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  YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  WHO IS WHO?                                                 

WHO IS WHO?1, by H. Leivick

(Yiddish: Ver iz ver?)


Left to right: Izidor Casher, Jacob Ben-Ami, Maurice Schwartz
and Samuel Goldenburg, in Leivick's "Who is Who?"
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Yiddish Art Theatre production of "Who is Who?" by H. Leivick, opened on 23 December 1938), By H. Leivick at the Yiddish Art Theatre, 932 7th Avenue (7th Avenue, b. 58th and 59th Street.) The play has three acts.

Settings were by Samuel Leve. Music by Sholom Secunda. Executive Staff: Martin Schwartz, Leon Hoffman, Managers. Mollie Steinberg, English Press Representative. Max Kreshover, Yiddish Press Representative. Thelma Lippe, Lecturer. Matilda Neuman, Secretary. Mitchell Kanter, Treasurer. Gertrude Wagner, Asst. Treasurer. Wasserman & Wasserman, Auditors. Abraham H. Sarasohn, Counsel. Theatre Staff: Sholom Secunda, Musical Director. Ben-Zion Katz, Stage Manager. Ben David, Asst. Stage Manager. Samuel Lehrer, Wardrobe Master. Joseph Schwartzberg, Librarian. Israel Misbin, Superintendent. Technical Staff: William Mensching, Carpenter. Joseph Lieberson, Electrician. Edward Kurtland, Property Man. Settings painted by Centre Studios, Inc. Costumes by Meth & Gropper. Wigs by Zauder Bros.

This 1938-1939 season was the nineteenth for the Yiddish Art Theatre group.

The Yiddish Art Theatre troupe for this production were:

Maurice Schwartz, Genia Schlitt, Miriam Riselle, Zvi Scooler, Izidore Casher, Samuel Goldenburg, Judith Abarbanel, David Popper, Jacob Ben-Ami, Sonia Gurskaya, Reuben Wendorf and Arthur Winters.

So, here is the synopsis of Leivick's "Who is Who?". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated in parentheses:



Professor Alexander Shelling (Maurice Schwartz), the celebrated mathematician and scholar, is a German refugee who, with his son Ludwig (Zvi Scooler), a college student, and his paralyzed daughter Elizabeth (Miriam Riselle), have been living in the United States for the past two years. With him also is his sister Mary (Genia Schlitt), who raised the children from early infancy and has been running the household since the untimely death of the professor's wife.

In Germany Professor Shelling so completely estranged himself from the Jewish People that neither his children nor his closest friends had the slightest suspicion that the family was Jewish. But when Hitler came to power the professor was sent to a concentration camp. Released after five months he, with his family, fled to the United States. Here he declined a professorship in a large university in New York and accepted one in a smaller institution in Connecticut where he lives in seclusion--away from all contact with the people of his race. He even enrolled his son in a college in Nebraska where Jewish students are few.

Dr. Ziro (Izidore Casher), also a refugee, and one of the professor's few friends who is in love with Mary, endeavors to arouse him from his lethargy and to convince him that in the United States, the land of freedom and equality, assimilation is altogether unnecessary. Mary, too, pleads with her brother that he reveal to his children the secret of their Jewish origin. But Professor Shelling remains adamant. To him Jewish life spells eternal suffering and he does not wish his children to suffer. It is, perhaps, well enough for those Jews who are willing to suffer and understand the reasons for it, to carry their misfortune with patience and endurance, but for him and his children it is senseless, illogical. He is determined to rescue his children from a life of never-ending torture which seems to be the destiny of Jewish life, Neither their bodies nor their souls must be racked and sacrificed to an ancient tradition which has brought pain and agony to its people.

Ludwig brings two student friends, Ada (Judith Abarbanel) and Leo Samuels (David Popper), to the house. Because their name is Samuels and they are East Side Jews, the professor forbids them his home or to further associate with his son. Ludwig is outraged by his father's conduct. He is in love with Ada and strongly resents being isolated both from friends and from New York.

An American-Jewish author and journalist, Herman Schacht (Samuel Goldenburg), is in love with Mary. Shelling voices, in no uncertain terms, his objections to Mr. Schacht. If his sister is to marry at all, his choice is Dr. Ziro. He will under no circumstances tolerate Mr. Schacht in his home. Mr. Schacht, who is compiling a new edition of Who is Who, plans to include a short biography of the professor. When the proofs are submitted to him, the professor is beside himself with indignation. He finds himself in a frightful predicament. Confronted with the danger that his children will discover the truth which he has kept from them all these years, Professor Shelling threatens to take legal steps and compel Mr. Schacht to omit the biography. Mr. Schacht accepts the challenge. Both as a Jew and author he refuses to resort to such unethical practice. He bluntly refuses to suppress the truth about Shelling's life. In this country, he says, no one need fear or be ashamed of being a Jew. Shocked and extremely agitated by this unexpected and unforeseen event which threatens his children's happiness, the professor leaves for New York to see his friend Judge Evans (Jacob Ben-Ami) and seek an injunction against the publication of the book. No one, he argues, has a right to invade his private life or the dictates of his conscience.


Scene from "Who is Who?"
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.


Judge Evans is a sympathetic, liberal and broad-minded man. American democracy as promulgated by the Constitution is to him a sacred heritage. He welcomes Professor Shelling in a warm and friendly manner. He is willing to help in any way he can, but finds himself powerless to interfere with the free press and free speech of this country. It is impossible for him to grant the injunction which would prohibit the publication of the professor's biography.

When the professor learns from the reporters that the news of his action against Mr. Schacht has already been made public he breaks down, lost in a strange world. Judge Evans consoles his friend but also gently rebukes him for trying to conceal his faith. By denying and disowning his race he also denies the principles of American democracy and liberty, he tells him. Professor Shelling has not failed to note, however, that the vicious hand of Hitler is rapidly spreading the fire of his poisonous and bestial doctrine in this country. At the university he often hears professors discussing the Jews with derision and hate. But he must remain silent since they do not suspect him of being Jewish. He paints a vivid picture of world oppression, brutality and intolerance against the Jews, created and nourished by vile, heinous anti-Semitism and declares that it is his right to rescue his children from that hateful, consuming fire.

Schact arrives at the judge's chambers and vigorously protests against the professor's attitude and accuses him of being a Jewish anti-Semite. Judge Evans, however, is sympathetic. He realizes that the professor's motives are neither selfish nor material and appeals to Schacht to omit the biography from Who is Who. Schacht, an upright American and proud Jew advises Judge Evans to take the professor for a tour of the streets where the Jewish People live---the poor, persecuted Jews--and demand from them the sanction for the professor's demand. Schacht's powerful argument prompts Professor Shelling to bare his heart for Judge Evans and to relate the tragic story of his life.

More than twenty years ago in the Ukraine, during a pogrom, Petlura's mob attacked and murdered his wife, Charlotte, then threw his month-old daughter, Elizabeth, to the ground causing her paralysis. Before his wife passed away she pledged him to a promise that their children would be spared the eternal Jewish suffering. The cause of her death was to remain a sacred trust and to be buried with her. She had him promise that when God commands their children to be sacrificed on the altar of Judaism, he must refuse to obey. He left for Germany and there educated his children as non-Jews.

In Hitler's concentration camp he paid the debt he owed his wife, for her untimely death. There he saw death every minute of the day. But his own suffering is not important; he is most concerned that his son be spared that sad fate; that Elizabeth be spared the knowledge that her mother suffered a violent and shameful death. Schacht retorts that the professor is not the only victim; that all Jewish People are living a life of torture and shame inflicted upon them by killers who seek to plunge the world into darkness and blind bigotry. He declares that if all Jews who have been persecuted and subjugated were to renounce their faith and race, become apostates, the Jew would long since have been exterminated.

Mary and Dr. Ziro now arrive. They try to persuade the professor to return home. Ludwig has already been told the truth by Mary. She was forced to tell him that he is a Jew. Professor Shelling is completely defeated, vanquished. Ludwig enters and confronts his father. He demands to know why he has been kept ignorant of his Jewish birth; He is ashamed to think that he remained silent when Jewish students were ridiculed and beaten; he is ashamed to look at the portrait of his mother who had been deprived of the honor of being called a Jewish mother. In his agitation he berates his father and shouts that he will never forgive him this grave offense. He leaves the judge's office to go to his friends, the Samuels--those humble Jews who are not ashamed of their Judaism. Professor Shelling finding that he had been defeated both by his son and the law withdraws his suit against Schacht. Now that Ludwig knows all, it does not matter any longer whether the biography is published or not.

But there is another grave problem he seeks to have solved. He asks Judge Evans who will protect his Ludwig when the terror of Fascism and Nazism reaches these shores. What is the world doing now to defend and protect the many Ludwigs who are being slaughtered like so many sheep. Why should pogroms, inquisitions and horrible death be the lot of Jews alone? Has he not, as a father, the right to rescue his children from oppression and tyranny? Subdued, broken, disheartened, the professor, like the shadow of a fallen hero, leaves the chambers of Judge Evans.   


Elizabeth and her nurse Emma (Sonia Gurskaya) are waiting in the professor's study for his return. Instinctively she feels an impending catastrophe. She recalls the cruel faces of the murderous Nazis. She begins to suspect that her father was thrown into concentration camp, not because he was a liberal, but for being a Jew. She heard Ludwig crying through the flight. He attempted several times to tell her something, but each time he lost his courage. Professor Shelling comes home. She decides to know the truth of her mother's death. She has an impulse to rise from her wheel chair and go in search of those who crippled her for life. She refuses to sit any longer; she wants to walk, to go, to go anywhere. Exhausted, she falls into a restless sleep.

Judge Evans comes to the house. He apologizes for his intrusion, but the hearing in his chambers earlier in the day left a deep impression on him. He wishes to search deeper into the hearts of the victims of oppression. A judge, he says, should not condemn--he should seek to heal; and Professor Shelling stands in great need of a cure from all he had endured. He reminds Shelling that he is, living in the free United States, not in Hitler's brutal Germany; that America will defend the Jew against tyrants and despots.

Ludwig returns, but only to get his books and a few personal belongings. He is leaving his father's home forever, for he wishes to live openly as a Jew and the Jewish Samuels family is happy to receive him and his crippled sister into their midst. Ludwig is ready to take Elizabeth with him at once but his father forbids it and Ludwig departs for the new life awaiting him. Elizabeth, awakened by Ludwig's rage, manages somehow to struggle out of bed and drags herself, for the first time in her life without any aid, to her father's study. With a deeply agonizing voice she cries out that she heard everything Ludwig had to say, "I am a Jewess, a Jewess, a crippled Jewess and I want to go with Ludwig." She calls to her mother for help, but suddenly overcome by her emotions she falls, fainting to the ground. She only thought she could walk; in reality her legs are permanently paralyzed.

Herman Shacht and Ada Samuels come to urge the professor to go with them to New York and be reconciled with his son and the Samuels family. Shacht pleads with him to cease waging a war with himself. Judge Evans asks the others to go ahead and promises to follow with Shelling. When they have gone the professor loses complete control of himself and weeps bitterly. "I cannot go on living and continue to be an obstacle to my children. I must take the same path that was taken by my many dear friends in Germany. All I can see in the future is a void-darkness--a world without faith and courage."

Suddenly he reaches for a revolver which he obtained from a storm trooper in the concentration camp, where revolvers and poison were readily supplied to those able and willing to pay sufficient graft. Judge Evans with a quick move succeeds in taking the gun from him. "When the Nazis suggested that I kill myself," Shelling says, "I wanted to live for my children; now for the sake of my children I no longer wish to live."

Judge Evans tells the professor that suicide is the coward's way out of a difficulty and leads nowhere. The Jews in Germany who commit suicide in reality aid Hitler and his bloody henchmen. "You must go on living, professor." he counsels. "It is your duty to return to your children and your people, a people who were ever ready to forgive those who have strayed from the fold. Give them your great knowledge, your scholarly wisdom, your sympathy. The Jewish People are at this time in dire need for every word of courage and comfort. The cruel tactics of European despots must not subdue you. There, death and destruction rule supreme; in American life, liberty, courage is every man's birthright. Come, professor, Ludwig is waiting for you."

Professor Shelling looks fondly and longingly at the portrait of his wife. Her eyes seem to console him and urge him on to return to his son and to his people.  


1 -- From the play program for H. Leivick's "Who is Who?", December 1938. Courtesy of YIVO.





Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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