By Lewis Gardner
As it grew dark that evening, a young woman walked out of the ghetto of Lodz, Poland, where the Jewish population of the city had been confined after the Nazi invasion in 1939.
A guard stopped her. She swore at him in Polish and complained that he was delaying her return home after a long day of cleaning houses.
He let her pass. She trudged on, holding her bundle of cleaning rags close to her chest.
The woman was Sophie Salzer, a Jewish resident of Lodz, making her escape from the ghetto. Hidden in the bundle of rags was her baby, Yadwiga. The baby would grow up to be June Prager—director for the stage and resident of Poughkeepsie.
It was only the beginning of a perilous journey. Sophie and Yadwiga made it across Poland to Russia—walking and getting rides when possible, with jewelry and money for bribes, with brave people hiding them—one night in a Church. June’s father, Morris, weeks earlier had left the family’s Lodz apartment to meet some friends on the street. As they stood talking, several German soldiers approached and, without warning, started shooting at the group of Jewish men. Satisfied that the men were dead, the soldiers walked on.
Morris had fallen to the street when the shooting started. The others, all dead, were on top of him. He stayed motionless until it was safe to crawl out and hurry home.
Sophie convinced him to escape from Lodz and try to reach Russia. He would leave that night and she would follow when she could.
It took months for Sophie and Yadwiga to reach Russia. There they were thrown in jail, since Sophie might be a spy. Convincing the Russians that she was just looking for her husband, they were released and—one more miracle—she found him.
Since Morris was a medical student before the occupation, the Russian army had accepted him as a medic. He had managed to stay close to the Polish border so Sophie would be able to find him.
The rest of the war years were spent on a farm. June remembers digging up potatoes to eat. After the war, the family spent five years in camps for displaced persons in the U.S.-occupied zone in Germany. Finally an American uncle sponsored their immigration to the U.S., promising Sophie a job in his factory in Paterson, New Jersey.
June’s sister, Sheila, was born in Paterson. Sophie worked as a teacher and a cosmetician; Morris eventually found work as a salesman for a drug company.
June earned degrees from Rutgers and taught high school in a number of New Jersey districts. She married and had a son, Todd, who has been involved in the art of Tai Chi for over 20 years and teaches in South Florida.
Meanwhile, she acted and directed in community theatre and decided to study in New York City. She had private coaching with Dustin Hoffman—before his break-through performance in The Graduate—and she studied directing with the legendary Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
Besides directing plays at a number of NYC theaters, she served as artistic director for several theatres in New York and Philadelphia. Most recently, in 2010 she assumed leadership of Mirage Theatre Company, which from its founding in 1988 has presented new and classic plays in and around New York City. Its latest production is Distant Survivors, based on Holocaust poetry by William Heyen.
Although June grew up knowing about her family’s loss of their homeland and most of their European relatives, she only recently found herself ready to confront the Holocaust through a theatrical project. She worked on a collaboration with a Polish theater company and then discovered Heyen’s poetry.
Heyen, an award-winning poet and a longtime faculty member at SUNY colleges, wrote several books of poems based on his research about the Holocaust and on his own family history. His parents immigrated to New York State before World War II; his uncles, SS soldiers stayed in Germany and died in the war.
The poems present the perspective of a non-Jew trying to understand what happened, asking himself what he would have done if his parents had stayed in Germany and he had been born there. Would he have helped the victims? Would he have ignored what was happening?
Prager says, “I think Heyen was looking for some redemption to offset the evil done by his people. I think more people should do that, to accept responsibility.”
Heyen gave Prager permission to work on an adaptation of his poems as a work for the stage. They communicated by letter and email, and he came to one of the early performances. Prager says, “He was very pleased with what we had done.”
The work is staged with five actors: a man on a quest for answers while visiting Germany; a Nazi soldier; and three survivors of concentration camps.
I should point out that I have been part of the Distant Survivors cast since the first performance. The other actors and I have discussed how difficult it is to perform the play. The material is detailed and graphic in its depiction of the people who endured and survived, and those who did not. But we feel it is important to bear witness to the worst in human nature, both in the past and—by implication—in our own time.
This is the best that theater can accomplish—beginning in artists’ memory and imagination, and involving an audience profoundly in a confrontation with the truth.
Mirage Theatre Company will present Distant Survivors on a tour of the Hudson Valley this spring. “We hope to present it in New York City in the autumn,” Prager says.
To see a video clip of Distant Survivors and to read more, including how to book a performance, check the Mirage website at www.miragetheatrecompany.org or phone (347) 668-7666.