‘Surviving Hitler’ Takes the Stage

Andrea Warren has now written a play based on her 2001 book. (Photo by Jim Barcus)

Andrea Warren turns her book about Holocaust survivor Jack Mandelbaum into a play

Warren’s “Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps,” tells the harrowing and inspiring story of how a Polish boy from an upper middle-class family was swept up into World War II.

Andrea Warren in her 2001 book for young readers, “Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps,” told the harrowing and inspiring story of how a Polish boy from an upper middle-class family was swept up into World War II. Young Janek Mandelbaum lived an idyllic boy’s life in the port city of Gdynia, where his father owned a successful cannery. But when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, everything changed. Janek survived a succession of concentration camps through wit, grit and luck, but would forever mourn the loss of his mother and brother, who lost their lives.

Janek (who after the war adopted the anglicized version of his name, Jack, and relocated in Kansas City), was sent to five concentration camps during the war. In each case he found ways to work, to make himself useful. Those who were sick or weak were killed. The others survived on thin, foul-smelling soup — until Jack and one of his camp companions got a dream job as camp cooks. When the war ended, there was no announcement. But one morning the German guards were gone. The former prisoners were on their own. 

Warren has now written a play based on her book. The stage show will receive its world premiere at the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. That’s a fitting place for it to be staged, because Mandelbaum was a co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, which is also housed at the JCC. 

“I had never been a student of the Holocaust like some people are,” Warren said. “I just basically felt so horrified by the whole thing that I kept my distance from it.”

But after attending a conference for teachers and speakers, where she sat on a panel to discuss the difficulties of teaching the Holocaust, her attitude changed. 

“I took it on as a challenge,” Warren said. 

She visited the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and began doing research. That’s where she came across Jack Mandelbaum’s video-recorded testimony and an accompanying transcript. Mandelbaum is one of 93 survivors whose testimonies are available on the center’s website at MCHEKC.org.

“I checked out those interviews and right away homed in on Jack Mandelbaum,” Warren said. “I got him at a good time. He was in his mid-70s and said if I’d come up with this request earlier, he would have said no.”

So she got to work, interviewing Mandelbaum from 10 a.m. to noon every Friday. The result was an award-winning book. But despite a formidable career as an author, Warren had never written a play. 

“Well, it wasn’t my idea,” she said. It was suggested by Keith Wiedenkeller, director of arts and culture at JCC. 

“He said there was real interest in bringing ‘Surviving Hitler’ to the stage,” she said. “He said one of the ideas they had tossed around was finding a playwright. So I talked to my agent and she talked about the difficulty of having someone else adapt an existing book.”

Ultimately, she decided to give it a go in a sort of learn-by-doing exercise. She said she developed the concept for a stage version through a series of conversations with Tim Bair, who would be directing. Bair is the producing artistic director of Theatre in the Park in Johnson County. 

“It was Tim’s idea to put a frame around the play and have us meet Jack when he was the age he was when he and I were working on the book,” Warren said. “The way I originally constructed it, I had Jack at three different ages during the play. But now we’re introducing a much older Jack, introduced with the opening of the Midwest Center.”

“I was hoping this play could be ultimately marketed to schools, where middle school and high school drama departments could take it on,” she said. Jack’s story is inspiring, but the material also addresses broader pertinent issues. 

“The threat, the suggestion of fascism in our own country, really bothers people,” Warren said. “There are things we need to be taking a very hard look at. If we look at the way things started in 1935 and the invasion of Poland in 1939, by then it was too late. Americans think it couldn’t really happen here.”

Jack Mandelbaum is one of 93 survivors whose testimonies are available on the center’s website at MCHEKC.org. (Midwest Center for Holocaust Education)

The price of freedom

But to tell Jack’s whole story, surviving a succession of camps, would be a challenge. There could be as many as 50 roles, from Jack and his family to prisoners and Nazis to German guards, in a story spanning the war. 

Bair said his goal was to get it to a manageable length without sacrificing the most important aspects of Jack’s story. He said the principal question was: “How can we trim this down and not use the cast of ‘Ben-Hur.’”

As it is, most actors will be playing multiple roles. The result will be a 90-minute performance with no intermission.

“I think this will not be the last incarnation of the show,” Bair said. “I think there’s enough story there to flesh out and become a two-act play. I think it will have a life beyond this and probably grow.”

Bair said the material calls out for music. He could imagine a version of the show with a musical score that supports and enlivens the action. He said the show will be aimed at a general audience.

“I think the stage we’re in would be totally appropriate for kids, but I don’t think we’re focusing on that particular demographic,” Bair said. “It feels more adult to me, but it’s an hour and a half with very few laughs.”

Mandelbaum will turn 95 during the run, but he said he is unable to attend. He has made Naples, Florida, his home for 12 years.

“I’m pleased with the book,” he said. “Nothing is perfect with things like that, but when you do something like this you take poetic license and embroider it a little bit. But it wasn’t too much. I’ll tell you a little side story. I had a neighbor in Kansas City, a very nice man, and he said, ‘What kind of sports did you play in the concentration camps?’ And I said, ‘They were trying to kill me and I was trying to survive.’”

If you look at photos of Warsaw, Poland, just after World War II, you’ll see rows and rows of bombed out buildings, utterly destroyed, save for a standing wall or two with empty windows offering a glimpse of the sky. And that’s basically what swaths of Ukraine look like now, the result of Russian invaders bombarding the civilian population.

The alleged reason for the Russian attack was the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, according to Russian president Vladimir Putin, but to most rational observers the Russian military is playing the role of Nazis as it executes a campaign of indiscriminate destruction an ironic twist compared to an earlier Red Army that performed valiantly as it pushed German invaders out of the Soviet homeland in World War II.

Mandelbaum believes World War II and the current war in Ukraine are two different things, despite certain similarities. 

“There’s no connection with that, but war is a horrible thing because you see people who have built all their lives to have a good life and somebody comes and destroys it all,” Mandelbaum said. “Now it’s going to take several generations to rebuild it. And, of course, the people who died can never come back.”

Founding the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education had a clear purpose. 

“The number one reason was we wanted to educate people about what happened,” he said. “We were witnesses. And I felt people should be informed, not necessarily to feel sorry for us. But they should know the price of freedom. You know, students today, they don’t know too much. I used to go around the schools and churches in different cities because I felt people should know what happened firsthand and really appreciate what they have.”

Once the war in Ukraine ends, Mandelbaum suggested that there will always be other similar conflicts.

“It seems as always there’s a killer instinct in people. They are not satisfied with their own country and think they have to bomb some other country. That’s why Hitler was able to do what he did. He took women and children, including my brother and mother, and put them in a gas chamber. I was less than 10 seconds from going with them. (The guard) told them to go left and told me to go right.

“This is something you can never put in the past. You live with it every single day.”

“Surviving Hitler” runs April 9-14 at the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. For ticket information, visit www.thejkc.org/2021-22-season/surviving-hitler.

To read and hear the survival testimonies of Jack Mandelbaum and 92 other Holocaust survivors, visit the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education at mchekc.org.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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