An excerpt from Scene Five
H. Leyvik (pseudonym of Leyvik Halpern, 1888–1962) was a world-renowned Yiddish poet and playwright whose works intertwined themes of suffering and redemption often paired with Jewish mysticism and a bold aesthetic style. Di khasene in Fernvald (The Wedding in Föhrenwald, 1949) is one of several works that Leyvik wrote about the Holocaust, and was written after Leyvik toured the displaced persons (DP) camps after the war. The play brings together Leyvik’s often very personal grappling with questions of survivors’ guilt, divine intervention, and Jewish renewal in the wake of catastrophe.
SCENE: Barracks in the Föhrenwald camp in the Munich district. On both sides of the room are bunk beds running the length of the room, like in a prison. On the beds are hard straw mattresses without sheets or pillowcases. On the walls, Zionist slogans and simple paintings of scenes from the Land of Israel. A dim lamp hangs from the middle of the ceiling. It is late at night. Survivors residing in the camp are sitting on their beds. They are not yet asleep. The Elderly Survivor sits in the front on a lower bed. Isaac is pacing back and forth in the row between the beds. He is agitated.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: Why don’t you lie down, my son? Why are you pacing back and forth? It’s already midnight. Time to rest.
VOICES: ;Let him walk around, Grandpa. Let him. It’s better than doing nothing.
JACOB: If there’s nothing to do, walking around is something to do.
ISAAC: To you everything is a joke. To hell with it!
JACOB: To hell with what?
ISAAC: All this lying around. It’s already been three months since the end of those Nazi bastards. And… what? An excuse to lie around here in Föhrenwald? Another camp? Another one? I want out.
ONE: You’re right.
ISAAC: Grandpa here is telling us to rest. How can we rest? Lying on a dirty mattress staring at the ceiling? I‘m telling you that it makes no sense to stay here in goddamned Germany. No sense at all.
JACOB: Goddamned is right.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: What would you like us to do, my son?
ISAAC: I’d like us to get out of here, Grandpa. To go to the Land of Israel. To go and find happiness.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: God willing, we will go there.
JACOB: It’s nice to say “Find happiness.” But how can we be happy when the whole world shuts its doors to us?
ISAAC: Let the world go to hell! And where are the other Jews? Why don’t they come and take us away from here? Where are the Jews from Russia and from England? Where are the Jews from America? I ask you: Where are the Jews from America? The only ones that have come to us are from the Jewish Brigade from the Land of Israel. They should lead us there. They should take us—
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: Have faith, my son. Everything will happen as it should.
ISAAC: Really? Everything as it should?
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: We will only be in Föhrenwald for a few months.
ISAAC: You think that’s a short time, Grandpa? Maybe he means that we should sit here for years instead? They spent years in Hitler’s camps and then more years in a liberated camp, poor things. More years? Tfu!
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: In the meantime, lie down and rest, my son. Some of us want to sleep. There are tired people who want to sleep, and you are disturbing them.
VOICES: He’s not disturbing us, Grandpa. We have enough time to sleep, thank God.
Isaac flings himself quickly onto his bed. He remains lying down.
JACOB: And I’d like to hear what our chronicler wrote today about the first wedding in our camp, which is only a few days away, God willing.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: You’re joking again, Jacob, my son? This is not a laughing matter.
CHRONICLER: It doesn’t matter to me if he jokes, Grandpa.
JACOB: God forbid. I’m not joking this time, Grandpa. I’m very happy that we have somebody to record it all.
CHRONICLER: Thanks for the nice words.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: Are you really recording it all, my son?
CHRONICLER: Who am I that I can record everything, Grandpa? Just to recount the suffering of one Jew would take who knows how long. Today I recorded the crimes of one… excuse me for saying… Nazi hangman.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: Don’t trouble yourself too much with the crimes of our tormentors, my son. Focus on the tormented, not the tormentor. Mark my words, you will become obsessed, God forbid. I’m telling you, it’s a gateway to the abyss.
CHRONICLER: Words to live by, Grandpa.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: You understand what I mean, my son.
JACOB: It would be better if our historian recorded the debate about the first wedding in the camp. Some of us say that it’s too soon for a survivor to get married again. But the rabbi says just the opposite. Those bastards wanted to kill us all, without a single survivor. We should show them that—
ISAAC: (Interrupting angrily.) That what?
JACOB: That celebrating the first wedding, after our destruction, is as important as going to the Land of Israel. I’m telling you—
FIRST VOICE: You can’t compare the two. By the way, you are talking about my bunkmate, Abraham. Let me ask you, where will he go with his wife after the wedding? All of the barracks are overpacked. He can’t live with her here in our barrack.
SECOND VOICE: Why not? We’ll give them the corner over to the right with the two beds. Hang up a sheet, and there you have it, a room.
THIRD VOICE: You must be crazy…
JACOB: So we should all stay widows and widowers? That’ll turn out well for our survival! There is not one child in our camp. Not one. Hitler brought this about. He nearly annihilated all of our children. And what is a nation without children, huh? What do you have to say about that, Grandpa?
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: I say that both of these things are as true as the word of God. Both arguments are correct.
SECOND VOICE: Then who’s right?
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: I believe that Abraham is doing the right thing, as God has commanded. All of the Jews in this camp should take this to heart, as if it were his own wedding. It is a sign of God’s will. Gentlemen, it won’t just be a kosher wedding, but a wedding exactly as commanded.
JACOB: Then I’ll be the wedding entertainer, Grandpa.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: Everyone will enjoy that.
JACOB: May Abraham’s wedding be just the beginning. You’ll see how many weddings we have each night. And may Hitler rise and drop dead all over again at each one.
Hirsch and Nachman enter. One carries a package in his hands and the other, four poles. Jacob goes to them.
JACOB: Here are our master craftsmen. Our carpenter and our tailor. Why are you so late?
HIRSCH: You think that wedding clothes sew themselves? I barely found a little sewing machine. But I got one. The German houses are full of them. They must have taken them from Jewish homes in Warsaw, Vilna, and Lublin. I also found Jewish candlesticks. Take a look.
He unwraps a package and takes out two brass candlesticks. Jacob takes them and presses them to his chest.
ISAAC: Stop it! Stop!
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: You’re shouting again, my son.
ISAAC: I’m not shouting. But he shouldn’t press dead things to his heart. He shouldn’t. I can’t watch.
JACOB: Can we see the wedding clothes?
HIRSCH: They aren’t ready yet. It’s not good to show them now. But you can rest assured that there will be wedding clothes! I give you my word.
NACHMAN: Aren’t you curious about my huppah poles? I worked all day in the carpentry shop. The whole camp came to see how I carved them. And here you are lying around and… nothing. Take a look at this carving, Grandpa. Take a look if you’re such a connoisseur.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: Sure, I’m a connoisseur. (Examines the carving.) Oh, really beautiful craftsmanship.
JACOB: Shhh. Here comes the groom.
ABRAHAM: (Sitting on his bed.) I thought you’d all be sleeping.
JACOB: We’re too excited to sleep.
ABRAHAM: What are you talking about?
JACOB: I mean… we’re preparing for your wedding… we’re like your family.
ABRAHAM: (Unintentionally harsh.) I’m telling you to stop.
JACOB: I’m going to be your wedding entertainer.
ABRAHAM: (Upset.) I don’t know why you’re all making such a big deal out of this. Everyone is butting in. Everyone. Oh, dear God!
JACOB: We mean well. The whole camp is treating it like our own wedding.
ABRAHAM: In my heart it’s not as big a celebration as you think it is.
JACOB: We understand that. But you don’t need to be angry.
ABRAHAM: (Quietly.) I’m not angry. Forgive me, everyone.
JACOB: Your name is Abraham, and mine is Jacob, and over there (indicating Isaac)… he’s Isaac. Maybe there’s something to that. What do you think? I think we are relatives. Maybe more than that.
ISAAC: (Jumps up.) I am not a relative, and I do not support weddings in a camp. I’m not going to have anything to do with it.
NACHMAN: (To Abraham.) Just take a look at these huppah poles. I carved them for you.
ABRAHAM: Thanks. But I didn’t ask for them.
NACHMAN: I carved them for you and… for everyone. Just take a look.
ABRAHAM: (Curls up. His voice breaking. Imploring.) If you only knew how heavy my heart is, then you would leave me alone. I beg you, let me be.
ISAAC: (Jumping up again, yelling.) A person is asking you to leave him alone. Why can’t you just do it? To hell with it all… the wedding clothes, the huppah poles, all of it!
ABRAHAM: Isaac, why are you making such a big deal? If it’s on my account… it’s not necessary. Honestly, they mean well.
ISAAC: What do they mean well? What? They should shut up. They should quit getting on my nerves. Wedding—wedding—will it bring back our dead? I’m asking: Will our dead celebrate? Huh? Will they?
JACOB: Maybe the dead will rise. Maybe they will come.
ISAAC: Don’t talk such nonsense. My mama will not come. She won’t come. She won’t come.
ABRAHAM: Please calm down. I beg you. You know… I had a son, a little boy, his name was also Isaac. My little Isaac—
ISAAC: (Becoming even more unhinged.) So what? So what?
ABRAHAM: So what? Every time I think about him, I want to hold you.
ISAAC: Why? (Pause.) I have no one. All of my relatives are dead. And they aren’t coming back, especially not from the crematoria. You had a little Isaac? Is he going to rise from the dead? You’re all getting on my nerves! You don’t rise from the dead! You just don’t! (Isaac flings himself onto his bed. He gives out a cry. All are trembling.)
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: (He waits until Isaac’s cry fades.) A little crying doesn’t hurt, my son. But a Jew shouldn’t cry too much, and he must certainly not be angry at his fellow Jews. He may not attack another Jew, my son. Not in time of turmoil and grief. He must be even more tolerant when he carries the name of our holy ancestors. It’s no coincidence that your names are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or that you survived. Oh, if only the Messiah had been as fortunate as you.
ABRAHAM: What do you mean, Grandpa?
VOICES: What happened to the Messiah? What do you know about it, Grandpa?
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: Listen up, gentlemen. Our dear young Isaac has touched my heart because I can’t enlighten him. And I would need to enlighten him quite a bit. How can a Jew have no power over his grief? Instead of his grief turning into love for his brothers, it turns into rage against them. This does no good, gentlemen. This is not our way. If you cannot overcome your grief, what can a Jew like the old prophet Elijah do? He who saw with his own eyes how the Messiah went to the fires of the crematorium, how the fire took him in… enveloped him… he saw… (The Elder covers his face with his hands for a while.) By all means… tell me… tell me…
VOICES: What can we tell you, Grandpa? What a strange story, Grandpa.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: What’s strange about it? Why don’t you ask, “Is it really true? How could Elijah the Prophet restrain himself from crying out in such a moment?” Because, gentlemen, Elijah the Prophet is very old and patient and overburdened with grief. But if an alarm must be raised to the creator of the world because of the suffering of the people of Israel, he raises it. But just then old Elijah’s scream got stuck in his throat and he just couldn’t get it out. His old lips froze all of a sudden and his eyelids pressed together, as if sleep might overtake him.
And in truth, gentlemen, he did fall asleep. And it was a sweet slumber. His amazement grew, and even greater was his rapture. Oy vey, oy vey! Imagine if you can, gentlemen, that the Messiah did not go alone to the crematorium oven but with an entire community of thousands of Jews. And he was not at the head of the line but in the middle of it. Sometimes at the very end, among the weak, with all of the simpleminded and those in despair. He went to them and comforted them. He himself knelt with fatigue, hunger, and thirst.
But he held his head high and overcame his terror. And when an old, sick, half-blind Jew went by, he carried the man on his back and continued on with the people right into the oven in Dachau. Yes, gentlemen, it was in Dachau. Not far from where we are now…
And the devils that drove the people forward saw how one Jew was carrying another on his back, they lashed them with their whips and their laughter. And they pulled the old blind man off of the Messiah’s back and they forced him to walk to the gas chamber without anyone’s help.
And old Elijah, who saw it all in his vision, couldn’t take any more and cried out loud as if to say, “My son, what are you doing? Where are you going by your own free will? You are leaving Elijah all alone in his old age?” There came an answer: “I am going together with all of the Jews to their final destination. My place is among them and not off to the side.”
And understand, gentlemen, that I am saying exactly what Elijah said, in his very own words: “What are you doing, my beloved, choosing to go to the gas chamber?” And listen to his answer: “It’s not me that does this, but the ancestors of Israel, because there is nothing that I can do now except to deliver a message of love to the people of Israel who are going to the gas chamber.”
And I’m speaking Elijah’s very words again when I say, “Your purpose, my son, is to be a savior and deliverer, a redeemer, an angel of redemption. They are waiting for you. And you must come.” I heard his answer: “That was my purpose before Dachau. But in the days of Dachau, my mission is to carry on my back a blind Jew who cannot walk to the gas chamber. I must carry him and not let him go alone into the fire.” He said it that plainly.
I asked him again, exactly like Elijah: “My beloved son, if you burn up, what will the remaining Jews do?” To which he answered, “I will no longer be alive, but my ash will remain.” Now, gentlemen, old Elijah started to cry and said, “How will the world go on without you?” He answered, “Don’t cry, prophet. It has been decreed that from this day forward, the world will go on.” With these very words, gentlemen. “The world,” he said, “tears itself apart. Gruesome death is in her nature, it’s her passion. She accepts all of the cruelty and sin in order to prepare for her greatest and last desire: complete annihilation. But I have decreed that the world will go on, and furthermore I have decreed that there will be justice and equality. The world will violently resist justice and even its own existence. It will tear off its own skin. But I have ruled in favor of justice and equality, and the world must accept this judgment. The world will resist until it sees the light of Israel, and then it will…”
And, gentlemen, this is where he was suddenly interrupted, because the German devils began to beat him again with whips and batons, and they drove him into the crematorium. And when they threw him into the fiery oven, the flames leapt off of him, as they had when they threw Father Abraham into the lime kiln. But the Messiah became enraged at the fire and ordered it not to spare him, as it does not spare a single Jew.
And the fire embraced him and he began to burn. And as he burned, a secret was revealed to him. The secret of how to focus one’s thoughts and not feel the pain of burning. Again he became angry and ordered the secret to remain a secret so that he may be like all of the Jews who scream with pain as they are consumed by fire. So that like all Jews he would scream out, “Gevald!”
The Elder’s voice begins to stick in his throat, and his head sinks.
And now, gentlemen, I pass on to you the vision that was shown to me. I am nothing more than what you see: an old man.
Lifts his head again.
And now, gentlemen, who among you will say that he can’t control his grief because he is only thinking of himself? Huh? Who? Tell me—who?
Everyone sits, astounded. The Elderly Survivor crawls out of bed, throws a bag on his back, picks up a walking stick, and starts to exit the barrack. Everyone watches him, dumbfounded.
JACOB: Where are you going, Grandpa? It’s the middle of the night.
ELDERLY SURVIVOR: Bless you, children. Have faith. I will return soon. I will return.
Elderly Survivor exits.
Matthew “Motl” Didner, a 2013 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow, is the associate artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene, where he directs and produces plays and musicals, leads outreach and educational programming, and makes occasional stage appearances. Directing highlights include The Megile of Itzik Manger, I. L. Peretz’s Di tsvey brider, and Di k’sube. He is an activist with The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and the PTA of PS 118—The Maurice Sendak Community School. Motl lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Danielle, and daughters Natalie and Maya.