A Holocaust Survivor With an Ambiguous Past

By D.J.R. Bruckner

1Moral judgment becomes such a dangerous game in ”The Action Against Sol Schumann” by Jeffrey Sweet that the play is a profoundly unsettling experience. This comes as a surprise, since Mr. Sweet’s story is closely modeled on the federal government’s internationally reported move in 1987 to deport Jacob Tannenbaum, a Holocaust survivor living in Brooklyn, after it was discovered that he had been a kapo, or supervisor, in a Nazi camp, where he brutalized Jewish prisoners.

It was one thing to hear the arguments about the issues in that case, but it is quite another to be drawn into the personal agonies of a deeply religious old man, his two sons, their families and friends and the old man’s accusers, as these people are vividly created by an admirably disciplined acting ensemble.

Most of the characters here end up crippled by discoveries about themselves that they cannot avoid, or endure. The old man has obliterated from his mind what he did. One inflexibly idealistic son lives to correct wrongs until his father’s past catches up. An indifferent son has shed his Jewish identity only to find it rebounding in the form of disgrace. The rabbi and his congregation clutching their Torah banish the old man from their midst. The old man’s accuser, another survivor, is driven mad by his lust for vengeance.

A defender, a former prisoner in the camp, argues that the old kapo saved many lives there, but she believes that his brutality is explained by a transformation of his personality by his own suffering at the hands of his Nazi captors.

In 90 minutes of accusation and argument, these people shed all certainties and seem lost to themselves, leaving the audience with reason to wonder what ”survivor” can possibly mean. In dramatic terms, the final crisis of the play is botched. But that hardly matters; the great emotional and intellectual journey we have made almost makes the stage itself disappear from memory.

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