OCTOBER 19, 2017 – Eight years ago, Holocaust survivor Judith Sherman read from her memoir, “Say the Name: A Survivor’s Tale in Prose and Poetry,” at Harvard Divinity School. Local playwright Anne Marilyn Lucas was in the audience. Lucas had a strong feeling that Sherman’s story would be a great play; she wanted others to be as moved by Sherman’s experience as she was.
This intuition was more than idle insight. Lucas, of Marblehead, has been in theater for over 30 years, as an actor, director, and playwright. As fate would have it, later at the reception, Sherman locked eyes with Lucas, crossed the room to meet her, and asked, “How do I know you?”
A surprised Lucas replied, “You don’t, but your story should be a play.” Thus began a fruitful collaboration and friendship. Lucas began traveling to New Jersey to meet regularly with Sherman, Sherman’s daughter Ora Gelb, and granddaughter, Ilana. Lucas adapted Sherman’s book into a stage play, which was performed at the Harvard Divinity School. As Lucas grew to know the family, she felt that the key to Sherman’s story was her refusal, until she reached her 70s, to discuss with anyone any details of her experiences during the war, which included imprisonment at the Ravensbrück concentration camp when she was a young teen.
Sherman’s silence had implications through generations. Lucas said that as she got to know the family, “the more clearly I saw the damage to [Judith’s] family that her silence had created.” Sherman’s daughter confided, “Because my mother would never talk about it, everything that happened in the Holocaust happened to her.”
This unmentionable subject became the proverbial elephant in the room. It eventually permeated all their relationships. Ilana had nightmares and wrote poems about what had happened to her grandmother that were accurate – even though she had never been told about them – somehow absorbing the experiences. Sherman then read her granddaughter’s poems, and was, Lucas said, “horrified.”
An adult history class at Princeton broke through Sherman’s silence. In response to a section on World War II, Sherman wrote a brief poem and showed it to the professor. He discovered she was a survivor, and “badgered” her, according to Lucas, until she wrote down her memories, eventually finding her a publisher for the resulting book, “Say the Name.”
After Sherman’s story was staged at Harvard, Lucas went on to interview children of Holocaust survivors about their experiences living with the trauma. From this came Lucas’ own play, “From Silence,” which will be performed October 20, 21, and 22 at the Marblehead Little Theatre.
“This play is doing what I hoped I could do, giving people a moving experience about how the trauma lives on, if it is left unprocessed,” said Lucas.
Sherman said to Lucas, “I live every day of my life on two tracks. I live in the Holocaust and I live in the present.” Lucas dramatizes this duality by having the main character played by three people simultaneously; one actor plays the child who went through the experience; one actor plays the part of the woman who would never talk about what had happened; and the third is the person with the battle inside.
Sherman and her family are enthusiastic supporters of Lucas’ work. They attended the inaugural production of “From Silence” at the Theatre for a New City in New York last fall. Sherman, now 89 and in poor health, is not able to attend the current production.
Though not Jewish, Lucas kept a Jewish home for 30 years and with her ex-husband – who is a past president of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead – raised two daughters who celebrated their bat mitzvahs there. She credits the Temple’s Rabbi David J. Meyer “as a spiritual leader who embodies what it is to know God … That is what I wanted for my children.”
“From Silence” will be performed at the Marblehead Little Theatre, 33 Arthur Ave., under the direction of John Fogel, this weekend. For show times and tickets, go to mltlive.org.