Erased: Babi Yar, the SS and Me

In Kiev for a conference in 2008, Corey Weinstein made a spontaneous decision to accompany a friend to Babi Yar, a ravine where over two days in September 1941, German SS troops and police units fatally shot more than 33,700 Jews. Weinstein didn’t know much about the site, but he had a powerful emotional reaction while there.

“It was really a big deal for me,” he said. “It changed my life.”

How so? The short answer is that Weinstein, 71 — a physician, human rights advocate for the incarcerated, composer and clarinetist in San Francisco — is now a playwright.

Corey Weinstein has added playwright to his resume.

“Erased: Babi Yar, the SS and Me,” will be part of a community Yom HaShoah event at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5 at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco. The free program is sponsored by the Southside Jewish Collaborative (congregations Beth Israel Judea, B’nai Emunah, Ner Tamid and Or Shalom).

The 70-minute performance features Weinstein and fellow Or Shalom congregants Saralie Pennington and Tom Herz.

The play explores two parallel stories: “One is about the Holocaust by bullets at Babi Yar,” Weinstein said, “and one is how growing up in a middle-class Jewish community in Chicago in the 1950s shaped me.”

Weinstein’s first response to the upwelling of emotions he experienced at Babi Yar was to write a song. “I thought that would solve it, but then I became driven, quite obsessed, to learn more about this part of the Holocaust,” he said.

The mass killing at Babi Yar is said to be the largest single massacre in the Holocaust, perhaps in recorded history. Today, experts estimate that a total of 100,000 to 150,000 people were killed at Babi Yar during the German occupation, including Soviet prisoners of war, communists, Roma, frail individuals and others.

Not all of Weinstein’s research was about Babi Yar, however.

“By delving into the history of the Holocaust, I was delving into something that growing up in Chicago, I was taught not to delve into,” he said. “We didn’t talk about the Holocaust. We didn’t talk about a lot of things.” Other topics that were off limits in many homes in the 1950s, including his, were sex, terminal illness, marital troubles, psychiatric disorders and suicide.

In “Erased,” Weinstein calls this “safety through silence,” an approach his parents and the family’s rabbi hoped would protect children from the horrors of the world. “Don’t talk about it, don’t feel it — numbness is better,” Weinstein sings in the show.

That’s what he was taught. But tamping down his emotions didn’t serve Weinstein well as an adult, he said — something he realized that day at Babi Yar.

And writing that first song didn’t resolve anything, so Weinstein wrote more songs, an avocation he has enjoyed for 25 years. But this time was different.

“I knew these were not songs I would perform with my jazz band at coffee houses or with my klezmer band at homes for the elderly,” he said. “I knew the songs needed a formal context. I knew I had to write a play.”

Weinstein enrolled in a solo performance class at The Marsh in San Francisco and then signed up for private lessons. “I’ve given lectures on medicine, on prison reform, even on torture in U.S. prisons, and I thought that prepared me to write a play,” he said. “I was wrong. I discovered I knew nothing about drama, and I found it incredibly difficult.”

When Weinstein realized he couldn’t do the show alone, he drafted Pennington and Herz and also worked with his friend Mark Goldstein to “provide harmonic structure” for some of the songs. An early workshop production for a small audience provided constructive feedback, as did a performance in February at the Jewish Community Library.

“The show is tighter now, more focused,” Weinstein said. “We’re rehearsing all the time for the show on Holocaust Remembrance Day.” 

Jane Rachel Litman, interim rabbi at Or Shalom while Rabbi Katie Mizrahi is on sabbatical, said Weinstein’s play “weaves together music, memories and historical data as a metaphor for the complex strands of thought that form contemporary understanding of the Holocaust.

“By juxtaposing flashbacks to the death squads of Eastern Europe with the stories about the inchoate trauma suffered by a generation of post-Holocaust American Jews,” she continued, Weinstein “underscores the role that history plays in the lives of ordinary people.”

What’s next for “Erased?” Weionstein would like to perform the play on Sept. 29 and 30 to mark the 75th anniversary of the massacre. “I want everyone to know about Babi Yar,” he said. “I may just have to rent a hall and invite people.”

“Erased: Babi Yar, the SS and Me” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5 at Or Shalom Jewish Community, 625 Brotherhood Way, S.F. Free. (415) 469-5564

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.