NEW HAVEN — When Professor Doron Ben-Atar was growing up in Israel, his mother, Roma Nutkiewicz Ben-Atar, seldom spoke of her Holocaust experiences.
When she did start speaking – “some time after the Six-Day War,” reports Professor Ben-Atar — her incredible story filled an entire book, “What Time and Sadness Spared: Mother and Son Confront the Holocaust” (University of Virginia Press, 2006). Now, Professor Ben-Atar has written “Behave Yourself Quietly,” a play based on a moving story from her experience at Auschwitz, which will be performed at the Little Theater in New Haven on April 28 and 29.
The play is sponsored by the Department of Jewish Education, Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, The Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, and Fordham University.
Proceeds from the two performances will provide scholarship money to support The March of the Living, which sends high school students from around the world to Poland and Israel. Bi-annually, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven sponsors between 30-50 teens to experience the March of the Living.
Ben-Atar learned of the experience that inspired his play when his mother went to Auschwitz again as part of the March of the Living.
On the trip, his mother began speaking of her experiences in various ghettos and camps from age 12 until her liberation. At Auschwitz, she began telling the group about her imprisonment there, at age 16, six decades earlier. As they walked past the bunk where she slept as an inmate, she paused at the latrine and told the group, “This was like our coffee shop…where we could laugh and gossip.”
Prof. Ben-Atar, chair of the history department at Fordham University, member of Fordham’s Middle East Studies and Women’s Studies programs, had never heard that story before, but it made an impression.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about her comment about the latrine-that there was this autonomous place in Auschwitz, where people laughed, gossiped, and bickered,” he said. “I thought about it, wrote, left it, and came back to it – I couldn’t let go of the comment.”
The latrine remark led to Ben-Atar’s play, just over an hour in length, which depicts the lives of three women in Auschwitz in July, 1944. The play takes place against the backdrop of the most dramatic escape in the history of the concentration camp. The three female inmates are startled by the news and react in different ways. The play begins in the women’s latrine and moves through other intimate spaces of existence in Auschwitz.
Director Jane Tamarkin has been working with Ben-Atar on the project from the moment he asked her to read the first draft of the play.
“There was great stuff in it, because he is a historian and a writer,” observes Tamarkin. “It was provocative, and filled with facts, but, as a director, I think about how it can be played. A story can be a great read but not playable.” Ben-Atar accepted some suggestions from Tamarkin and re-worked the script. Tamarkin, who has acted off-Broadway and at the Long Wharf Theater and has taught acting classes and directed productions at the Hopkins School in New Haven for 13 years, then invited several friends from her female choir to read the play aloud. When Ben-Atar decided he was ready to see it on the stage, he invited Tamarkin to be the director. “This was a very exciting process,” reports Tamarkin. “This was not like directing ‘Death of a Salesman’ or ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ — this was brand new. We have been working on rewriting the script and the order of the lines until very recently.”
Tamarkin and her actors and actresses received an unexpected gift one month before the show’s opening. “Doron’s mother was in the States for Passover, and she came to a rehearsal and sat and talked with us for 45 minutes,” Tamarkin said.
Ms. Ben-Atar’s incredible memory for detail helped the actors truly envision the scene from 60 years ago. “There is a scene where clothes are being sorted,” notes Tamarkin. “She walked us through the way it was done. She remembered the exact height of the tables, and the certain way the clothes were folded. It was very moving.”
At the end of the preview, Ms. Ben-Atar, who reports reading the re-written script in one sitting, told the cast that she loved the play, and that it “really moved” and had “a lot of action.”
“My mother is an impressive person,” Prof. Ben-Atar said. “She is brilliant, really an intellectual. And she doesn’t give you standard cliches.”
“Behave Yourself Quietly” will be performed April 28 at 8:30pm and April 29 at 2pm at the Little Theater, 1 Lincoln Street in New Haven. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (203) 387-2424, ext. 310. Proceeds will provide scholarship money to support The March of the Living.
Donations to the March of the Living may be made directly by sending a check made out to “March of the Living,” c/o Ruth Gross, Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge, CT 06525.