Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Arts & Culture ‘vibrant’ Life in Warsaw Ghetto Prompts Musical on Ghetto Uprising

February 24, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The song is titled “The Sewing Song,” and it rhythmically echoes the pace of a spinning wheel.

It’s a simple melody that captures a complex topic: the day-to-day struggle of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The song is sung by Mona and her mother, the lead characters in a new musical about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April 1943.

Two young composers, Daniel Levin and Jonathan Portera, wrote “To Paint the Earth,” which follows several fictional people involved in the uprising — the most famous rebellion of Jews against the Nazis during WWII.

Levin wrote the script and the song texts for the play; Portera wrote the music much of which is modern, but based on classical music from the Holocaust era.

Although several plays have brought Holocaust themes to the stage, it’s jarring to consider a musical about the subject.

But Levin said, “musicals, when they’re done well” can “get across the feelings in a way that regular plays can’t.”

Levin and Portera, both graduates of New York University’s Tisch School for the Performing Arts, chose music as a vehicle to tell their story because songs can lead the audience “to a more emotional, and a deeper place,” Levin said.

“Music is more abstract” and can express feelings “that can never be achieved by just a dialogue or just a monologue,” he said.

The story focuses on the young people involved in planning the uprising.

The female lead, Mona, is a 17-year-old member of the Jewish underground. Levin created her character after discovering the testimony of Vladka Meed in Steven Spielberg’s archives of interviews with survivors.

Meed was a runner for the underground, smuggling information about what was happening in other parts of Poland to and from the Warsaw Ghetto. Because of her light features and fluency in Polish, she could leave the ghetto in the morning with a work card and then escape from work detail during the day, taking on another identity.

Using false papers given to her by a woman on the outside who had lost her own daughter, Meed changed her name from Fegala to Vladka and became essentially “a double agent” for the Jewish resistance, Levin said.

As “I watched her testimony,” he said, “she reminded me of Anne Frank. She wasn’t cynical, she hadn’t given up on humanity. She believed that she had to fight.”

Levin believed her courage would resonate with audiences; she was “so focused on life.”

“I’ve seen a lot of Holocaust pieces that are very gut-wrenching and beautiful,” Portera said. However, the characters’ “strength of spirit is usually connected to the stamina of how they made it through.” It is rare to see a story told “of people that fought back,” he said.

As one of two Tisch graduate pieces selected this year for a Daryl Roth fellowship, there will be a staged reading of “To Paint the Earth” in New York on March 20.

Roth is a well-known Broadway producer who has worked on recent Broadway plays such as “Proof” and “The Goat.” Every year she selects the most promising musicals and sponsors a reading to introduce the new material to industry professionals.

After the spring reading, the play will head to Florida this summer for another reading at the American Stage in St. Petersburg, sponsored by the Florida Holocaust Museum.

What inspired the musical was the vibrant subculture that emerged out of the tedium and poverty of ghetto life.

The community “tried to keep on living under these conditions. There were secret schools” and “there were housing blocks that organized activities” and dynamic youth movements, which existed before the war and “kept the pot simmering” within the oppressive confines of the ghetto, Levin said.

That the uprising was largely carried out by these ghetto youth movements resonated with Levin, 27, and Portera, 24.

The main resistance leader of the resistance fighters in the ghetto was Mordechai Anielewicz. He was only 23 at the time. In the play, he is portrayed by a supporting character named Maier.

Like Maier and Mona, many of the characters have historical counterparts.

Chaim, the male lead, is a 23-year-old painter loosely based on a survivor, Michael Smuss. Smuss is now an artist living in Israel; he has a collection of paintings housed in the Florida Holocaust Museum.

These young agitators are set up in opposition to the older, religious community in the ghetto, represented by a rabbi who discourages the uprising. The rabbi sings a ballad about the importance of passing on heritage.

For this song, Portera drew on Jewish liturgical music.

Portera, who is Catholic, had some reservations about taking on the subject of the Holocaust and Jewish themes.

“I was very worried about being a non-Jewish person writing Jewish music. I’ve been really cautious; I don’t want to sound like someone who is trying to infuse themselves in the culture.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” has already been written, and it’s very traditional,” says Portera, “I think what’s more important is that the music is timeless.”

Recommended from JTA