Only after Lee Sankowich decided to direct Diane Samuels' "Kindertransport" did he realize that his adopted sister, like the main character in this play, escaped Nazi-occupied Europe on the kindertransport just before World War II broke out.
"Most Jews I've talked to…don't know what kindertransport is," says the 53-year-old artistic director for the Marin Theatre Company.
Between November 1938 and the war's outbreak in September 1939, Jewish families in Nazi-occupied Germany and Austria sent 10,000 children aged 2-18 to England. Some were to be adopted, some were conscripted into domestic service. About 80 percent of these youngsters never saw their parents again.
Focusing as much on the kindertransport as on the echoes it might have sent through survivors' lives, "Kindertransport," which opens this month at the Marin Theatre Company, begins as a young woman learns that her mother came from Germany at age 9 and is just as scarred and strange as the daughter always suspected.
This story runs concurrently with a flashback tale in which the mother, while still a child, departs Germany for England, where over the years she must adapt to the idea that her parents will not join her.
That the cast for this production has only one Jewish member is more or less deliberate.
"It's a play about people who lost their Jewish identity altogether," says Sankowich, whose adopted sister traveled as a child to England and then San Francisco, where Sankowich's parents adopted her.
Samuels, who lives in London, told the London Evening Standard that while the play portrays parents separating from children, the issues at hand are larger than that.
"It's about separation from one's ancestry," she says.
The play's main character, Evelyn, leaves her Judaism behind while still a child, as the Englishwoman who adopts her is a Christian. Evelyn's daughter Faith — the young woman we meet at the start of the story — grows up never knowing she has Jewish roots.
The only character who retains her Jewish identity is Evelyn's birth-mother Helga, who sends her daughter out of Germany to escape the Nazis. She is played by Jeri Lynn Cohen, the cast's only Jew.
"I find it supremely challenging," Cohen says of her role. "It's dealing with some really difficult issues, the most obvious of which are the Holocaust and [its] ramifications. It went beyond the people who died…It affected the people who escaped."
Cohen used her own Jewish upbringing to help her understand how the character perceives the world, although at 36, she has no first-hand experience of World War II.
Sankowich adds that the play's emotional charge creates a unique set of problems for himself and the cast.
"Very often plays, especially dramas, start off at a relatively comfortable point in people's lives," Sankowich says. But "Kindertransport" launches into crises from its opening moments.
"To modulate a piece that begins in crisis and goes through more crisis is a special kind of challenge."