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“He who saves one life…”?

Updated: Jul 5


Conversation after the reading. Phot. Z. Laskowski


It is to the Kościuszko Foundation great credit that it hosted a performance-reading of the play Zagłada by Richard Vetere. It is an intimate drama, set in contemporary times, that spans over barely 36 hours and takes place at a NY police precinct.

Vetere’s new play focuses attention on interactions between four characters: Danielle Hooper, an African-American journalist and writer (the part read at the KF by Jennean Farmer); Frank Napoli, a Supervising Officer in the 112th Precinct in Queens (Lou Martini Jr.); Sonia Sokolov, Field Officer of the Department of Homeland Security (Maja Wampuszyc); and Jerzy Kozlowski, an old man of Polish extraction, resident of Maspeth (Jon Avner). The sporadic stage directions were read by Izabela Laskowska, sitting to the side. Rick Baitz composed the unobtrusive musical interludes between the scenes.

The action of the play is set off by a dramatic incident: this very morning Danielle Hooper was shot at by a 90 year old pensioner who, when confronted by a Black woman at his door, used his ancient revolver but luckily missed the target. Hooper appears at the Precinct, where Kozlowski is being held. Instead of pressing charges, however, she insists on having a chance to ask him some questions. Those questions were the reason for her earlier visit at Kozlowski's residence. Soon after, Sonia Sokolov arrives, representing the DHS, to arraign Kozlowski on charges of crimes against humanity. It turns out that Kozlowski, who came to the United States as a refugee in 1946, is a former kapo (a guard recruited from among prisoners to enforce the SS rules) at the Buchenwald, one of the worst German concentration camps.


At the stage reading Lou Martini Jr. (Officer Napoli), Jennean Farmer (Danielle Hooper) & Jon Avner (Jerzy Kozlowski). Phot. Z. Laskowski

Hooper, a Columbia University graduate, is gathering materials for a book on the subject of incarceration of African-Americans. She wants to draw parallels between experiences of incarcerated Blacks in the US prisons and concentration camp inmates, but she also seeks to comprehend how the prisoner who arrives at the camp as a victim of German cruelty can become a sadistic guard and, consequently, a war criminal. Hooper reveals herself – apart of the somewhat naïve premise, equating the victims of slavery to the victims of the Holocaust (an analogy quite frequently drawn nowadays by the progressives of the American Left ) – as the urbane, well-educated journalist, who becomes an almost indispensable help to Officer Napoli.

Napoli is a typical, old-fashioned New York cop: smart, world-weary and no-nonsense, unwilling to display even a trace of political correctness. On the other hand, he possesses only a scant knowledge of the Holocaust horrors. Initially, he is very reluctant to allow her take part in the questioning of Kozlowski, but soon finds in pesky Hooper an unexpected and appreciated assistant.

By contrast, Sonia Sokolov, a Homeland Security officer, acts in an unbending, almost obsessive manner. She is desperate because she knows that she has only forty-eight hours to charge Kozlowski before he finds himself in the hands of Officer Napoli, who might charge him with the easily dismissible felony. An unusual battle of wills develops as Sokolov demands total power in conducting the interrogation. Her insistence is overwhelming and Napoli, after consultation with his superiors, allows her to take over the inquiry.

As the play unfolds, we learn that the paths of Hooper and Sokolov had previously crossed. The connecting link was the recently deceased professor Elliot Kramer. He was Hooper’s mentor at Columbia University and, as a Holocaust survivor, a well-known authority to Sokolov. The two women learned of Kozlowski’s existence thanks to Prof. Kramer’s efforts in hunting down the former Nazi criminals hiding abroad as well as in the US.

From the very first words, Jon Avner, an actor with broad stage experience, creates a deeply affecting, disturbing character. Jerzy Kozlowski is old, sick, cantankerous, and uncooperative. Initially he refuses to talk at all or speaks only in “Russian,” as Napoli believes. His first words in English are barked or growled; his sentences limited to the present tense. As the interrogation continues, he shows more command of the English language and by the end, his pronouncements become quite forceful. Avner magnificently portrays this unrepentant dying man convinced of his innocence; his oft-repeated line is “I didn’t kill one Jew!”

Each of the three characters has a different reason to pursue Kozlowski. For Napoli, whose job is usually focused on local terrorist activities, often of Islamic nature, Kozlowski is just another perpetrator, and in this case, the perpetrator of little danger to the public since – diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer – he has only a few weeks to live. For Hooper, Kozlowski offers a chance to fulfill the promise she gave to Prof. Kramer that she would carry on his work. For Sokolov, as we find out, Kozlowski is a particularly charged, high-value object of interest. Sokolov insists that she seeks justice and wants to see Kozlowski tried before an international tribunal as a war criminal. Unlike the journalist, who searches to understand both sides of the story, Sokolov has one mission, and that is to prove his guilt, to find a former Buchenwald prisoner, who would corroborate her conviction that Kozlowski was not only a kapo, but someone responsible for the death of other prisoners.

In the compact, fast-moving play, the tension is building up to the crescendo that ends with Sokolov’s self-immolation. At first, in the contentious confrontation with Hooper, we observe her highly unethical behavior and almost pathological zeal, not unlike that of Komsomol members who – in the name of a “just cause” – readily denounced their parents, siblings or friends. Finally, in the highly charged scene with Kozlowski, we learn the reason why Sokolov seeks his blood with such relentless determination. In Buchenwald, he was responsible for the camp’s brothel, where a prisoner Alina was raped daily. As many other sex-slaves, she was Jewish, but with Slavic features. It should come as no surprise at this point that Alina was Sokolov’s mother.

Kozlowski, an ethnic Pole, not only knew Alina before the war but was in love with her. In the course of mostly brutal unrelenting interrogation, Kozlowski admits that he had done everything in his power to save Alina’s life. As implausible as it may sound, it was his idea to place her in the camp brothel, where as a blonde, Aryan-looking woman she might have a better chance to survive. And then, to keep Alina alive, he was prepared to send other female prisoners to their death: the ill, the weak, perhaps the less attractive, anyone but Alina, whom he tried to protect.

Vetere adds one more emotional twist to the drama. Among the prisoners in the male section of the camp, there was another Pole, Janek, Kozlowski’s close friend who, before they were arrested by the Germans, was in a romantic relationship with Alina. He also desired Alina’s survival and appealed to Kozlowski for help. Janek, like Alina, survived the war, and later on became Sokolov’s father.


In the earlier section of the play, when Sokolov and Hooper discuss how it was possible to survive the camp, the journalist quotes her mentor:

[Kramer] told me he survived by never looking at anyone directly. He never made eye contact with anyone. When he saw a poor soul being tortured, he looked at something else. When he saw people being slaughtered, he looked away. He kept his mind blank.

Sokolov answers, I imagine that was what my father did.

There was one more person from whom I heard those exact same words: my mother. On a rare occasion, she’d describe the horrors of the camp. Both my mother and my father were concentration camp survivors. My father’s brother perished at Buchenwald. Almost everyone else, from both sides of my family, perished in Treblinka. Hence for my personal interest in this play.


It's particularly interesting to see Napoli’s reaction, as he finally learns Kozlowski’s story. His words resonate with irrefutable truth:

lf a man with a gun came into a room where I was with my wife and several other people, strangers, and he asked me to pick someone for him to shoot or he would kill my wife, I know what I would do. I would not hesitate to pick out a stranger so my wife could live. I don't know a living human being who would not do the same thing.


In the last segment of the play, some utterances by Kozlowski sound enormously powerful and authentic. When asked to explain why he survived, Kozlowski answers that God wanted him to live. And then, Vetere puts in Kozlowski’s mouth a declaration that almost any survivor of the Holocaust must have uttered: The only thing I do know about God is that he was not at Buchenwald. Or Auschwitz. Or Treblinka.

When pressed to sign a confession, Kozlowski shows an even stronger lack of atonement:

You want me to confess?! I understand. But hear this now: I confess when God confesses. When he tells us why he allowed what happened to happen, then I will say that to you: Tell me where to sign my name. But I want God's name to go beside my name.


Thus, on many levels the play leaves us with more questions than answers. And the answers seem elusive. For we do not know what we would do, if confronted with a life-and-death (mostly death) situation. We do not know for sure what turns a person into a cruel kapo. We do not know for sure what it takes for human beings to descend into the abyss that would force them – for an extra portion of food – to rattle on other prisoners… (In 1991, how much time did it take for the former neighbors in the Balkans to stop drinking together and to start killing each other mercilessly?)


Lou Martini Jr. (Officer Napoli), Maja Wampuszyc (Sonia Sokolov), Jon Avner (Jerzy Kozlowski) & Iza Laskowska (stage directions).Phot. Z. Laskowski

A few words about the reading itself that took place at the KF on February 10. There was not a single weak link among the performers gathered by Richard Vetere, an experienced playwright, poet and author of several novels (one of them The Third Miracle was adapted as a movie, directed by Agnieszka Holland) and Alice Jankell, the director and his frequent collaborator. I have already mentioned the excellent portrayal of Jerzy Kozlowski by Jon Avner. Equally convincing was Lou Martini Jr., who inhabited the role of the Italian cop to a tee: brusque, rough, and down-to-earth. In a relatively small but important role, Jennean Farmer presented skillfully the New York journalist as an amiable rather than confrontational person.

Maja Wampuszyc excelled in the play’s most disagreeable role. Sonia Sokolov gathers our aversion for her abuse of authority, a lack of mercy, and vengeance-driven aggressiveness. Wampuszyc was very convincing in her cold-blooded depiction of this antagonizing character, who ostensibly performs her government duties, but in fact is pursuing a personal vendetta. She allowed herself a moment of tenderness only when she referred in Polish to her adored father. In the last scene, Kozlowski and Sokolov recall Alina, whom Kozlowski saved from perishing. Years after the war, barely two months after giving birth to Sonia, Alina commits suicide. After Primo Levi’s suicide, Elie Wiesel commented: Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later. It seems that the same statement might be applicable not only to Alina but to her still living daughter. The war left Alina, as many other survivors, bereft of hope: now, her unmarried, childless daughter seems to be shadowed by a similar despair.

The team of talented actors did justice to this valuable, if not flawless play, which invites discussion on the difficult subject of guilt, redemption, justice and forgiveness. Its main protagonist Kozlowski, who seems repulsive at first, in the end might have proven an often forgotten concept, that even the scoundrel can sometimes rise to the position of a rescuer. Whether the Talmudic principle Pikuach nefesh, which states: “he who saves one life saves the world.” applies in the case of Kozlowski, remains yet another open question.


poster design by Małgorzata Kozłowska

 

This is an abbreviated version of the longer article presented to the Kosciuszko Foundation. Here, we focused on the review of the play itself. GD

 

Roman Markowicz is a Polish born pianist who has been a New York resident for nearly half a century. Graduate of Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard, he performed throughout the Eastern United States and in Europe. Active for three decades as a music reviewer for Nowy Dziennik and Kurier Plus (New York), and Ruch Muzyczny (Warsaw). He is currently a contributor of the French classical music website: Concertonet.com.


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