‘The Puppetmaster of Lodz’

Henryk Pijanowski spent much of his early childhood hiding from the Nazis in a damp cellar after his mother sneaked him out of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Half a century later, the Polish puppetmaster and theatrical and TV director continues to live in hiding.

Pijanowski seeks coverage behind the whimsy of his clownish handpuppet and marionette creations.

The 61-year-old Warsaw resident, whose family name was Hajwentreger, uses a non-Jewish surname so fewer questions get asked. When he hears a Jewish joke, he pretends it doesn’t offend him.

He’s been told by Polish acquaintances that his nose looks Jewish. The follow-up question is usually, “Are you Jewish?”

Pijanowski is always armed with a decisive denial to end the third degree.

“I’m in hiding because I live in Poland,” he said recently at the Marin Theatre Company office in Mill Valley. “There is anti-Semitism all around me. It’s not just a feeling. Everybody hates Jews there. If something is wrong, they blame the Jews.”

Pijanowski arrived in the Bay Area last month to serve as a consultant on the Gilles Segal drama “The Puppetmaster of Lodz.” The Marin Theatre production, now in preview, runs from Wednesday through Sunday, Feb. 14.

The play, set five years after the end of World War II, is the story of a Polish Jewish puppeteer who sequesters himself in his apartment, refusing to believe the war is over. Instead, he remains in the safe fantasy world he has created with his puppets, bringing back loved ones and interacting with them.

When Pijanowski first read “The Puppetmaster of Lodz,” it hit home. “The main character hid after the war for five years. But I am hiding 54 years,” he said, near tears. “So it’s very close to me.”

Initially the play sparked the interest of Pijanowski’s son, Martin Singer, the marketing and campaign manager for the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

A series of coincidences led Pijanowski to provide his hands-on expertise to the production.

First Singer met Marin Theater Company board member Nancy Goldberg through his job. She gave him a tour of the theater, and the Polish-born Singer picked up a brochure of the upcoming season.

After reading the synopsis of “The Puppetmaster of Lodz,” Singer told artistic director Lee Sankowich that the story sounded uncannily similar to his father’s background.

Sankowich, who is directing the play, immediately suggested that Pijanowski serve as a consultant to “add authenticity to the piece on puppetry and the period.”

Singer, Goldberg and Sankowich got to work and made it happen.

The night before the first rehearsal last month, Pijanowski couldn’t sleep, according to his son. “He was writing down ideas for [Sankowich]. He’s completely into it,” Singer said. “He brought books and photos of puppets from the ’30s and ’40s.”

The theater company has implemented one of Pijanowski’s suggestions on props, hanging a ration of bread in a sack on the wall, which he had done while in hiding. “I did that so the rats wouldn’t get it,” he said.. “But the rats got to it anyway. I didn’t know they would crawl up the wall.”

More importantly, Pijanowski is working intensely with Los Angeles actor Matt Gottlieb, who plays puppeteer Samuel Finkelbaum. “My father awakens the puppets. He makes them come alive,” said Singer. “That’s what he’s teaching Matt. The work is in making the audience believe the puppets are real people.”

On the first day of rehearsal, Gottlieb asked Pijanowski about his wartime experience. “And unfortunately, I know the answer,” Pijanowski said. “I remember almost everything from the war.”

Usually Sankowich casts local actors in all roles, but he widened his search for the lead actor because he wanted someone who could blend humor and tragedy, sometimes within the same line of dialogue. He also felt a Jewish actor would “bring something to the role from a gut level.”

San Francisco native Sankowich has been drawn to Holocaust-related plays before. He has directed “Shayna Maidel” and “Kindertransport,” both post-World War II dramas.

He’s more interested in exploring the post-war aftermath than the wartime horrors. “This is a highly entertaining play. If it were simply depressing, I wouldn’t want to do it. I’ve seen enough documentaries and photos,” Sankowich said.

“To me, as a Jew, I find the residue of war goes on and on…The war is never over for survivors.”

Pijanowski, who has been staying with his son in San Francisco, is scheduled to leave the Bay Area at the end of the month. Singer, however, would like his father and mother, who is also a television director, to move here.

At age 17, Singer escaped then-Communist Poland because he could no longer tolerate hiding his Jewishness. He said his parents have stayed because language barriers would make it nearly impossible to work in the arts in America.

“Theater is [my father’s] life,” said Singer. “That’s mostly what he talks about. He’s separated from the Polish system through the theater. He’s created an alternative universe for himself through performance art and puppetry.”

Pijanowski, who has enjoyed hiking on Mount Tamalpais and eating sushi in San Francisco, admits he’s entertaining ideas of leaving his lifelong home.

“After the second day here, everybody is a friend of mine,” Pijanowski said, choking up. “It’s very strange. Nobody is checking me. At last, I don’t have to hide. I’m a free man in the free land.”

Noma Faingold

Noma Faingold is a former staff writer at J.