July 1, 2014
Playwright and Indiana State University theater professor Arthur Feinsod has penned many theater plays. His current work, "Coming to See Aunt Sophie" was unlike any other - an emotional experience that hit close to home.
"It was the hardest play I ever wrote emotionally," Feinsod said. "I've never had that experience while writing. I have no regrets, but I can't imagine writing such draining piece again."
"Coming to See Aunt Sophie," which will have its American premiere July 2 as part of this year's Crossroads Repertory Theater season, chronicles the true story of Jan Karski, a Catholic courier for the Polish Underground during World War II who risked his life to alert the world with his first-hand accounts of the Holocaust.
Feinsod knew nothing about Karski until documentary producer and friend Mary Skinner, contacted him about her latest work on Irena Sendler, who rescued 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto.
"I viewed "In the Name of the Mothers" and was very impressed with it," Feinsod said.
In a twist of fate, one of Feinsod's honors students had received a grant and ended up bringing Skinner to Terre Haute in conjunction with the viewing of her documentary at CANDLES Holocaust Museum. Skinner gave Feinsod a book on Karski co-authored by Tom Wood to read.
The February 2013 experience proved to be a watershed moment. The book inspired Feinsod with Karski's courage, conviction and humanity. From that moment on, he was hooked. He spent March through December researching the Holocaust hero. But the pressure was mounting.
"I knew I wanted a full length play," Feinsod said. "Mary Skinner had alerted Poland that I was writing a play about Jan Karski. Even before I had started writing it I started getting inquiries from people wanting it. Polish dignitaries committed to touring the play before it was even fully written."
Feeling the pressure, Feinsod sat down and wrote the first 17 pages of the production in a couple of days. He finished the early draft of the two-act play by Jan. 1, 2014 and continued to tweak it thereafter.
"The basic idea stayed the same - a four-actor play with a sparse set," Feinsod said, explaining one actor plays young Karski, another portrays the older Karski and two other actors play all the other roles. A male actor plays 30 roles while a female actress plays 20. The play requires a set made of merely a table, some benches and chairs and "a suitcase full of props and hats."
In developing the script, Feinsod sought the help of others to accurately portray how the Holocaust influenced Karski's life in later years.
"I sensed Karski's deep feeling of regret that he hadn't done enough to stop the Holocaust but no one could provide concrete proof," Feinsod said.
The playwright's proof came when he connected with Kaya Mirecka-Ploss, a Polish-American author and Karski's longtime companion at the end of his life.
Mirecka-Ploss was able to confirm that the courier-turned-Georgetown University professor was haunted by his failure to stop the Holocaust. She also told Feinsod the story about the face of a young Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto that Karski saw every night before going to sleep.
"I'm indebted to Kaya for the information she provided," Feinsod said. "It helped me complete the story."
Even the play's title is significant to the story Feinsod is bringing to life.
"'Coming to See Aunt Sophie' was the pass code Karski used in his last mission working for the Polish Underground," Feinsod said. Karski used that that code to get through Nazi Germany, occupied France , Franco's Spain and all the way through to England and then the United States to see President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankenfurter."
"Coming to See Aunt Sophie" was a personal journey for Feinsod.
"My ancestors were Polish Jews, with roots in eastern Poland. Most Jews in our ancestral hometown were sent to concentration camps and killed during World War II," Feinsod explained.
"I couldn't help but think how this could've affected me if my great grandparents hadn't come to the United States," he added.
The emotional experience continued when "Coming to See Aunt Sophie" had its world premiere in May at the Here and Now Festival in Mannheim, Germany and then toured Poland, which was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Karski's birth.
"It was emotionally taxing on the actors, especially when they toured the Holocaust sites and memorials," Feinsod said. "It was especially hard for the German people as well, but they seemed to appreciate the production. It shows the strength and character of the German people. It was the right place to premiere the play."
Brad Venable, an Indiana State professor in the department of Art and Design who plays the older Karski, relied on YouTube videos and interview of the historic figure to get into character.
"I struggled with, and continue to struggle with, playing a character in a play versus the real life historic person of Karski," he said. "The real Karski is very animated, and fascinating to watch. Arthur's character needs to tell the story, as well. The emotions of the character seemed fairly easy for me to connect with, due to the language Arthur used in the play."According to Feinsod, the performances in Poland were of high significance, both historically and culturally.
"For the Polish performances, the play's translation was projected overhead," Feinsod said, adding the Poland tour was funded by the Polish government through the Museum of Polish History.
The first performance was in Lódż, the birthplace of Karski. At the conclusion of the performance, a member of the EU parliament expressed interest to Feinsod in having the play performed on the floor of the EU parliament in Brussels before the end of the year.
"That came as a total surprise," Feinsod said. " And it would be wonderful if it happens."
Next was a performance in Kielce, home to a Jewish Ghetto that was also was the site of a five-day massacre of Jews returning to their homes after being liberated from concentration camps by anti-Semitic Poles. Then it was onto the Museum of the History of Polish Jews built on the grounds of the former Warsaw Ghetto.
That particular evening, two Holocaust heroes were in the audience- Alicja Szczepaniak Schnepf and retired Polish-Jewish journalist Marian Turski. Schnepf and her mother, Natalia Szczepaniak, sheltered Jews during World War II. Their actions earned them recognition during the 2014 annual Garden of the Righteous event, organized by the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington DC. Turski was sent to Auschwitz and survived the death march of former Auschwitz prisoners to Buchenwald.
"There were so many meaningful things that occurred during our time in Poland that were heart wrenching," Feinsod said. "But it was in that setting that I realized that what we were doing there was significant."
For Venable, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the many historical sites visited impacted him greatly on a personal level.
"At one point, I had to step back a little in fear that my emotions would take over and I would not do well on stage," he said. "The tragedy of what happened there is overwhelming. I think it made everyone in the cast realize even more that there was a sort of duty to our task of performing."
While "Coming to See Aunt Sophie" is rooted in history, Feinsod is quick to point out its relevance today, particularly in the region of the play's setting.
"In Poland and Hungary today, the anti-Semitism rate is near 50%," he said. "What has happened to make people think this okay? We all have a lot of work to do to teach tolerance and respect for people across all cultural and religious borders."
Feinsod and Crossroads Repertory Theater will bring a bit of world history to the Wabash Valley, as "Coming to See Aunt Sophie" is performed at Indiana State's New Theater. The show opens July 2 and will be performed at four other locations around the Terre Haute community - at Catholic, Jewish and Unitarian religious communities as well as at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum.
"I hope audiences appreciate the depth of Jan's character, his courage and strength of will but also his immense humanity," Feinsod concluded.
Crossroads Repertory is bringing author E. Thomas Wood, the co-author of the book, "Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust," to discuss Karski's life following the 4 p.m. performance on Sunday, July 6.
For performance and ticket information, please call 812-237-3333 or go to www.crossroadsrep.com .
Writer and Contact: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3783 or firstname.lastname@example.org
"Coming to See Aunt Sophie," written by theater professor Arthur Feinsod, is based on the true story of Jan Karski, a Catholic courier for the Polish Underground during World War II who risked his life to alert the world about the Holocaust.