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Much to my surprise, almost two years after placing a request with the United States Holocaust Historical Museum’s Missing Person’s Tracing Service, I received two e-mails containing a total of 45 attachments pertaining to my grand-uncle, Abraham Einhorn—whose letter to my grandmother in 1937 was the impetus for Letter from Poland. The attachments primarily consisted of lists of the names, year and place of birth of concentration camp inmates.
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Although I already knew that he was a survivor of Dachau concentration camp (near Munich, Germany), the documentation shows that he was caught by the Gestapo in Lithuania in 1941, four years after he wrote the letter to my grandmother and four years before Dachau was liberated in 1945. Perhaps he had heard of the remarkable Japanese consulate who was stamping exit visas for Jews day and night. Instead, Abraham Einhorn was the survivor of not one, but three concentration camps.

Some weeks after receiving this documentation, yet before it won an Oscar, I went to see Ida, a film I had read about and had been curious to view. While the cinematography and the use of music were quite beautiful, I was not convinced by the narrative. And while the acting was good, I was not entirely convinced by the characters and their choices.
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How does a Catholic priest say to Ida that the Jews kept to themselves during the war when over three million Jews died in Poland during the Holocaust, and many of the concentration camps were located in Poland? Why doesn’t the film, or Ida, question the priest’s statement?

In 1937, two years before Germany invaded Poland, my grand-uncle wrote: “Here in Poland the anti-Semitism is growing worse every day. No one wants to travel with Jews nor buy from them nor sell to them. What the future will bring, I don’t know. How are we supposed to manage? ”

Is ignorance really bliss?

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After I had written the text for what will become the next-to the-last section of Letter from Poland, I double-checked with Theater for the New City that it would be appropriately festive for the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts to mention Dachau Concentration Camp in the second sentence. The answer was that they programmed the dark as well as the light. My new section was scheduled between excerpts from a musical version of Tom Jones and the guitarist and topical songwriter David Ippolito.

I had requested lighting as simple as the choreography. As I came onstage to perform on May 26th, I learned that the upstage-right special that came up slowly and would stay up, unchanging for six minutes, and did not allow me to see the audience. This proved helpful to inhabiting other times and places. In retrospect, I realized that referencing World War II in Europe was actually appropriate for Memorial Day Weekend.

Coincidence or synchronicity? As some of you know, philosophy professor Marie Friquegnon bakes great chocolate cake, and her husband, Raziel Abelson, philosophy professor emeritus, donated a suit that I use in Letter from Poland. Although Marie graciously provided the aforementioned cake, neither of them was able to attend the celebration of letter-writer Abraham Einhorn’s 125th Birthday this past November, so I recently gave them a private showing of the slides and videos that were projected at the party.

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When I got to the slides of Marine Flasher, the ship that brought Abraham Einhorn from Bremerhaven to New York City in May 1946, Raziel exclaimed “I was in Bremerhaven at the end of the war. Marine Flasher was the companion ship to Marine Perch, where I was the radio operator!” He went on to explain that the ships, combination freighter and passenger, were unusually fast at the time, with speeds of up to 20 knots (c. 25 miles) per hour. With this first “cargo” of refugees to the U.S., the American citizens were given the cabins and the Jewish refugees slept in the hold.

ChiuneAndYukikoSugiharaReflecting upon events related to World War II at Abraham Einhorn’s 125th Birthday Celebration, Kaoru Ikeda-Billeci (who performs in Pig Tales) told us about Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul General to Lithuania. After wiring Japan three times for permission to stamp exit visas for Polish Jews desperate to emigrate (and being told “absolutely not”), he and his wife, Yukiko, decided to stamp the exit papers of as many Jews as possible. They worked non-stop, day and night, processing as many visas in one day as were usually processed in one month, helping over 6,000 people to survive. Since their actions were contrary to Japanese policy , he was called back to Japan. He continued to stamp the exit papers even as he sat in the train waiting for its departure, and he gave the stamp to someone who stayed behind as the train pulled out of the station.

BoardingMarineFlasherOn November 17th, there was an intimate gathering to celebrate the 125th birthday of Abraham Einhorn, whose 1937 letter from Poland to my grandmother in Brooklyn, was the impetus for my evening-length solo, Letter from Poland. We watched film and video from Nowy-Sacz, and I showed images from my research subsequent to the performance in April 2011. Now that I know more about what happened to my grandmother’s brother, it will inform my creation of the “missing” section. My thanks to both Andy Gurian and Chris Deatherage whose expertise made the “show and tell” aspect of the party possible—and to Marie Friquegnon for the delicious chocolate cake.

92Y’s Buttenweiser Hall is twice as wide as The Construction Company—where I previewed Letter from Poland—and its ceilings are about twice as high. I found that I needed to substantially revise the excerpt I was going to perform on January 20th in light of these larger dimensions.

My first impulse was to “amp” up the dynamics, yet upon further consideration this made the early part of the piece I was excerpting too dramatic too soon. Instead, I began to investigate expanding the positioning and focus of the movements and gestures as well as the placement of the props as appropriate for the scale of the space.

And these changes were reflected in Stacey Menchel’s description of the piece for The Forward:

Shapiro performed an excerpt from her dance–theater piece “Letter from Poland,” inspired by a note sent to her grandmother in 1937 from an unknown relative. An array of suitcases, bags, hats and maps heighten Shapiro’s sense of wandering and displacement as she contemplates the fate of this mysterious family member.

Also, whereas last year it felt as though the piece was being given to me, this year I questioned everything, not only the movements I couldn’t remember without referring to the video, but also the movements I could—every gesture, each weight shift questioned and analyzed until I had to let go of this dogged yet temporarily useful mindset and, again, let the piece tell me what it needed.

As those of you who attended this past April’s preview of Letter from Poland (for video montage, click here) know, just a few days before the performance I found photographs of the letter writer—my maternal grandmother’s brother, Abraham Einhorn—and learned unexpected information about him.

While subsequent research has revealed his exact height (5’5”), the color of his eyes (grey) and his date of birth (November 16, 1887), and more about what happened to him after writing to my grandmother in 1937, I have not yet been able to find his death certificate.

Nonetheless, no matter the current location of his consciousness, I have decided to honor him with a public celebration of his 125th birthday, one year from today (his 124th), and will provide you with details as they develop.

In the meantime, I am preparing for a performance of sections 2–4 of Letter from Poland on a shared program at the 92nd Street Y on January 20, 2012, continuing to search for more pieces of the puzzle, and beginning to grapple with how the new information will transform the piece, especially the last two sections.