Though she is 99 years old, Helena Weinrauch is not slowing down. She regularly practices ballroom dance, she cooks for herself and anyone who comes to her Upper West Side apartment, and she recently attended a performance of A Will to Live, a new play based on her memoir, at the Chain Theatre.
Adapted by Chain artistic director Kirk Gostkowski, A Will to Live immerses audiences in the world of teenage Helena, whose carefree life is turned on its head when the Germans and the Soviets vie for control of her small Polish city. Weinrauch then spent almost three years in the Kraków-Plaszów concentration camp, literally building the camp up and then tearing it down as an enslaved laborer. But she survived.
Masha King, a Ukrainian Jewish actor who came to the United States as the Soviet Union fell, portrays Weinrauch in this solo work, which uses sound design and physicality to convey the presence of other characters. We spoke with them about creating the play, the role that Holocaust stories play today, and their hopes for the future.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Helena, why did you decide to share your story with the world?
Helena Weinrauch: There was a point when I was thinking of going back to Poland and resuming the life that I had before. The changes in my life were rather drastic. I got confused; what do I really want? Do I want to stay here, make my life here, adjust to the way people think here, talk here? I like it here. I love the people. It’s my life.
I thought I would not be living much longer. There are things in my life that people should know about. People thought that there’s still young people who can learn something from me, from what I lived through, how I handled it. How I coped with it. It’s taught them something: how to adjust to life, how to look at life. I am still learning. I may be very old, but I’m still learning. I’m glad when I can learn something new, it makes me feel a little younger. Why not? Who doesn’t want to feel a little younger?
Kirk, walk me through the process of adapting the memoir into a play.
Kirk Gostkowski: I was immediately taken with Helena and her story; she’s one of the most incredible people you could meet in your entire life. I read the memoir, and Helena was adamant about keeping it what it was and making sure that we weren’t sanitizing anything, that we didn’t shy away from the hard parts. She did express that other people have tried to adapt it before, not successfully.
I recorded her telling us stories, then used that transcript to weave into the script. Who is so brilliant as Helena to have written a memoir that has a structure, that starts in the present, moves to the past, pops back to the present? She says, “An end of a chapter of my life,” and I said, “Intermission!”
This show is long and intense. Masha, how do you maintain a balance and a sense of self throughout this process?
Masha King: I say this in a positive way: The show has consumed the last month. I think that it deserves all my attention. But I love the story. Once I’m up there, it’s happening, and it’s bigger than me. I just kind of succumb to it. And I really pull a lot of energy from the audience. I have someone to tell the story to. Sometimes in those few moments of levity, when people laugh, it’s wonderful, because that means people see and learn and understand Helena as a whole person, not just a tragic story. And so in the end, when you learn all the things that happen, I can hear tears. It’s very rewarding.
You’re both Jewish immigrants, though of course from very different places and circumstances. Were you able to relate to each other’s stories on that level?
Masha: Not really. I came here as an immigrant from Ukraine. I was six, and my mom came a year before I did. It was hard on me when I was five and I missed my mom. It affected a lot of how I processed growing up and immigration – I’m still dealing with it. I can’t compare anything in my life to Helena’s life, but there are things that I read about that I could understand a small amount of. I just understood missing my family and having to adjust to make a new life in new circumstances. Again, it’s very different, but I could understand the tiniest layer of it.
Did meeting Helena change your approach to the rehearsal process and to portraying her?
Masha: It only inspired me more. I read all the interviews and I watched as many videos of Helena that I could find, so it was a very full-circle moment. But it didn’t change anything in terms of how we were approaching rehearsals.
Helena: Is there something specific that you wanted to know after you read my story, that wasn’t in the story?
Masha: Did you try to find other people after the war? Even questions like, how you managed to build a whole new life – it’s such a big question, I don’t even know how you can answer.
Helena: It’s difficult to find a new life. But I must say, I had an open mind. If you have an open mind and you want to know, as painful as it may be, that is the answer. I’m not hiding. It would be so much easier not to want to know certain parts of my life that are so painful. It’s so much easier to forget it. Why would I want to know what has happened?
All I can tell you is, I stood naked, totally naked, in front of the people who were going to shoot me. I was a teenager. I was supposedly – they were saying I had a beautiful body for a teenager. And the German soldiers wanted to see a beautiful body on a kid, right? So they made it a long time for me to stand naked and to wait for the people to come and shoot me. And it took time because they didn’t get the permit to shoot me by the one person who was supposed to shoot me. And that one person was unavailable because he was dancing with me the night before at a German ball.
There is hope. There has to be hope. Don’t ever give up hope, ever.
What was it like to see your story onstage, and to see Masha King playing you?
Helena: At some point, I was touched. At some point, I was critical. It’s inevitable that certain parts are difficult, because it is me.