For 13 years, 88-year-old actor Malcolm White has struggled to bring the gripping story of a child survivor to the stage, battling against myriad setbacks, end-stage renal disease and time itself. He thought everything was in place for three performances over the weekend, to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday, April 27.
Richard Rozen, who had hidden from the Nazis with his parents in a farmhouse cupboard, arrived April 17 from Australia to see the dramatization of his story. Tom O’Malley, a technology entrepreneur, had created a stunning website (www.mynameisrichardrozen.com), accompanied by a video. Several theater professionals had hopped onboard to handle sound, light, video and directing.
After abortive attempts to present his one-man play at the Palo Alto JCC — both at its former location and at its current site on the Taube Koret campus — White had booked the 500-seat auditorium at Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center. But he’d raised only $5,100 and he needed $30,000. Crafting a workable Plan B resulted in further frustration, and with dialysis three times a week, White’s energy was sapped.
Nonetheless, “My Name Is Richard Rozen” will come to the stage with two performances on Saturday, April 26. White will play Rozen, with the real Richard Rozen and wife Rysia in the audience. The venue is the 70-seat auditorium at Lytton Gardens, the Palo Alto senior residence where White lives.
“Richard’s story is so compelling that no matter where it’s told it will provide a powerful evening of theater,” White said. But he clearly would have preferred a larger venue. “I don’t have much time left. This was to be my swan song, as it were.”
The son of a minister, White credits his New England Protestant upbringing with nurturing both a concern for the oppressed and a love of acting, as his father’s churches often produced plays to raise money.
Then came World War II. Serving in the Army Air Corps as a chief radio operator, he landed in Europe in 1944, after the Allied bombing had stopped. On a furlough, he hitched a ride on a plane to Paris, fell in love with the city and landed a job in the code room at the American Embassy. White rented a villa on the outskirts of Paris, bringing his mother and sister over and living there until 1950. In his spare time, he continued to act, both in film and in an English-language troupe.
The first survivor he met was Adele Lapka, the sister of a Polish friend. For a while, she lived in the villa. Although she never talked about the horrors of the concentration camp, Lapka shared one memory: “She was deeply grateful to some farmers who would come at night and throw potatoes over the barbed wire,” White said.
During an interview in the lobby at Lytton Gardens, White pulled out a snapshot of himself with Lapka, circa 1947, as well as stunning photos of his days as an actor in Paris. He and Lapka were “just good friends,” he said later. “I was incredibly naïve, [the result of] living in a parsonage in a small New England town. … I had a very steep learning curve during the four years I lived in Paris, the city of love.”
Lapka later “met another camp survivor, got married and disappeared from my life,” White said. In 1950, he returned to the United States, completed a degree at Columbia and settled in New York and later California, working in market research and continuing to act. His late wife, the author Vera Randal, was Jewish, but White said it was his friendship with Lapka that sparked his interest in the stories of survivors.
A 2001 TV Holocaust drama reawakened memories of Lapka, and White began reading stories about hidden children. That’s how he discovered Rozen, a Polish Jew who went into hiding with his parents in 1941, at age 6. For 13 months, the Rozens lived in the dark, in the cupboard of a farmhouse cellar. Rozen’s father, a physician, taught him the alphabet by tracing letters on his hand.
But when the Rozens ran out of money to pay the farmer, they were tossed out of the farmhouse. For a time, Rozen lived in a village with his mother, disguised as a girl. Later, they joined his father in the forest with the Resistance. Sadly, the elder Rozen was captured in 1944 and never seen again.
In 1951, Rozen and his mother immigrated to Australia. Although his mother never spoke about her experiences and claimed not to remember anything, Rozen spoke to student groups, joined Child Survivors of the Holocaust and volunteered with the Melbourne Holocaust Museum. In addition to being a successful businessman and investor who was able to retire at age 50, Rozen became a national chess master and a bridge grand master, representing Australia internationally. In 1997, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.
In spite of his horrific experiences, Rozen “built a set of skills that allowed him to triumph in life,” White said. “Living in the dark, he developed the ability to visualize the unseen, a skill that enabled him to plan advance moves in chess,” and the concentration that spurred his success in bridge as well as business.
White tracked down Rozen about seven years ago and sought permission to produce the play. Over the years he sent versions of the script for approval, and Rozen promised to come to the States to attend the opening.
The play embodies two tales of triumph: that of Rozen, who is celebrating his 80th birthday during the trip to California, and that of White, who has battled so many obstacles to finally stage the play. “It may have [another] life after 2014,” he said.
“I don’t get the sense that Malcolm’s crushed,” said O’Malley, who helped market the play. “I’m still seeing it as a victory.”
“My Name Is Richard Rozen,” 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, April 26, Lytton Gardens, 437 Webster St., Palo Alto. Free (donations welcome). Reservations advised: (650) 322-5953 or firstname.lastname@example.org