On Thursday, April 7, the Yavneh Academy graduating class of 2016 presented their Holocaust production, “Maniusia’s Promise.” Performing before a packed house in the auditorium of Paramus High School, students and guests were privileged to be in the presence of Miriam Adler, upon whose life the story is based and who is also the grandmother of Tamar Fineberg, a member of the Yavneh graduating class.
The performance was preceded by a multimedia presentation produced by Yavneh students about terror afflicting Jews worldwide in recent months and years, setting the tone to encourage people to unite for the common good and defeat terrorism across the world.
“Maniusia’s Promise” is a prewar and wartime story about the life of Miriam Adler. Miriam, called Maniusia, was born in a suburb of Poland called Pabianice, not far from Lodz, the second largest city in Poland. She was raised in a distinguished Polish-Jewish home where Torah study was premier. Her father, Yitzchak Adler, was a close confidant of the Gerer Rebbe and emphasized the importance of Torah and mitzvot in the Adler home. Prior to the Nazi invasion, Mr. Adler was a wealthy textile factory owner. He and his wife Chana were instrumental in creating the Bais Yaakov establishment and supported Torah learning throughout Poland. But far beyond their material wealth, the Adlers demonstrated the importance of kindness and charity in their daily life. They were spiritually and emotionally wealthy, and this is how they raised their family, even during times of despair.
The story opens with Maniusia, a young girl, living a privileged life in Poland, enjoying normal activities like playing soccer and enjoying treats like rugelach. While her parents encouraged daily Torah study, Maniusia was quite inquisitive, asking many questions, yet not always obtaining answers. As the story continues, the Germans began to invade Poland and life, as Maniusia and her family know it, changes rapidly. They relocated to Lodz in the hope that circumstances would improve. However, things only got worse. Food was scarce and Mr. Adler had been forced to take a job hauling other people’s waste. Maniusia finds a wallet on the street containing 48 Marks. At the advice of her friend, she is urged to keep the money that could easily sustain her family for months. However, Maniusia discovers an identification card inside of the wallet and insists on bringing it to the authorities. She explains to her friend that there is a commandment in the Torah to return a lost item to its owner and therefore she could not take someone else’s wages. Even in great despair, she believed that God protects those who follow Him. She comes face-to-face with one of the most controversial figures of wartime Poland, Jacob Rumkowski, known as the “king” of the Lodz Ghetto. He had the impossible job of reporting to Nazi authorities while trying to help his fellow Jews as best as he could. Upon hearing Maniusia’s story, he insisted on meeting her directly. He rewarded her ethical behavior by switching Mr. Adler’s job, which ultimately extended her father’s life in the ghetto.
Maniusia and her remaining family were deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Though extremely risky, Maniusia’s father successfully attempted to find her in the camp. He begged her to make him a promise: never kill yourself, and remember who you are. Throughout the remainder of the Holocaust, Maniusia kept this promise and always maintained her pre-war values and beliefs that were instilled by her loving parents. Maniusia’s father died in Buchenwald and she was the only survivor from her immediate family. After the war, Maniusia was reunited with her aunt and uncle in Paris.
Three students portrayed the role of Maniusia in the production. Daniella Shlagbaum, who played the young Maniusia at the opening of the performance, said, “After having heard this story, I am more grateful for the life I have today. We are so lucky to have so much.” Tamar Fineberg, Miriam Adler’s granddaughter, was cast as the adolescent Maniusia, living through the Nazi invasion. “I am grateful to be able to share my grandmother’s story and actually feel how she felt, through this performance. This production allowed me to transform myself into her,” Tamar told the Jewish Link. Bruria Spraragen portrayed the eldest Maniusia. Incredibly moved by this story of survival, she commented, “This was so eye-opening to what really happened. I kept imagining my real-life siblings and how unfathomable it would be to go through something of this magnitude.”
Coby Zwebner, who so poignantly portrayed the role of Maniusia’s youngest brother, Danek, was inspired by this story as well as other testimonials he has heard. “Hearing from survivors such as Miriam Adler makes me realize how fortunate I am to live the life I do,” explained Zwebner.
Portrayal of a Nazi soldier was perhaps the most challenging role to tackle in this performance. Zachary Adler, known among his peers as the “nicest” kid, told the Jewish Link, “I had to imagine something so terrible and keep it in my head in order to play the part of a Nazi officer.”
Based on the manuscript “Something from Nothing” written by Mrs. Adler’s niece Yael Adler Mermelstein, and under the outstanding direction of Dominique Cieri, the play was written by the students themselves. Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, producer and Holocaust studies coordinator at the Yavneh Academy, expressed how deeply moved he is by the students and their performance in this production. “What I enjoy most about this yearly production is bringing to life at least some of the people who were killed, and perhaps forgotten, for a few hours on stage in front of more than a thousand people.”
The evening culminated with the guest of honor, Miriam Adler, sharing a few words with the audience. After a well-deserved standing ovation, guests left feeling emotional and victorious. Mrs. Adler’s story was one of resilience and ultimately triumph and we, as a people, along with the rest of the world, must always unite against terror.
By Andrea Nissel