At age 97, Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz can look back on a life well-lived — and a life well-told. Neither outcome seemed possible on May 7, 1942, when Cernyak-Spatz and her mom responded to an invitation from the Nazi invaders who had occupied Czechoslovakia. It was an invitation that Jews were not allowed to refuse.
They assembled in a large public square, where they were marched across the city of Prague in broad daylight, herded to a freight station, loaded onto trains and transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camps in the fortress town Terezín, located in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
At that point, the family had already in beaten the odds by simply surviving the journey. Their odds grew slimmer on January 31, 1943, when Cernyak-Spatz was transported from Theresienstadt, the “showplace” camp built to deceive International Red Cross inspectors, to Birkenau, the belly of the beast in Adolph Hitler’s genocide machine.
Yet Cernyak-Spatz did survive. She survived a transfer deeper into the belly, to Auschwitz, and an attack of typhus fever brought on by the toxic living conditions there. Even after the Russians began “liberating” Eastern Europe, Cernyak-Spatz then survived a grueling death march at gunpoint.
Since arriving in the U.S. nearly three quarters of a century ago, Cernyak-Spatz has told her story — well and often. New generations have heard it at Jewish Sunday schools and at UNC Charlotte, where she continues to work as a professor emerita in German literature. In classrooms, in lecture halls and in synagogues across America and Europe — including Germany — she has opened fresh eyes to Nazi atrocities. In books she has authored about her life, the Holocaust and Theresienstadt, Cernyak-Spatz has chronicled the unthinkable horrors she survived — horrors that millions of other Jews did not survive.
And the story continues to be told. At the upcoming Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, filmmaker Ron Small screen his documentary biopic, Surviving Birkenau, on Oct. 26. And next week at Spirit Square, a project initiated by Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, Jackie Fishman, and notables of the Queen City’s theatre community comes to fruition. Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Cernyak-Spatz’s memoirs, Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, opens on Nov. 1 in a Three Bone Theatre production directed by Dennis Delamar.
The idea for presenting a one-woman show focused on his longtime friend Susan’s life had been kicking around in Delamar’s mind since 2005, when he directed the Charlotte premiere of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning I Am My Own Wife, an adaptation of cross-dresser Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s autobiography.
“That survivor’s story carried us through the Holocaust and also the fall of the Berlin Wall and made me start visualizing something similarly possible about another person’s unique Holocaust story,” Delamar said. “Someone I actually knew and cared for very much — Susan! Since then, I thought the idea was a really good one, but it stayed in the back of mind, dormant. Cut to 11 years later.”
Pieces began falling into place when Fishman, education coordinator at the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queen’s University brought Delamar and LaBorde to campus for a reading of Address Unknown in April 2017, reviving one of multiple Holocaust plays LaBorde had already written. Almost inevitably, Delamar broached his long-gestating idea with Fishman during rehearsals.
“Jackie was immediately ecstatic over the idea,” he recalls, “as if I had said some magic words. ‘Let’s do it! Mom has already written her story down, the book she published in 2005. Have you read it? I’ll get you a copy.’ At that moment, Jackie became a key driving force behind this play getting done, a mission she has continued to energize as a daughter’s gift to her mother.”
Though Fishman had been one of his most valued teachers back when LaBorde was principal of Northwest School of the Arts, he didn’t see a natural transition of Protective Custody from page to stage.
“Too many people, too complex a story to pare down enough for an audience to follow,” LaBorde recalled of his first impression of the idea. He was prepared to walk away until he came face-to-face with Fishman’s enthusiasm for the project. That’s what inspired him to give the book a second look.
With Three Bone Theatre aboard — and Cernyak-Spatz greenlighting the project — Delamar and LaBorde returned to Queens University, where the Greenspon Center hosted an even more exciting event last December than they had the year before. Cernyak-Spatz was seated in the front row of a packed house at a reading-stage performance of a new LaBorde play, doubly honored at the occasion.
Cernyak-Spatz did not sit idly by as the latest incarnation of her life story took shape. She and her daughters, Jackie and Wendy Fishman, have been intensively involved in the process, checking facts, suggesting enhancements, correcting pronunciations and fine-tuning the voice of the Susan we will see onstage.
“My favorite bit of research,” LaBorde reveals, “was to ask Wendy and Jackie if their mother would say the line I had written early in the play, ‘Somebody fucked up.’ Their reaction was to look at each other and then say simultaneously, ‘Oh, yeah.’”
My own research for this momentous Three Bone premiere took me to Prague last month — and from there to the fortress site of the Theresienstadt camps, the town of Terezín, and the Museum of the Ghetto. In Prague, my wife Sue and I stood in one of the squares where Cernyak-Spatz may have been marched to the transport awaiting her at the freight yards. Our guide told us that we were standing on pavement made from the shattered gravestones of a demolished Jewish cemetery.
At Theresienstadt we saw the barracks where Jews were warehoused in hall-length beds three and four levels high, no toilets provided. We saw a washroom built to hoodwink the Red Cross, lined with sinks where no water has ever flowed. We saw cemeteries near Theresienstadt and Terzín larger than football fields — with marked, unmarked and mass graves. We were guided to the Secret Synagogue where I read the most heartbreaking plea to God that I’ve ever seen in a house of worship, written in Hebrew: “PLEASE RETURN FROM YOUR WRATH.”
And outside Terezín, adjoining one of the burial grounds, we saw the crematoriums, restored by the Luski Family, a name familiar throughout Charlotte’s Jewish community. Maybe the most chilling and revelatory things I saw were the records displayed at the Ghetto Museum of the transports, punctiliously kept by the Nazis: dates, points of origin and numbers of “Protective Custody” prisoners brought into Theresienstadt via the transports.
Of the hundreds — sometimes thousands — who were loaded into the cattle cars, I never saw that even 100 survived any of the horrific transports that followed. More than once, the number was zero.
Clearly, Cernyak-Spatz bucked prodigious odds to arrive at Theresienstadt, to survive her journey to Birkenau and finally reach Ravensbrueck, the destination of her January 1945 death march. Susan does use the word “miracle” once in LaBorde’s script to account for her eluding “the gas.”
Benefiting from the guidance of the Fishmans — and the sound of the real Cernyak-Spatz’s voice (yes, there’s a Prisoner 34042 audiobook!) — Leslie Giles takes on the daunting challenge of being Susan at Duke Energy Theater, assisted by Paula Baldwin as The Dresser.
“Oh my gosh, daunting doesn’t even begin to describe how it feels to take on this very special project about this incredible person,” said Giles. “The amount of lines would be enough to scare some actors away, and then to top it off with the very real and gritty details makes it overwhelming at times. That said, it is absolutely worth it, probably the most important piece of work I’ve ever performed in my entire career. It is one thing to read about these events in a book. It is another thing to watch the story coming alive in front of you.”
Reflecting on the wonder of her survival, Cernyak-Spatz scoffs at the notion that she had any special wisdom.
“Our entire day was taken up with thinking of survival,” she declares. “We had to be alert like wild animals. Wild animals don’t do much thinking. They survive. We ate anything that wouldn’t eat us. There was no time to dwell on faith or God; you had to give up your expectations of a normal universe. Perhaps my naivete allowed me to take great risks that paid off.”
If it weren’t for the war, Cernyak-Spatz said she would have likely become a dancer or an actress. Indeed, she has occasionally performed onstage here in the Q.C., most recently when I called her one of the “islands in a stream of ineptitude” in my review of Theatre Charlotte’s production of A Little Night Music in 2006. No wonder she treasures the gift of a new drama dedicated to her in her twilight years.
There’s also a twinkle of artistry in the title of her memoirs. The Nazis didn’t simply record your prisoner number in a ledger or stitch it into your prison clothes — it was tattooed into your forearm. They fancied themselves the master race, so they could house Jews and brand Jews and liquidate Jews like cattle. The 34042 that endures in Cernyak-Spatz’s title does not signify their triumph.
“The title serves my purpose of explaining the steps and the de-humanization of a group of human beings,” Cernyak-Spatz said. “When one is ultimately reduced to no more than a number, the extrapolation is that there’s no worth to this life and it can be easily disposed of. I have outlived the Third Reich, triumphed over them, with a successful and productive life — raised a Jewish family and have told my story all over the world. Anyone who sees the tattooed number on my arm becomes a witness to this history.”