Close your eyes, and you can see it.
On April 19, 1943, there were 35,000 Jews remaining in the Warsaw Ghetto. Out of these, several hundred decided to fight the Nazi army rather than meet the fate of some 465,000 of their neighbors, who died of disease or were shipped off to extermination camps. They were armed — with rifles, a few machine guns and some dynamite — to fight against German tanks, mortars, planes and flamethrowers. They battled from tenement to tenement for more than a month, displaying a spirit of defiance and pride they hoped might catch across Europe and the world. Only 10,000 survived to tell their story.
Six months after the uprising began, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Theological Seminary sponsored a 30-minute radio show on WNBC’s “Eternal Light” to commemorate the event. More than 60 years later, “The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto,” written by Morton Wishengrad, will live again in a performance by the Gotham Radio Players audio-drama troupe at the 29th Annual Friends of Old-Time Radio Convention, to be held October 21-24 at Holiday Inn North in Newark, N.J.
“I knew I had to do this show,” said Steve Lewis, 40, director of the Gotham Radio Players for more than 10 years. “It grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.”
Wishengrad, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native whose play, “The Rope Dancers,” was produced on Broadway in 1957, wrote a subdued yet stirring and heartbreaking script that blends drama and documentary elements while focusing on a family struggling to maintain hope in a hopeless situation.
In an interview with the Forward, Lewis said that he was in tears after reading the script, and was particularly moved by the immediacy listeners must have felt in 1943. “This was not history,” he said. “It was current events — devastating, but uplifting.”
It is a mood well suited to sharing through the fading genre of radio drama. Three performances in 1943 provoked 12,000 letters. The War Department sent transcripts of the show to be played on Armed Forces Radio around the world. Throughout the years, it has been presented by hundreds of amateur groups and schools. In April, Lewis’s group performed the show on New York’s WBAI 99.5 FM to mark the battle’s 61st anniversary.
Max Schmid, 53, WBAI disc jockey for 26 years and the Gotham Radio Players’s producer, explained the allure of radio drama: “It’s that old catchphrase: the theater of the mind. If you can imagine it, you can do it.”
Indeed, listen as the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra dwindles to an ensemble, to a quartet and finally, to a solo violinist. Try to divert your ears as a father explains to his young son after his mother has succumbed to typhus that he must remove her clothing and leave her unidentifiable body on the street so that they can retain her bread-ration card. “It is her last wish,” he says with stern sensitivity over the boy’s sobs. “It is your inheritance.” Listen as gunshots, explosions and cries play in the mind — more unsettling, perhaps, because the images they evoke come from inside. Listen as a cantor sings “El Moleh Rachamim,” the traditional prayer for martyrs, which fades under narration setting the scene, rises and then fades again upon the story’s conclusion as the narrator implores your reverence for a group about whom our memory never should fade.
The Gotham Radio Players’s performance of “The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto” at the Friends of Old-Time Radio Convention at Holiday Inn North in Newark, N.J., is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 22, at 4:30 p.m. Holocaust survivors and their children who are members of recognized groups will be admitted free. For convention details, please visit www.lofcom.com/nostalgia/fotr.