Some 40 years ago, when Lee Sankowich first read about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, he was fascinated. The young Jews who held off the Nazis for 27 days — what were they like? Did they have dreams, loves, ambitions?
Decades later, the renowned theater director and producer began researching the uprising, including interviewing a survivor. Then he wrote “For Honor,” a play that incorporates drama, romance, humor and music to tell the stories of the people who took part in what the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum calls “one of the most significant occurrences in the history of the Jewish people.”
“For Honor” will receive its first full production May 9-11, with four performances benefiting the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Lowell High School in San Francisco, Sankowich’s alma mater.
“The play is a fictional account of a true story, a powerful story, and one you rarely read about,” said Sankowich, 76. “Maybe 300 or 400 Jews, many in their late teens and early 20s, held off the German army longer than France or Poland. I am so impressed with their passion and their resolve, and I wanted to tell this story not just to document the battles but to make it inspirational.”
The Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto late in 1940. In the summer of 1942, more than a quarter of a million Jews were sent from the ghetto to Treblinka, where they were killed. The remaining Jews set about building bunkers and arming themselves. On April 19, 1943 — the first night of Passover — a Nazi police commander ordered that the ghetto be burned to the ground, block by block. Some 13,000 Jews died, but the rest fought back until May 16, when the ghetto was fully destroyed.
“For Honor” is Sankowich’s first play. For 16 years he was the artistic director of the Marin Theatre Company, directing 45 plays in his time there. Then he mounted successful productions of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on Ken Kesey’s novel, in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Israel. Since then, Sankowich has worked in regional theaters around the country, served as the resident director at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and taught drama at Carnegie Mellon University. He owns the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles and currently lives in Larkspur.
What’s it like to make the switch from director and producer to playwright?
“It feels much more vulnerable when it’s your words than when it’s your direction,” Sankowich said. “I didn’t think it could feel more vulnerable, more personal, but it can.”
To date, three staged readings of “For Honor” have been held: one in Los Angeles, one at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael and one in La Jolla, as part of an arts festival. The head of the festival told Sankowich that the play was its most meaningful event to date.
Several times during his research, Sankowich met in Los Angeles with 100-year-old Leon Weinstein, who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto through the city sewer system. “I asked him what it was like. Were there romances, jealousies, social interactions?” Sankowich said. “He told me there was all that — and even birthday parties.”
Weinstein said that before going into the ghetto, he left his infant daughter on a doorstep in a basket, with a Christian name tag attached. Six months after he escaped, he was reunited with her in a Catholic convent. Natalie Weinstein Gold, now in her 70s, also spoke with Sankowich and attended two of the staged readings.
Jack Anderson, president of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California and a board member of the Lowell Alumni Association, was also at one of the readings, in 2016. Now he is presenting “For Honor” with a cast of 16 professional actors. Anderson met Sankowich at Lowell when Anderson was the forensic speech coach and Sankowich, Lowell Class of ’59, was on the team.
Both men would like to see the play presented elsewhere, perhaps on university campuses and in theaters across the country.
“I have talked with a lot of younger people who don’t have a clear sense of the Holocaust, and some have a misunderstanding that the Jews passively walked into the ovens,” said Anderson, 88. “Presenting this play is a labor of love, a story that focuses on bravery and heroic actions. It’s a way to give back.”