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With antisemitism on the rise, this new play tells an urgent story about determination

by Charles Paolino

As Emily Mann’s new play "The Pianist" was in rehearsal at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Pope Francis beatified the Ulmas, a Polish family murdered by the Nazis for sheltering Jews during World War II.

These events occurred during a surge in anti-Semitism that is on the minds of Mann and Daniel Donskoy, who plays Wladyslaw Szpilman, the principal character in "The Pianist," running Tuesday, Sept. 26, to Sunday, Oct. 22.

Mann — who for two decades was artistic director and playwright-in-residence at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton — also directs this production. She adapted the play from the memoir of Szpilman, a pianist and classical composer who, with his parents and three siblings, was confined in 1940 to the ghetto the Nazis created to isolate Jews in Warsaw. In 1942, most of the family were murdered at Treblinka, an extermination camp in Poland.

Szpilman, however, thanks to an acquaintance, avoided transfer to the camp. He remained in the ghetto, doing heavy labor but also assisting in the buildup to an ill-fated uprising. He then spent two years moving from one hiding place to another, helped by friends and contacts.

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The cast of "The Pianist," which begins performances at George Street Playhouse on Tuesday, Sept. 26. Corinne Antonelli 

Eventually, Szpilman was discovered in an abandoned house by a German officer who was ashamed of his country. He asked Szpilman to play a piano in the house, gave him a coat, and brought him food. Szpilman emerged from that house in 1945 when the Germans abandoned Warsaw. After a long musical career in Poland, he died in 1988.

Donskoy, who plays the piano in the play, said music was one element that attracted him to this role.

“It amazed me when reading the memoir,” Donskoy said before a morning rehearsal, “that, after having your entire family killed, you’re still able to smile, to love, to be married, to feel like a human being after seeing all that death.

"But music kept him going, and music was a throughline," he continued. "For me, music has always been that. My grandma, who lives in Berlin, was my first piano teacher, and she helped me prepare for this role.”

Mann is a great fan of the Academy Award-winning 2002 film "The Pianist, but the play is based on the memoir, she said.

The subject is a part of her “personal makeup,” she added: Mann is the descendant of Polish Jews who were lost during the German occupation.

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Director Emily Mann and Daniel Donskoy run through rehearsal notes for "The Pianist." Mann adapted the play for George Street Playhouse from the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman. Corinne Antonelli

So when Broadway producers suggested that Mann adapt Szpilman’s story, she visited Poland.

“I found my great-grandmother’s grave,” she said, “but no others after her. They were all killed and probably buried in mass graves.”

Mann decided to tell this story to honor the memory of her family — and it has become more urgent as anti-Semitism and racism flourish in the United States and around the world.

The Nazis, Mann added, were enabled by the sluggish response from other nations, and that was partly because others failed to grasp Germany’s goal.

“No one could imagine what the bigger plan was,” Mann said. “It was just an impossibility that the Germans would massacre millions and millions of Jews.”

That included some of the Polish Jews themselves — including Szpilman’s father, as portrayed in this play — who couldn’t believe rumors of mass extermination and expected to be rescued.

“‘The Allies will come and save us as they did in World War I,’ ” Mann said, paraphrasing the doomed Jews. “But they didn’t come until it was too late, which is a lesson of this play. You have to move decisively to stop monsters in power.”

Mann noted that the Nazis didn’t act alone. Many Poles helped in the persecution. This illustrates the issue of identity that often confronts Jews, Donskoy said. As the play portrays, the Szpilman family was not fearful as Jews when the Nazis invaded in 1939.

“They were Polish,” Donskoy said, “and their country was invaded by an enemy. But very quickly that turned, and they weren’t Poles anymore because the Polish people turned on the Jews as well.”

This was another factor that drew Donskoy to the role, “that experience of always being kind of part of society but also on the outskirts.

"I was born in Russia," he continued. "I grew up in Germany, and then we moved to Israel, and I moved to London. I was an immigrant most of my life. So, you’re part of the group, but you’re also not, and that’s a very Jewish perspective.”

Antisemitism predates the Nazis and flows from canards about such things as Jews killing Jesus and controlling world banks and the media. Hatred toward Jews, Mann said, often surfaces in response to envy and the need for a scapegoat.

“In Germany,” she said, “there were only about 500,000 Jews when Hitler started this atrocity, but 50 percent of the lawyers, doctors, academics and great musicians were Jews.

“After World War I, when the economy crashed, people said, ‘Look at them. It’s because of them that we’re starving. They did something wrong to get where they are. They’re feeding off of us. Why is my life so bad? Oh, it’s because of them.”

Still, there were heroes, such as those who helped Szpilman, including the family who were beatified in September and now are candidates for canonization.

In 1944, Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma sheltered eight Jews in the village of Markowa. If the Germans discovered such a situation, they executed the Jews and the entire family that had harbored them. In this case, that meant Josef, the pregnant Wiktoria, and their six children, ages 18 months to 6.

“Szpilman could not have survived if not for his Polish friends,” Mann said. “They put their lives on the line to save as many as they could. They have to be applauded for their courage.”

The actions of those heroes should be more astounding than the actions of Nazis and their collaborators, Donskoy said.

“Risking your life every day to protect people because you love them should be more understandable than wanting to kill them.”

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