I recently had a unique, rich and rewarding experience. I wrote and helped put together a multimedia theatrical production about a horrific pogrom in 1919 that wiped out over half of the 1200 inhabitants of a Ukrainian town called Felshtin. We performed it on April 14, 2019, in New York City to a very appreciative audience. Let me describe the long road that led to that wonderful afternoon.
I’ve been working for over a year on this project for my audio theater group, Voicescapes Audio Theater. Usually, Tom and I write a short script, either comedy or drama, and then we edit it, cast it and rehearse it. Recorded sound effects and music are added and in a few months, we have a new piece in our repertoire.
This time we were commissioned to write an hour-long dramatic presentation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1919 pogrom. A pogrom is an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, usually Jews in eastern Europe and Russia. However, the word massacre is too polite and sanitary to convey the havoc, destruction, brutality, and butchery visited on the towns subjected to pogroms.
Script for the show
The group that hired us, The Felshtin Society, is an American organization made up of descendants of people who lived in Felshtin throughout its history (it disappeared after World War II). Many of these descendants are related to survivors of the 1919 pogrom so this piece would have personal meaning for them.
In 1937, the society got many of the survivors to write personal accounts of their and their family’s experiences in the pogrom. These stories were turned into a book in Yiddish, Russian and other local dialects. This was translated into English painstakingly, over nineteen years.
My script was based on the survivor’s words in this book.
Handout at the performance
There were the stories of people who hid in attics and basements, pigsties. and haystacks to avoid the clutches of the Russian marauders. Many Felshtiners escaped into the neighboring fields where they huddled together for days, freezing and starving, without shoes or coats. Many were lucky and could bribe the Russian soldiers to let them live. But many more witnessed family members and friends being tortured and sadistically butchered.
Even the survivors were shells of their former selves when this nightmare was over.
In the book, the survivors wrote about the thriving town that existed before 1919, including a synagogue with a treasury of rare books and a rabbi who attracted scholars from all over the region. The survivors then talked about the husk of a town that limped back into a meager existence after the pogrom.
There were organized efforts, locally and in the United States, to raise money, food. and clothing for the bereft, impoverished and frequently homeless inhabitants. Money also went to establishing an orphanage for the more than 50 orphans in the town.
Photo of Felshtin Rabbi projected behind actors rehearsing
The Felshtin Relief Committee was the American organization founded to help the town recover. It was a subcommittee of the Felshtin Society. This committee managed to help numerous survivors emigrate to other countries, especially to America, where relatives welcomed them. This was fortunate because the people left in Felshtin in 1941 were wiped out by the Nazis.
I spent several months reading through these searing and heart-rending accounts. This was difficult and depressing for me. I had to then turn these random stories into a short, theatrical script.
I picked out the most well-written and poignant accounts. I put these segments into an order which would make them roughly chronological.
I divided the script into sections like “Before the Pogrom,” “Accounts of the Pogrom,” and “Aftermath of the Pogrom.” This last section included burying hundreds of bodies, treatment of the wounded, feeding the starving population. and rehabilitating the town and people.
Sande and Robin working on the script with me.
The Pogrom section was further divided into the different types of experiences people had. One group was about those who hid in the fields or town, those who went to local gentiles for help, those who successfully bribed their tormentors, and those who lived through grenades or fires set throughout the town.
To tie everything together, I added narration to the words of the survivors.
My original script was two hours long, but we were limited to one hour. I had to cut the script in half. This was painful. I had grown attached to the people and the stories I’d chosen.
It was heartbreaking to edit them down and in some cases, to cut them entirely. I went through seven edits to finally get a tight, dramatic script. It was important to do these stories justice, to give them the emotional gravitas they deserved.
Tom said when he first read it that it took him days to shake the sense of horror and tragedy.
List of characters whose words we used in the script
Once we had a script, we hired a musician to compose music to accompany parts of the script, a Jewish man who was well versed in the Klezmer music of Ukraine. We hired a young, local violinist to play the music live on stage.
We usually record music for our pieces, but we felt a living musician would add a level of intimacy and intensity to the piece. We also recorded sound effects to use when needed.
Fitting the music into the script with the violinist at Sande’s house in NYC
We collected photos from before and after the Felshtin pogrom. We found photos of memorials to the pogrom and created a power point presentation to be projected on a large screen behind the actors on stage.
The melding of actors, sound effects, violinist and photos created a powerful piece of theater.
It took a lot of time and effort to coördinate these elements into a cohesive whole. We rehearsed each element separately, then together. I was worried that with so many moving parts, we wouldn’t have enough time to seamlessly pull everything together.
I was wrong.
Rehearsal at the venue
Rehearsal at the venue
Violinist rehearsing at the venue
working to pull things together at the venue
I was onstage for the performance, turning the pages of the script for the violinist so he could see when to play and pause. I’m usually in the audience for our performances so this was a new experience for me.
On the other hand, Tom is usually onstage acting for an ordinary Voicescapes show, but this time he was in the audience with the director. He ran the power point presentation as well as being in charge of the many technical aspects of the show. Tom and I switched places and it worked.
It was amazing to feel the positive energy on stage from the actors and the audience. You can actually feel the rapt attention and involvement of the audience.
From the audience perspective, Tom said this was a fantastic experience.
When we took our bows, I saw people getting up from their seats and assumed they were getting ready to leave. But, no!
They were giving us a standing ovation!
A hundred people were standing up and applauding for our show! It was exhilarating. Tom says the smile that spread across my face was priceless.
After the show, there was a wine and cheese reception which gave us the chance to mingle with the members of the audience. People came up to us and raved about our beautiful production and complimented us on how magnificently it was all put together.
We were told we had to perform this piece in other venues and that it should be seen by a wider audience.
The beautiful venue for the performance
Most moving, descendants of people we quoted told us how meaningful and emotional it was for them to hear their ancestor’s words in this context. This added another level to our experience of the afternoon.
The next day, we got an email from one of the pogrom descendants who was in the audience. What she wrote made us all so proud and happy. She said that in the pogrom, her family had to watch as her great-grandfather was slaughtered. She thanked us for the care, kindness, and talent with which we distilled and recreated what her ancestors had suffered. She said that we captured the hearts of the audience and that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. She went on to say that bringing the victims’ voices to life was a priceless gift and she thanked us for this gift.
Program for the Felshtin Society event
The 25-year-old violinist said that he was honored to be part of our production. This job was special to him because it hit him in a really deep place. The technician from the Center for Jewish History, where we performed, said he was deeply moved by our show and was thrilled to be even a small part of our production.
All heady stuff! I went home floating on a cloud of praise and gratification. But mixed in with this elation was a sense of sadness and loss.
Felshtin had been part of my life for over a year and I would miss it. The last few months were filled with feverish work, including rehearsals, meetings, and endless phone calls. The camaraderie was invaluable and I will miss being part of such a significant enterprise. Everyday life will seem a bit more ordinary.
It will be a long time before I have something like this in my life again. But for now, thanks for the memories!