Holocaust play recalls Rossmoor womans harrowing life

On his walks around the golf course at Rossmoor, an active adult community in Walnut Creek, Milton Matz frequently encountered a woman on the same path. “I tried to make eye contact with her, but she always looked away,” said Matz, a playwright as well as a retired rabbi and psychologist. “Then one day she responded to my eye contact,” and they began a conversation.

The elusive woman, Jutta Stein Organek, a native of Berlin, was a so-called “Mischling,” the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. Considered Jewish under the Nuremberg Laws because she hadn’t been baptized prior to 1935, Organek nonetheless managed to elude the Nazis while hiding in plain sight: avoiding eye contact, looking down, pretending neither to hear nor understand.

Those habits continued, even in California. “Strangers frightened her,” Matz said.

Jutta Stein Organek and Milton Matz

However, after reading an article about Matz’s play “Breakfast at the Regency,” some of Organek ’s fears dissipated.

“Breakfast at the Regency,” which has also been presented in Germany, melded the story of the last days of Matz’s wife Ann, who died of cancer in 2002, to her Holocaust experiences, including a 1941 escape from Germany.

“She figured I would know how to talk to someone who had escaped Germany,” he said. “That started our relationship.”

Drawn by the commonality of her experiences with Ann, Organek began walking with Matz, meeting for coffee, attending movies and discussing Humanistic Judaism, a movement in which both were involved. The two married in 2005, but five years later, Organek, too, died of cancer.

Matz’s new play, “Mischling: Hiding in the Open,” is dedicated to her memory. Sponsored by Berkeley’s Kol Hadash Community for Humanistic Judaism, where Organek served as president, the play will be read on April 22 at the Albany Community Center. It is being presented to coincide with the week of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The play focuses on Organek’s harrowing childhood. She was born in 1930 Berlin to a Lutheran nurse and a Jewish physician. They were both morphine addicts who were occasionally forced into rehab, and Organek and her brother would be farmed out to relatives. Her father, forbidden to practice medicine, later committed suicide because he thought it would spare the lives of his children. The play deals with the upheaval following his death, the close calls and the healing of her relationship with her mother. Organek came to the United States in 1949 with her late husband.

The play, presented previously by the Drama Association of Rossmoor as well as at the Berkeley Repertory School for Theatre, utilizes the talents of older performers. Natalie Dunn, a retired college English and drama history teacher, plays the role of Jutta. Matz, 84, plays her father and also directs.

“I like to create a form of theater that is more accessible to older people, which means it does not require memorization,” Matz said. He calls his plays “concert performances,” allowing the actors to carry scripts. Such performances do not involve the expense of scenery or movement issues.

“Older people like to act,” said Matz. “They can’t always memorize, but they can speak extremely well. In a concert performance, you don’t have to move around. The key person is the narrator,” who describes the settings and fills in missing action. “If the play is written well, it’s very effective.”

Matz calls playwriting his third career. Growing up Orthodox in the Bronx — but “never a fanatic practitioner” — Matz received his rabbinical training at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and served as a rabbi in Cleveland before becoming a clinical psychologist. He is emeritus director of the Pastoral Psychology Institute at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.

As he tells it, one profession led to another. “As a psychologist, you really learn to write dialogue,” he said. “You’re always on an improv show, eight hours a day.”

“Mischling: Hiding in the Open” will be presented at 4 p.m. April 22 at the Albany Community Center, 1249 Marin Ave., Albany. Free. www.kolhadash.org

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].