Play about angel brings Holocaust message home

When worshippers come to Congregation B'nai Shalom for the Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance service on Wednesday, they will find some unlikely participants.

Students from Carondelet and De La Salle Catholic high schools in Concord will perform scenes from a recent school production, "Angel in the Night," at the Walnut Creek synagogue.

Winner of the Distinguished Play Award of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, "Angel" tells the story of Marysia Pawlina Szul, an 18-year-old Catholic Polish girl who, without the knowledge of her family, hid four Jews from the Nazis.

For two years, Szul harbored a mother, her two children and an orphaned Jewish teenager in an underground bunker in the family's barn — a space so small, the four could not even stand up.

Szul is honored as a Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, which organized Yom HaShoah services at B'nai Shalom and at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, arranged for the student performance.

Holocaust studies are part of the world religions course at De La Salle and Carondelet.

"It's a powerful lesson for everyone, to look at our beliefs and how fanaticism and intolerance can weave themselves into our lives," says Marcy Fox, chair of Carondelet's religious studies department and recipient of last year's Holocaust Teacher of the Year Award given by the Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival.

In the course, Fox does not shy away from discussing the Catholic Church's role in the Holocaust. "We don't cover up the flaws of our religion. After 2,000 years we're bound to have some skeletons."

Written by Walnut Creek playwright Joanna Kraus, "Angel" has been performed at a number of Catholic high schools. It's appealing for several reasons, she says: The heroine is high-school age; she's a strong character who offers a positive portrayal of how a Catholic girl behaved during the war; and the story is true.

Kraus, a nationally known playwright who moved here a few years ago, attended several rehearsals and showed Holocaust footage to help the students get a better understanding of what happened. In her experience, she says, high school students are often ignorant of the details of the Holocaust.

But as rehearsals progressed, "something was awakened in the students."

In order to prepare the students for their roles, director Patti Staugh had them sit in small cardboard boxes for 30 minutes a day and wear armbands with the Star of David at school.

"[Director Staugh] called all our parents and told them to serve us just bread and milk for dinner and not tell us what it was all about," says Gina Reardon, who plays the role of Szul. "It was frustrating. It got the point across."

Kraus was commissioned to write the play in 1990 by National-Lewis University in Evanston, Ill. as part of the Honor of Humanity Project in affiliation with the Avenue of the Righteous in Evanston. In her research, she traveled to Poland with Szul and one of the survivors Szul had hidden during the war.

The experience was profound.

"Things are very, very bad," says Kraus of Poland. "Anti-Semitism is alive and well."

Kraus was also stunned by the country's poverty. "It was like you went back several decades. There were horse-drawn carts, women without any teeth, a peasant look about the entire area, primitive homes — stone with thatched roofs."

Szul, who now lives in London, Ontario, fled Poland shortly after the war. Upon her return visit, she commented to Kraus that this would have been her life had she stayed.

They also visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.

"I would have been one of those children," the survivor Szul aided told Kraus during the tour of concentration camps. The woman, who lives in Illinois, was visibly moved by the barrage of emotions that resulted from her visit, according to Kraus.

"I saw her age in front of my eyes."

But the most telling moment for Kraus came during their visit to the Ethnographic Museum in Poland, which was displaying an exhibit of Israeli art. One of the sketches showed a boy celebrating his bar mitzvah.

"I wish my son could have that. Don't say anything, I'll lose my job," the guide whispered to Kraus.

Until that moment, Kraus had no idea the guide, who was blond and very Russian in manner, was Jewish. "In 1990 she was living that lie so she could put food on the table for her child," Kraus explains. "I was devastated by that."

Kraus says Szul never gave any thought to the risks she was taking by harboring four Jews. She describes Szul, who never had more than a third-grade education, as a simple, good-willed person.

"I didn't do anything special. It was the right thing to do. Why should people suffer?" Szul said when asked by Kraus why she risked her life to save four people she barely knew.

Even when Szul was arrested, starved and tortured, she did not disclose the names or location of the people she was hiding. "If I should die why should someone else die also?" she told Kraus.

For students in Kraus' play, the Holocaust took on new meaning. It ceased to be something that happened a long time ago, understood only in terms of facts and statistics.

"I pretty much have petty problems," says Reardon, reflecting on what she learned. "It teaches me how to be stronger in my own life.

"It made me look at myself and ask if I would be willing to do that for someone. [Szul] put her own life on the line for two years."