YSam with Aya Nakashima, Rachel Cornejo, Laurel Schweidel, and Alana Goldberg, all cast members of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Photo: Courtesy of YMTC.
Sam Genirberg, a Holocaust survivor, with Aya Nakashima, Rachel Cornejo, Laurel Schweidel, and Alana Goldberg, all cast members of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: YMTC

By James Corr

What is Fiddler on the Roof? A charming love story (several love stories, really)? A family drama? A tale of religious/ethnic persecution?

To Jennifer Boesing, the director of the upcoming Youth Musical Theater Company’s production, it is all of these and much more. In her program notes, she says that it is “about the one constant in all of our lives: change. Resistance to change, despair about change, revolting for change, and celebration of change. It is about the necessary challenge of loss and rebirth. It is truly a celebration of what it means to be human.”

Celebrating what it means to be human met its greatest challenge of the 20th century in the years of the Holocaust. As part of the in-depth approach to theater that marks Boesing’s directorial style and that she encourages in her students, she invited Sam Genirberg, a Bay Area Holocaust survivor, to talk to the cast of 7th through 12th graders in the midst of their rehearsals Jan. 23 at their spiffy new rehearsal space on the southern end of Aquatic Park.

Genirberg, now 90 years’ old, told the amazing tale of hiding in plain view for three years under the noses of the Nazis. He was born in Dubno which is now in western Ukraine (Ukraine, it happens, is also the location of the shtetl of Anatkeva, the setting of Fiddler). Genirberg fled the ghetto just ahead of the massacre of almost all of the town’s 12,000 Jewish inhabitants by the SS, and made his way to, of all places, Nazi Germany, as part of a contingent of Eastern European youth rounded up for forced labor. Armed with false documents and passing himself off as a Gentile, he moved from job-to-job in constant fear of discovery. At the end of the war, having encountered not a single other Jew in his three years of subterfuge, he feared he might be the only Jew still alive in Europe. (A full account of his survival can be found in “Among the Enemy: Hiding in Plain Sight in Nazi Germany,” the memoir Genirberg published in 2012, available on Amazon.)

His young audience paid rapt attention to Genirberg’s story, seeing in it some parallels to Fiddler’s tale of Teyve and his family set in 1905 under the repressive rule of the Russian empire that encompassed all of Ukraine and Poland. A number of questions focused on the relations between Jews and Gentiles in Dubno. Genirberg said that the two communities, while interacting in commerce and other areas of everyday life, including public schools, led culturally separate existences.

YMTC, Sam Genirberg with cast member Will Gray who plays Perchik. Photo: James Corr
Sam Genirberg with cast member Will Gray, who plays Perchik. Photo: YMTC
Sam Genirberg with cast member Will Gray, who plays Perchik. Photo: YMTC

There were, he noted, differences within the Jewish community that are captured in the musical (which itself is based on a series of short stories by the Yiddish author Sholom Alecheim), such as those between the generations: the cohort of his parents and grandparents pretty much accepted the existence of anti-Semitism and discrimination that had been the Jewish experience for a thousand years, while the younger generation was passionately committed to changing that model of existence and were taken up with the idea that Jews needed a land of their own like other people. Many were active in the more than 20 Zionist organizations that flourished within Dubno and a large number of his peers emigrated to Palestine to pursue that dream.

Genirberg felt that Alecheim misrepresented some aspects of Jewish life in order to tell “a good story.” The conversion of Teyve’s youngest daughter, Chava, to Christianity in order to marry her lover was, Genirberg noted, a source of much criticism when the stories appeared because such an action was virtually unknown. He also said that at the time Fiddler is set (1905,  arranged marriages of the kind Teyve plans for his oldest daughter were already fading out. Picking up on that, Director Boesing noted this underscored a basic theme of the musical: the tension between those demanding, even welcoming change and those resisting it.

Speaking after Genirberg’s presentation, several students said that it had been fascinating and enlightening to hear about his experiences, not only the story of his escape and survival, but also about the simple aspects of daily life within the Jewish community, what they wore, the activities of teenagers and so on.

Asher Witkim is a 10th grader at the Oakland School for the Arts and plays the Rabbi. He said he had been especially intrigued by the differences and similarities between those experiences and the portrayal of shtetl life in “Fiddler.” For Shoshana Fendel, a Berkeley resident and 7th grader at Oakland Hebrew Day School who plays Teyve’s youngest daughter, Shprintze, the agony of having to abandon your mother and family, knowing they were almost certainly headed to death, was the most moving aspect of Genirberg’s story.

During his talk, Genirberg had said that he had argued vigorously with his mother to stay, but that she had finally persuaded him to leave with the words: “Would I feel better having you die with the rest of us, or knowing that you are still alive?”

The part of Teyve, the impoverished milkman and the show’s protagonist, is played by Ethan Ostrow, now an 11th grader at Berkeley High and last seen in YMTC’s production of South Pacific.

“I was impressed by the sheer audacity of the story of survival,” he said, “and I appreciated getting to meet Sam Genirberg in person.”

In relation to “Fiddler,” Ostrow felt that Genirberg’s account of living side by side with the Russian Orthodox community, without intense hatred but also without any serious intermingling, resonated with Teyve’s comment in Act I: “We don’t bother them, and, so far, they don’t bother us.”

Fiddler on the Roof runs Feb.20-March 1 at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater. Tickets are available at www.ymtcberkeley.org/tickets. For further information email: boxoffice@ymtcberkeley.org

Youth Musical Theater plans new West Berkeley home (3.3.14)

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

Guest contributor

Freelance writers with story pitches can email editors@berkeleyside.com.