It Is 1947, but the War Is Far From Over for Jewish Refugees from Poland

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

A Splintered Soul
Theater Three
311 W. 43rd Street
New York, N.Y.

Should you bend over backwards to help someone who was the victim of a horrible wrong?

That is the question facing Rabbi Simon Kroeller, a former heroic Polish Resistance fighter, in 1947 in San Francisco, where he has moved from Krakow after the end of World War II.  A young Polish refugee couple seeking his help tells him a terrible tale of how a man forced them to become thieves, and sexually abused the woman, because he spirited them out of Poland to the U.S. and provided them with jobs.  How can they break out of this evil man’s grip?  They have no papers and will be deported if they go to the police.  If they flee and return to Poland they will be arrested there.  What to do?

So begins the journey of the guilt-plagued rabbi, whose wife and children were murdered by the Nazis back in Krakow on a day that he was not home, in A Splintered Soul, by Alan Lester Brooks, that opened last night.  Rabbi Kroeller had set himself up as the leader of the Polish refugees in San Francisco, using the local Jewish community for assistance, and does whatever he can to help Polish Jews in town, often far more than he should because he feels sorry for them.

In addition to the couple, he landed a good looking young blonde woman, who spent years in a concentration camp, a job as a maid with a local Jewish couple, got a job for a young man who was sexually violated in a concentration camp, and procured another job for a brazen, headstrong young man from Krakow.  The more he does for people, the better he feels.  His dead wife appears to him again and again as a ghost to reassure him he is doing the right thing.

But is he?

He is befriended by a San Francisco judge, a leader of the local Jewish community, who warns him that the moral law during a war is far different than during peacetime and that he should not get involved with everybody who knocks on his door.

A Splintered Soul is a good historical play that catches you up in the rabbi’s dilemma and the woes of the people in his circle of refugees.  Director Daisy Walker allows the audience to keep its eye on each new character as they arrive with their problems and the way in which the rabbi gallantly tackles them.  She gets good performances from John Michalski as the rabbi, Lisa Bostnar as his wife’s ghost, Ella Dershowitz as Elisa Strewliskie, Michael Kaplan as Sol, Davie Lavine as Jan, Anya Migdal as Gerta, Kenny Morris as the judge, and Sid Solomon as Harold Strewliskie.

The trouble with A Splintered Soul, though, is that the play plods along at an interminably slow pace for most of the first act and at the very start of the second.  There is too much talking and far too much pontificating on the rabbi’s part.  The play should move faster.  In the second act, the rabbi decides to take action to help the bewildered couple, but what he does seems ludicrous and nearly derails the story.

All of that dawdling is made up by a stunning conclusion to the play, though, that saves it.

Writer Brooks could trim a solid fifteen minutes out of the play and improve it significantly.  He could also make the rabbi more of a believable figure in the story, instead of a do-it-yourself holy man.

A Splintered Soul is full of history.  You not only learn much about the Nazis in Poland in World War II, and the efforts of the Resistance to sabotage them, but you learn a lot about Jewish refugees and the numerous problems they faced upon their arrival in America.  You learn much about concentration camps, slave labor details and the way that Nazi officers brutalized young women.  The heavy involvement of the American Jewish community with refugees is discussed along with the feeling of eternal guilt by those who survived the Holocaust, and thought they should have died, too.

People will be surprised that San Francisco had a thriving Jewish refugee community in 1947.  Most Jewish refugees arrived in America in New York and settled there, or in other eastern seaport cities, but six hundred went to San Francisco; many were from Poland.  They fled their homeland and traveled east across Russia by rail and then to China, where they boarded ships that took them to San Francisco.  The Jewish community in San Francisco welcomed them with open arms and the six hundred thrived there.

Everybody seems to know somebody who knows somebody who lost family in the Holocaust.  It remains one of the most horrible mass murders in world history.  We need all the plays and films we can watch about it.  A Splintered Soul is a welcome addition, even if it drags a little here and there.

PRODUCTION: Producers: Arla Productions, LLC & Rosalind Productions Inc. Sets: Kevin Judge, Lighting: Patricia Nichols, Costumes: Valerie Marcus Ramshur,  Sound: Nathan Leigh. The play is directed by Daisy Walker.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at

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