San Diego students in Holocaust documentary talk about profound experiences in Poland
‘The Assembly,’ produced by Hershey Felder, was inspired by the work of Eva Libitzky, who lost all of her family in the Holocaust during World War II
For the last 40 years of her life, Holocaust survivor Eva Libitzky made it her mission to tell her harrowing life story at hundreds of school assemblies to ensure the young people of America never forget what happened in Europe 80 years ago.
Libitzky, 97, passed away last year at her home in Florida, but a new documentary-style film featuring eight former students of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts (SDSCPA) will carry on her legacy. Written, directed and underwritten by theater artist and filmmaker Hershey Felder and supported by Libitzky’s 75-year-old son, Moses Libitzky, “The Assembly” will begin streaming online Nov. 20 at hersheyfelder.net.
In the movie, Broadway actor and playwright Eleanor Reissa portrays the older Libitzky, talking to the San Diego students about her childhood experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland. But instead of making a presentation in a school auditorium, Reissa, Felder and Moses Libitzky flew with the San Diego students to Poland on Oct. 13. There, the 43-member cast and film crew traveled to the Libitzkys’ family home, the Nazi-controlled Jewish ghetto in Lodz where Eva’s father starved to death and to the Auschwitz death camp, where Eva’s mother and more than 1.1 million other Jews were murdered.
Eva was liberated from Auschwitz by Soviet troops in May 1945, married a fellow survivor, Martin Libitzky a year later and in 1949 they moved to the U.S. with their young son, Moses.
Moses Libitzky, who lives in the San Francisco area and is a longtime friend of Felder’s, said students at the school assemblies were always “deeply moved” when they heard his mother’s story. As a result, Felder’s concept for the film was to capture on film the San Diego students’ honest and in-the-moment reactions to Reissa’s scripted words and the comments by the Polish tour guides. Three of the eight students who traveled with the film crew during the shoot that ended Oct. 19 said they expect the film will clearly reflect their feelings of the shock, pain, sadness and devastation the experienced during the trip.
Isaiah Joshua Foster, who graduated from SDSCPA in 2018 and now lives in New York, had never traveled outside the United States, and said he wasn’t deeply educated on the Holocaust, before last month’s trip. He said it was while touring the former Auschwitz camp near Krakow that he experienced a “moment of breakdown” after seeing the gas chambers, the execution pits and the prisoners’ personal items, including the mountain of hair shorn off the Jewish people when they arrived at the camp.
“It was a very guttural experience. I was shocked and I felt numb,” said Foster, 22. “So much of the experience for me was about learning another culture. I wonder what it would have been like for me as a Black man to walk through the plantations (of the South). I don’t know what that experience would be like for me.”
San Diego native Giovanny Diaz de Leon, 17, graduated from SDSCPA last year and is now working around town as a singer and actor. The film shoot was the Spring Valley resident’s first trip to Europe, but not his first exposure to the Holocaust. He studied it in middle school and this past summer he co-starred in a new musical about teen Holocaust victims called “Witnesses” at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. Still, Diaz de Leon said he wasn’t prepared for what he experienced at Auschwitz.
“The camp itself, the energy and the sorrow and the history — you can feel it when you step on the grounds. It was the mountain of hair that set me over the edge. It was very intense and a big reminder of the horrors we’re capable of as humans,” he said.
SDSCPA graduate Yzabel “Yza” Ugalde, 18, who’s now studying psychology at Reed College in Oregon, grew up in a Jewish family and had actually visited Auschwitz once before when she was about 11 years old. But the experience this time was much different.
“I feel different fields of energy and I could feel it all,” Ugalde said. “I’d step in certain places and feel all the pain and death. At some points, I couldn’t control myself. When I felt those energy shifts, it was insane. It was the craziest experience of my life.”
Felder — who has presented many of his solo plays about composers and other historical figures at San Diego Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe over the past 16 years — also lost many family members in the Holocaust, including an aunt at Auschwitz. His father immigrated to Canada just before the war in 1939, but almost all of the extended family he left behind was wiped out by the Nazis. Felder said that as “a descendant of all these lost souls,” he felt a responsibility to tell Libitzky’s story.
“I’m a person concerned, frightened, devastated by the anger and hatred in the world,” Felder said. “It would be hiding the truth to not tell you that at times I am very afraid for people, for myself, for how easily such history can repeat itself how intolerance and hatred can lead to terrible things. It’s important to remember we do not speak of a biblical event 2,000 years ago that is legend. We speak of something only some 80 years ago, still in some people’s lifetimes, and it isn’t just a Jewish matter. No one is immune from hatred and intolerance. ... Everyone is vulnerable.”
Felder now lives in Florence, Italy, where since the pandemic began he has mostly switched from producing live theater shows to producing streaming films through his Hershey Felder Presents website, where “The Assembly” will be offered for $19 beginning Nov. 20.
While working at the now-shuttered San Diego Rep a few years ago, Felder said he met actor and teacher Roxane Carrasco, who chairs the theater department at SDSCPA, and, later, he met Timothy Farson, who is the school’s principal. Before the pandemic, he approached them both with his idea of creating “The Assembly” as a stage play with music featuring students from the school’s musical theater program.
“The Assembly” has dark subject matter, but it’s also filled with joyous music from a Florence-based klezmer band that traveled with the cast and crew, and song-filled celebrations where the students performed songs at restaurants and at a concert at the end of the trip.
When the pandemic arrived, Felder thought he could bring a film crew to the SDSCPA campus instead, but the campus wasn’t allowing visitors. Eventually Felder decided to underwrite the cost of bringing the students, as well as Carrasco and Farson, to Poland to film in the very places Libitzky talked about in her lectures. Moses Libitzky came along as a host, guide and speaker. The trip was originally scheduled for last spring, but the war in Ukraine pushed millions of refugees into Poland, filling all available hotels, so the project was postponed once again to this month. Because of the project’s long delay, all of the students on the trip have graduated from SDSCPA.
Farson said he was grateful to Felder for offering this rare opportunity to the school’s students.
“It’s one thing to be an artist, it’s another to use what you love to change the world,” Farson said. “What Hershey is doing is what we were made to do, telling the stories of the voiceless. (Eva’s) words were to stop the destructiveness of hate. Through our freedom and opportunities we have an opportunity to share these stories to create awareness and stop and interrupt. It’s a call to action.”
Diaz de Leon said it was surreal flying home last week to see news on social media and television about the violent anti-Semitic comments made by famed rapper Ye (formerly Kanye West), followed a few days later by a “Kanye is right about Jewish people” demonstration by White supremacists on an I-405 overpass in Los Angeles.
“I hate to say it, but it’s very familiar,” Diaz de Leon said. “It feels like this has been something that has been prevalent for my whole life. Anti-Semitism and racism and prejudice have been living in our country for a long time. It saddens me, but it’s very familiar as a person of color living in the U.S.”
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