Historical dramas still feel timely

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The trial has split the country in half. It fuels a debate in major newspapers, on the streets and in government offices. A military officer, father of two children, has been convicted of treason — on no evidence. He has been sentenced to life in prison.

Someone in his department has acted against the country, and he has taken the fall because his superiors do not like his religion. As outrage spreads, he stands at the center of a national debate about what his country is becoming.

The story feels deeply timely to Berkshire playwright Jesse Waldinger, even though he is talking about Alfred Dreyfus in France in 1894. Dreyfus was Jewish, and his trial made a deep divide visible in his country.

The tensions of that earthquake would run into the next century, through World War II and beyond.

Waldinger will take a close look in "Restoration: Anti-Semitism in France," an afternoon of staged readings of two of his plays and a panel conversation with Joyce Block Lazarus, author of "In the Shadow of Vichy: The Finaly Affair," and Suzanne Vromen, author of "Hidden Children of the Holocaust," at Temple Anshe Amunim on Sunday in collaboration with Knesset Israel.

Lora Lee Ecobelli, Andrew Joffe, Annette Miller and James Occhino will perform in "The Esterhazy Draft" and "The Finaly Affair."

The second play begins 60 years after Dreyfus, in the years after World War II. Moshe and Hedwig Rosner are looking for their nephews. The boys' mother and father were murdered in Auschwitz, and the boys have survived the war and the Holocaust in a Catholic school. But the woman who saved them is now fighting to keep them from their family, and they became public faces in an international struggle that would draw the attention of the Pope.

Both stories have an immediacy here and now, Waldinger said. Debora Cole-Duffy, immediate past president of Temple Anshe Amunim and co-producer with Myrna Hammerling of Congregation Knesset Israel, feels it especially after the events of this year.

"They strike a meaningful chord," she said. "People coming and going into synagogues or any place of worship feel a communal awareness."

Antisemitism has affected both congregations. Attacks on synagogues, like the one in Pittsburgh, have made the possibility of violence real.

Both congregations have gone through security training on how to deal with active shooters, she said. They have a police presence outside now during the high holidays to protect them. Their children are aware of possible dangers now. They are talking about these issues in religious school.

Waldinger finds threads of that tension in his dramas. He begins, he said, in a moment that crystallizes it. "The Esterhazy Draft" opens on the stifling summer evening when Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart finds evidence that a traitor is still active at the highest levels of the army — and Dreyfus has been two years in prison for the crime. He is surviving brutal prison and labor camp off the coast of French Guiana.

The Dreyfus affair had become a national scandal, Waldinger said. His family and leading writers, artists and scientists defended him, including the novelist Emile Zola, who wrote a famous open letter in the press — his opening phrase, "J'accuse!" is still a by-word today.

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And people who saw their country defined and defended by the military and the Catholic church lashed out against Dreyfus in a rising wave of antisemitism.

Joffe plays Picquart, and Occhino plays opposite him as Godefroy Cavaignac, French Minister of War, in "The Esterhazy Draft," and as Pierre-Marie Cardinal Gerlier in "The Finaly Affair" — "white men in positions of power," he said, "one with a conscience and one without."

In "The Finaly Affair," Joffe reprises his role as Moshe Rosner. He and Hedwig have been fighting for custody of their nephews through the French courts.

A Catholic woman, Antoinette Brun, hid the boys from the Nazis and risked her life to do it. But after the war, Brun hid the Finaly boys from their family, even as the Pope directed that all Jewish children should return home — and she had them baptized.

Once a child was baptized, Waldinger said, the Catholic church would claim the child. The practice had gone on for centuries.

Annette Miller, a veteran of Shakespeare & Company, plays Brun. She finds challenge in the role, but a simple reading of her character.

"I lock onto who she is," she said, "her background and where she came from. I get myself to understand, and I have to empathize (to play her).

"Coming from an orthodox background myself, I find it fascinating that she thinks she is saving a soul. If you're taught very young what the infidels are, you truly believe that. Hate grows on both sides of the issue, and fear, and you're taught very early. I'm not questioning her — I'm saying that's what she is.

She doesn't consider herself an anti-Semite. You might think it. I might think it. But she thinks — how I'd think of it, she is saving a child for the Lord: Not that I hate Jews, but that I've been given an opportunity. How can I not save them?"

"Even in her outburst, there's a kernel of truth," Waldinger said, "(When she says) `you couldn't save your children '"

"There's no kernel of truth in that," Miller said. "I will not believe that. I, Annette, think we were saving our children. Our religion says choose life. Even if it means our children were brought up differently."

Stark choices and violence run through both plays. But as Waldinger says in the name of the event, each holds an element of restoration.

The Finaly boys returned to their family and their faith. And after years Dreyfus returned to his country and to the army and served throughout World War I.


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