Temple Emanu-El’s congregants have entertained the East Meadow community with theatrical productions for more than 25 years — a variety of well-known musicals, comedies and dramas featuring cast members of all ages who belong to the Merrick Avenue synagogue.
For the next two weekends, the synagogue will present its most ambitious play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the iconic story of eight Jews who went into hiding in the Netherlands during World War II. Eventually caught and arrested, seven died in concentration camps before the end of the war. In 1947, the lone survivor, Otto Frank, published the diary written by his daughter, Anne. The book has since been published in 60 languages, and in 1955 it was adapted into a play by Frances Goodrich and Arthur Hackett.
Elliott Solomon, who is producing the play and has been involved with Temple Emanu-El productions since 1988, said that this is the most important work the synagogue will ever present. “It’s important to not only keep this story alive, but all instances of intolerance,” he said. “The people who lived through it will soon be gone, and there will be nobody to tell their story.”
The play’s cast of 10 have been hard at work rehearsing in recent months. “I’ve seen 50 rehearsals, and it affects me every time,” Solomon said. “I find myself rooting for her, but the play ends the same way. I can’t save her.”
During a recent rehearsal, a Holocaust survivor named Frances Irwin, who lives in Brooklyn, came to the synagogue and spoke with the cast for two hours. “You could have heard a pin drop in the room,” Solomon said.
Irwin, 91, who is Polish, spent two years living in a forest to escape persecution after the Germans invaded in 1941. She was later captured and taken to Auschwitz, the notorious prison camp.
In years past, Irwin has spoken with students in Temple Emanu-El’s Hebrew School, which is how the cast got in touch with her. Following a performance on Jan. 19, Irwin will take the stage to share her story with the audience and answer questions.
Steven Epstein, the play’s director, said he considers it an obligation to retell Anne Frank’s story. And he said that while the play will take the audience on an emotional roller coaster, he offered a different perspective on its message. “Everyone thinks it’s a sad story,” Epstein said, “but it really is an uplifting testament to the spirit of mankind. Despite everything going on, Anne was able to see the good in people.”
Epstein’s daughter, Samantha, an eighth-grader at Woodland Middle School, plays young Anne. “I’ve been able to learn a lot from it,” said Samantha, 13, “and what it was like to be hiding in the annex for a long period of time. Anne made the best of it because she had really great character.”
Samantha acknowledged that she is nervous about playing such an important historical figure, but said she understands the significance of the play. “I want people to continue learning about this time in history and not lose sight of it,” she said.