jews bearing first names of 'non-Jewish' origin must adopt an additional name: 'Israel' for men and 'Sara' for women. Jews may not buy a German book. Jews must step off the sidewalk upon seeing a uniformed or civilian German." Under such conditions, popular songs found new, much starker, contexts. "Brontshele," a charming ditty, finds a young man knocking on his beloved's door; she refuses him, not wanting to incur her mother's disapproval. Then it is repeated, this time with the young woman fretting about the ghetto authorities who enforce the local curfew. Suddenly, a lighthearted comic tune takes on an edge of fear.

A sequence set in a Warsaw cabaret, where "the aristocracy of the ghetto" mingle with Germans, ignoring the tragedy unfolding nearby, features the caustic "Mues" ("Money"), which echoes the musical satires of Brecht and Weill. Meanwhile, in the streets, "Smuggler Kid" pays tribute to Motele, his face "deadly pale with rage," who builds barricades but who doesn't "even live to his own bar mitzvah." The wrenching effect of the kindertransport is felt in "A Jewish Child," in which a mother, parting from her son, counsels him, "No more Yiddish words, no singing. Because you are no longer a Jew."

As the plight of the Jews grows ever more disastrous, the very act of performance is questioned. A writer, invited to take part in a presentation in 1942, thunders, "Here in the sad situation of the Vilna Ghetto, in the shadow of Ponary, where of 76,000 of Vilna's Jews only around 15,000 remain -- here, at this moment -- it's a disgrace...one ought not [to] perform theatre in a cemetery." Note is made also of Szmul Zygielbojm, the Polish-Jewish politician who, in despair over the world's lackluster response to the Holocaust, committed suicide. But even "in the pits, in bunkers, in the pipes of the sewers, at the threshold of gas chambers Jews searched for strength in prayer, in song, in melody, in our undying world of the word." And, in a sequence titled "Partisan Warriors," they fight back, furiously, finding strength in song.

Matthew "Moti" Didner stages everything in a direct, head-on manner that adds to the material's you-are-there immediacy. The cast, led by the authoritative Steven Skybell, delivers the songs and narration with a fiercely controlled passion. Especially memorable are Abby Goldfarb, taking part in a duet with the recorded voice of Molly Picon; Jacob Ben-Shmuel, delivering the ballad of a "ghetto peddler" ("I'm Yisrolik, an orphaned kid/And though I've got absolutely nothing/Nevertheless, I can still whistle and sing!"), and Eli Mayer and Rachel Zatcoff, in a bitterly amusing piece of vaudeville, proudly advertising their membership in the underworld.

Jessica Alexandra Cancino's classy, uncluttered set design places the band upstage, behind a diaphanous curtain; projection screens, embedded in the proscenium and placed throughout the auditorium, display a torrent of evocative imagery, courtesy of projection designer Brad Peterson: street scenes, boys sporting yarmulkes, young rabbis, Nazi offers, wartime recruiting posters from various countries, and much more. (The projections also convey the English translation of the show's text.) Yael Lubetzky's lighting effectively sets the tone for each sequence. Izzy Fields' costumes have an appropriate period feel. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design achieves an ideal balance of voices and instruments.

Amid Falling Walls concludes in a displaced persons camp, where a young boy anticipates having his bar mitzvah without his family, all of whom were wiped out. "We live forever, a world burns," the company sings as scrolling projections show a roll call of poets, lyricists, writers, and composers, all of them murdered in the war. It's a tragedy too terrible to bear, a triumph almost too bitter to celebrate. And yet, the very existence of Amid Falling Walls is cause for celebration, not least for its ability to convey the day-to-day reality of living, and outlasting, a world of horror. An important, highly valuable piece of the past has been finally retrieved. --David Barbour

(20 November 2023)

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