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Yavneh play honors ‘unlikely hero’ of the Holocaust

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Philip Meyer is the older Pinchas. Jeanette Friedman
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The entire cast is onstage for the finale. Jeanette Friedman

Charles and Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum traveled from Geneva and Jerusalem to Paramus last Thursday to watch the Yavneh middle school graduating class perform “The Unlikely Hero,” a play honoring their father, Pinchas Rosenbaum, who saved Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust. In this production, Pinchas the younger was played by Leora Hyman and the older by Philip Meyer. The script was written and the scenery was designed and painted by members of the graduating class.

The script was adapted from interviews commissioned by the two brothers and their sister Leah, lifelong friends of Yavneh’s Rabbi Shmuel Burstein. Though he knew the family, the teacher first heard the story 25 years ago at dinner honoring the memory of Pinchas Rosenbaum, who died in 1980. According to Charles Rosenbaum, his father rarely spoke about his rescue efforts. But as his children traveled the world, they were approached by those he rescued who told them their stories.

Burstein, a teacher of Tanach and Jewish history at Yavneh, noted that “Pinchas Rosenbaum was a personal hero of mine. My great attachment comes from his overwhelming love, passion, and willingness to risk all for his fellow Jews, regardless of where they stood on the political or religious spectrum. He fulfilled, in all its meanings, the commandment not to stand idly by your brother’s blood.”

Moshe Rosenbaum gave Burstein the interviews and Dominique Cieri, an actress, playwright, and director engaged by Yavneh for the project, drew up an outline. The students then wrote the play, together with Cieri and Burstein.

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Leora Hyman is the young Pinchas. Courtesy Leora Hyman

When the play opens, Pinchas, son of the rebbe of Kisvarda, Hungary, is learning about his illustrious “yichus,” his lineage, and is reminded of his obligations to their tradition. Rosenbaum is the descendant of a long line of ultra-Orthodox rabbis that included the Maharal of Prague. The promising student is sent to Rabbi Josef Elimelech Kahane, the Ungvar rebbe, played by Oriel Farajun, who like his father and most ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Hungary, was anti-Zionist.

The play shows how young Pinchas learns about Zionism from neighborhood boys and rebels against what he is being taught when he sees how his fellow Jews are victimized by anti-Semites. At the outset, the students in his class argue with him, Rabbi Kahane argues with him, and all quote passages from the Talmud to determine whether it is it more important to save lives by fleeing to Palestine or to wait for the messiah to establish a haven for Jews.

The unlikely hero, Pinchas, receives his rabbinical ordination at 18, joins the religious Zionists, and does not allow neighborhood anti-Semites to bully him. Then he is arrested and sent to a labor camp. His family is deported to Auschwitz while he is a prisoner. Distraught, he escapes, disguises himself in a Nazi uniform, and begins saving Jewish lives by “capturing” Jews. He brings them to the Glass House, a haven protected by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, and to other safe houses under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who disappeared into a Soviet prison. Pinchas tries to convince his own father to save himself and the family, but his father refuses to abandon his community and insists on being deported with them.

Burstein said that “all sides of the issues of Zionism and non-Zionism had to be explored through the life experiences of those who lived with Pinchas, including the views of the ultra-Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and the Zionists.”

“It was so refreshing to see those youngsters act in such a meaningful and sincere way,” said Moshe Rosenbaum. “It was clear that for them, it meant everything.”

One point didn’t come out during the play, said Rosenbaum. “My father was very concerned about the safety of non-Zionist Orthodox Jews who came to the Glass House and were pushed away by the Zionists. He tried to keep them safe by creating a space where they could learn and pray without being harassed.” Their leader, Rosenbaum said, was a descendant of the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, who is now in Jerusalem.

“I was proud to play the part of a real hero,” said Leora, “but I don’t think I would be brave enough to do what he did. The lesson I learned is that when you put your mind to something, and if it’s really important to you, you can make it happen.”

Philip, who played the older Pinchas, said, “It was an honor to portray a heroic person who made such a difference during a dark time in Jewish history. Since the play was a group effort, it made a great graduation project. We came together to make it happen, just like Pinchas Rosenbaum worked with his group, which made it easier to save Jews…. A lot of what happened back then doesn’t apply anymore, but what we can learn from this great tzaddik, what we should keep close to our hearts, is that we should help our fellow Jews and stand up for what we believe in.” (Both “Pinchases” are from Teaneck.)

Oriel, who played the Ungvar rebbe, had this to say: “I felt that Rabbi Kahane overreacted when he yelled at Pinchas not to become a Zionist and that he should have listened to Pinchas’ ideas. He seemed like a good teacher … but … look, when we went to the Israel Day Parade we saw the Neturei Karta protesting on the side, so I know there are people who still feel that way today.”

Oriel, who is from Fair Lawn, continued, “Pinchas took risks and succeeded in saving hundreds.… We American Jewish kids were never in such a situation so we never had to take huge risks…. It’s hard for us to know if we would do such things. I am not sure that I would, but I hope I would be able to risk my life to save others. In its way, the play prepares us for the future. It shows us the world is good but that there are lots of bad things going on. We have to look out for each other, and not just think — we have to take action.”

Charles Rosenbaum said the play was beautiful. “It was very emotional — the students did it with so much warmth, and made me very happy I came. They are just amazing. My father spoke about the past only reluctantly — perhaps it’s because he died so young (at 57) and the wounds were still too fresh. Though he did not tell it to us directly, it is our obligation as the second generation to tell it. By writing and producing this play, this obligation has passed to the third generation, who are now telling the story to future generations.”

 
 

Holocaust lesson the Yavneh way

Annual play makes Shoah personal for school’s eighth-graders

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Yavneh Academy eighth-graders make up the cast of “For the Love of Bondi.” photos courtesy Yavneh

Nearly 70 years have passed since Bondi Roth perished at the hands of the Nazis. Last Thursday night, however, Yavneh Academy students breathed new life into the soft-spoken boy who loved quoting Psalms and never lost his faith, as they performed “For the Love of Bondi,” based on a true story about brothers Irving and Bondi Roth.

In what has become an annual ritual, Yavneh eighth-graders gave faces and voices to martyrs of the Shoah who might otherwise have been forgotten through their performance for 1,000 parents and area students.

The play depicts the story of two brothers who were raised in a privileged home in Slovakia and their travails during the war, including rising anti-Semitism and oppressive laws against Jews, fleeing to Hungary, deportation to Auschwitz, and the Death March to Buchenwald, where the brothers were forcibly separated. Through it all, Irving and Bondi struggle to stay together, fight to survive, and to hold onto their faith.

The Holocaust play, which has been an integral part of the Jewish history curriculum at Yavneh for over 30 years, was written and dramatized by the eighth-grade class under the direction of the playwright Dominique Cieri and Holocaust Studies coordinator Rabbi Shmuel Burstein.

“For me, the best part of this is the opportunity to bring to life, albeit for a short while, some of the Jews who perished, allowing them moments of life on stage before well over a thousand people,” said Burstein. “It gives me pleasure knowing that many people heard the names of those who have been largely forgotten through the overwhelming destruction of their families; that many were afforded a snapshot of their life experience, albeit a tragic one.”

It may be difficult for the Yavneh students to fathom the catastrophic events that occurred, he said, but he added that the experience of the play guides them to a greater understanding of that era. They “take ownership of the story and many feel, as the date of production nears, that they are stepping into the roles of the characters they are playing on stage,” said Burstein.

The experience of portraying characters living during the darkest period of Jewish history makes a weightier impact than learning about it in textbooks, students said.

Talia Levie, 14, played the role of a nanny forced to leave the Jewish family she had been with for years, when new laws forbade non-Jews to work for Jews. The play helped her develop a deeper understanding of the emotional turmoil of the era, she said, adding, “I gained a new respect for survivors.”

Ayal Yakobe, who wrote the play along with several classmates, said he was impressed by the character of Bondi, for his continual faith and optimism. “The believer is the one who dies, but at the end, Irving learns from him how to live his life,” said Yakobe. At the end of the play, although he realizes he lost many relatives, Irving recites the Sh’ma, just as his brother used to do with great fervor.

Yakobe said he is gratified to be at a school that gives students the chance to delve into the Holocaust in so special a way. “This is a unique experience,” he said.

The highlight, many students said, was coming face to face with history as they met the subject of their play, Irving Roth, who spoke at Yavneh earlier this year. Roth co-authored the 2004 book “Bondi’s Brother,” on which the play was based. He spoke to the Yavneh students about being sent to the death camps at age 14, the same age most of the eighth-graders are now.

Dena Winchester, who played the role of Bondi, said she was deeply affected by meeting Roth and reading his book. “He was very inspiring,” she said, adding that she found his story fascinating. “He kept saying he wants to make sure people remember the Holocaust.”

Roth and his cousin, who were portrayed in the play, attended last week’s performance. After the finale, Roth, who was moved to tears by the show, was escorted to the stage by the actor who portrayed him, amid a thunderous standing ovation. “Tonight, you brought my brother back to life,” Roth said in a choked voice. “I felt his soul in this room.”

Levie, said she and her peers felt moved to have the ultimate “star” of their show present. “At the end of the play, when he hugged the person who played him, I cried,” said Levie. “He said that in the two hours of watching the play, he got to see the spirit of his brother brought back to life. It was very emotional.”

Holocaust education at the school does not only focus on death and destruction, but is about renewal and restoration, said Yavneh Principal Rabbi Jonathan Knapp after the program. “It is a course in Jewish hashkafah [philosophy] and outlook. It is a course that provides our children with a framework to build their emotional capacity and spiritual depth.” Through these concepts, students gain life lessons in how Jews are to respond to crisis and tragedy in the world, he said.

Shira Golubtchik, who played Irving Roth, said that when she first stepped into her role it was difficult for her to imagine and feel the tragedies that occurred. But eventually, “I felt like I became Irving Roth and felt the pains that he went through.”

Meeting Roth, she said, gave her and her peers a more intimate way to relate to the tragic events that occurred over a half-century ago.

“I felt a personal connection with him,” she said. “It was an honor to portray his story in such a powerful way.”

 
 
 
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