World War II Play About Jewish Refugees Resonates More Than Ever for Playwright

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Theatre Ariel’s Joe Guzman and Hannah Gold perform the lead roles in a dramatic reading of Sheltered on the Main Line.

While millions of Jews were attempting to flee Europe in 1939, Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus were planning a trip there.

Of course, it was no vacation.

Rather, the Philadelphia couple made 50 U.S. visas available for children of families trying to flee Nazi-occupied Vienna, a feat that was the subject of Sheltered, Theatre Ariel’s final salon series of the year.

Although deemed a Holocaust story — performed by cast members Joe Guzman, Hannah Gold, Rachel Gluck, Chris Armstrong and Minou Pourshariati — the play tells of a moral dilemma: Of the hundreds of children in Vienna, how do you choose who stays and who goes? How do you decide which children go to which Philadelphia foster family — especially if there’s one that may be abusive?

It’s essentially a spin on Sophie’s Choice, but with the idealization of the American dream. Playwright Alix Sobler based the play on the Krauses’ true story.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Krauses worked within strict U.S. immigration laws to obtain 50 visas, at a time when immigration to the States was at a standstill.

For the 50 visas available, there were 200 eligible children. Many Viennese families attempted to register for U.S. immigration, but were denied because they could not find sponsors or housing.

Days before they were to leave Vienna, one of the children became too sick to travel, so another took his place. Records show that the one left behind was sent to the Sobibór concentration camp with his mother.

All the rescued children came from families that had previously tried to escape Nazi-occupied areas. In the U.S., they sought help from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Many lived with members of the Independent Order Brith Sholom in Philadelphia.

Sobler joined the opening night of Theatre Ariel’s performance April 22 to answer audience questions about the play.

“The characters are fictionalized. The names are changed. I’ve taken great artistic license with it, so it’s really not the same [Kraus] story, but that was the story that inspired me and [that’s] why it was set in Philadelphia,” she explained.

Although her play is set in the year the Holocaust began, Sobler focused her attention on the bigger picture.

“I write political plays,” said Sobler, who will earn her graduate degree next month from Columbia University. “I like to write about stories that are relevant to our lives now, but I like to look at them through the lens of history. So I find that sometimes if you write a play about right now, about Syrian refugees or anti-Semitism in Europe or the gay concentration camps in Chechnya, it’s a little overwhelming for people. So I like to have the distance of time.”

Sobler grew up with a Jewish education — she attended a Solomon Schechter day school in New York. She has written other Holocaust-related plays, which she said took her to a “dark place,” even as she strives to find contemporary parallels.

“Studying Jewish history, I know a lot of these stories, and so I’m always inspired when I hear one to see how it would be relevant for a modern audience,” she added.

Sobler admitted that she’s not a “terribly brave” person, so hearing these rescue stories moved her deeply.

“We think of the heroes as the people who came and rescued people, but the true heroes were people who were willing to part with their children,” she said. “To think of sending your children away and never seeing them again, it’s an absolutely devastating thing.”

She hopes the play makes people think while it humanizes the stories of refugees. It’s an important way to look at history, she said.

“We’re all watching other things happen throughout the world, and it’s just interesting to know how we’ve processed it in the past,” she said.

“To remember that all the people who are demonized — both within our country and outside our country who are far away from us and seem to be going through something difficult — they’re people. And they could be our neighbors, they could be our friends,” she continued. “We’re very lucky to be where we are and to be safe for the moment, but it could be us tomorrow.”

For the future, Sobler is leaning away from dark themes and working on some contemporary plays.

“But I think I’ll always come back to Jewish history,” she admitted. “It’s very rich for me and it’s something I know a lot about, and as a Jewish person and as an artist, I find it to be very unique.”

The final two performances of Sheltered will be held in private homes April 29 and 30. For tickets or more information, visit theatreariel.org

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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