It’s rare to discover a work involving Holocaust survivors that resists depicting them as mere saints in favor of rich, complex human beings. Sarah Schulman’s new play “Enemies, A Love Story,” adapted from the 1966 novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, takes the chance of portraying characters with unresolved conflicts from the trauma they suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
The play opens in 1949 with Herman (Morgan Spector), still recently transplanted from Poland to New York, pacing around his apartment, while his wife Yadwiga (Kati Brazda) bustles about, happily performing housework. Herman is in a bit of a dilemma: Since his wife Tamar (Laura Flanagan) was shot in a concentration camp, he’s remarried and tried to move on with his life. Yadwiga, a Catholic girl who was Herman and Tamar’s maid in Poland, helped Herman escape the Nazis by hiding him in her father’s hayloft. Because of this, Herman feels compelled to stay with her out of loyalty and gratitude.
However, Herman already has another lover down the street: Masha (Elizabeth Rich), another Holocaust survivor who also lost her spouse to the Nazis and who lives in a tiny apartment with her mother while she waitresses on the side. Since she is also Jewish, Masha constantly pressures Herman to leave Yadwiga and marry her in the traditional Jewish way. However, when the Rabbi (Tom Teti) from Herman’s hometown in Poland reveals that Tamar is indeed alive – and reunites her and Herman in his apartment in the Bronx – things get a little too complicated for Herman.
“Enemies” doesn’t pose easy questions, nor does it give easy answers. Its main character, Herman, is constantly trying to decide between abandoning his Jewish upbringing and retreating into his religion to find spiritual enlightenment. Throughout the play, Herman questions how there can be a God after everything that has happened to him and his people. Ironically, when cavorting with his Jewish mistress Masha, Herman renounces God, as if there were no need for Him in times of happiness. Only when he resolves to stay with Yadwiga does he dive back into fervent Judaism.
Schulman makes it clear that Herman was not exactly a savory character before the Holocaust, nor was he transformed into a saint by its passing. His various love interests aren’t exactly saintly figures, either.
Yadwiga is desperate for any man who will take her, and Masha uses her sexual charms to win material favors from her various men. Playwright Sarah Schulman found Singer’s portrayal of often-conflicted post-Holocaust Jews like these refreshing and true to her own experiences as a Jew growing up on New York’s Lower East Side.
“I grew up surrounded by people with numbers on their arms, and went to high school with plenty of kids whose parents were survivors,” said Schulman during a post-show interview. “Enemies” ironically depicts human beings who are not heroic, not enlightened, struggling to cope with inexplicable experiences. As a result, the work is edgy, unpredictable and – most importantly – deeply funny.
“Enemies” isn’t just funny for its own sake, though. Along with the unexpectedly brash dialogue, any humor in the play is there to remind us how ordinary people, put through extraordinary circumstances, struggle to cope with the magnitude of a tragedy like the Holocaust.
This is a serious work, with important questions about what happens when an entire people fails to gain justice for the trauma they’ve felt. “Enemies, A Love Story” is an important new play that will force audiences to reconsider Holocaust survivors as complex human beings, not merely simple victims.
Ben Young can be reached at email@example.com.
If you go:
“Enemies, a Love Story”
Through March 11
The Wilma Theater
265 S. Broad St. (Broad and Spruce)
$35-$50, with $10 student rush tickets available the day of performances and half-price general rush tickets available 30 minutes before performances, both subject to availability.