One-woman show gives voice to children of Holocaust

Dana Schwartz was a 4-year-old picking daisies with her nanny in a Lvov park when she first heard the bombs that signaled Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. More than 75 years later, the commingling of images, sounds and feelings — the excitement of a child picking a forbidden flower, the verdant landscape, the earth-shattering explosions that presaged darker times to come — remains for her the most salient reminder of her loss of innocence.

Stephanie Satie’s “Silent Witnesses” opens with this story. Satie will perform her solo play at the Marsh Berkeley on Thursday, Jan. 28 as part of U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies programming.

“Silent Witnesses” focuses on four Jewish women who belong to a support group for child survivors of the Holocaust. The play emerged from a conversation Satie had with a stranger over 10 years ago. The woman approached Satie from the audience after seeing her play “Coming to America,” in which Satie portrayed the transformational journeys of nine immigrant women.

Stephanie Satie in “Silent Witnesses”

“An older woman who’d survived the Holocaust approached me,” Satie recalled, “and said, ‘Why don’t you tell our stories?’ ”

Soon after, the Los Angeles-based Satie was put in touch with 16 survivors eager to share their recollections. Satie began interviewing a handful and found herself increasingly drawn to their stories.

“Every time I talked to them, I had more questions,” she said. “The entire experience was humbling.

“The nature of the human spirit is to survive, but I am not sure that I would have been as resourceful and ferocious and audacious as they were. Can you imagine responding to a Nazi, as one of my real-life characters did, with the dare ‘Kill me. I’ll find a way to get bread, anyway?’ ”

“Silent Witnesses” debuted in Los Angeles five years ago. In a review of an Odyssey Theater production last year, Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty wrote that the play succeeded in depicting, without flourish or sentimentality, the lives of child survivors — many of whom lacked the language and ken at the time to grasp the enormity of the atrocity. In addition, he wrote, their silence was compounded by “the relatively low rung occupied by childhood survivors ‘in the hierarchy of suffering.’ ”

All of the survivors depicted in “Silent Witnesses” have seen the play. Schwartz, who posed as a Catholic child in a rural Polisih village during the Holocaust, went on to become a marriage and family therapist with a huge caseload of child survivors, has been in the audience many times. “I loved hearing my own words on the  stage,” she said.

“Silent Witnesses” is not Satie’s first foray into the lives of Jewish characters. In her one-woman play “Refugees,” she depicts a group of Jewish adults from the former Soviet Union who struggle with the perplexities of the English language and American mores. The characters are based on Satie’s time as an English as a Second Language instructor. “Those students became my proxy family,” she said. “They valued their past, and I drank from their fountain.”

Satie’s own roots are Jewish Brooklyn of the 1950s and ’60s. Born Stephanie Lieberman, she is the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Satie changed her Jewish-sounding surname as she advanced in her career from a dancer at the Martha Graham School to a Stella Adler-trained actress. She played the role of Chava, Tevya’s daughter, in national tours of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and had a recurring role as Ida Pfeiffer in the TV hit “The Wonder Years.” She balanced her theatrical endeavors with teaching at California State Northridge, as a lecturer in the English department. Last year, Satie won the university’s Faculty Exceptional Creative Accomplishment Award in recognition of “Silent Witnesses.”

With that play, as with “Refugees,” Satie said she has had an opportunity to look more closely at her own family history: the fear, anger, shame and disappointment that often seemed to be passed down from one generation to the next. “In my family, the worst thing to be was a refugee,” she said.

In her work, Satie has reclaimed her past and shone a spotlight on it with pride.

“Silent Witnesses,” 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28 at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley (6 p.m. performance sold out). Free (510) 664-4154 or www.ucbcjs-silentwitnesses-matinee.eventbrite.com

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.