Christians know Golgotha as the Greek name for Calvary, the site of Jesus’s crucifixion. But to Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews with Spanish and North African ancestry, the name came to mean “suffering.” Shmuel Rafael’s one-man play Golgotha lays bare the raw suffering of a fictional but emblematic Holocaust survivor.
I happened to see the show’s current adaptation (by Haim Idissis, translated by Howard Rypp) on International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017, a day when, coincidentally and with horrible and unbelievable irony, official religious discrimination was reintroduced in the United States. The play’s message is important every day, though.
Decades after the war, Albert Salvado (Victor Attar) recalls in painful fits and starts his time at Auschwitz Birkenau as he struggles with the pressure of being tapped to light the symbolic torch at the annual remembrance ceremony at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. He reminds us that, as his friend and fellow survivor told him back then, “we have to carry on so someone will be left to recount what went on there.” With fewer and fewer survivors and witnesses remaining alive, and given the natural human inclination to forget our history, it’s going to be up to storytelling – historical, biographical, and fictional – to keep the flame of memory alive so that we might not experience further genocides like Hitler’s Final Solution.
As Albert tells us, some of the Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition settled in Salonica in northern Greece, where for centuries they maintained their old language, Ladino, an old Spanish dialect written in Hebrew letters. (Ladino is to Spanish as Yiddish is to German.) At Auschwitz, some of these Sephardic Jews were conscripted to operate the killing factory, leading naked victims into the gas chambers, then taking out the bodies and loading them into the crematoria. The memory of this service has seared Albert permanently; he complains wretchedly of a furnace burning up the organs inside his body, and speaks not of God but of the Devil keeping him alive to suffer “as punishment.” Even the ouzo he drinks to ease the pain causes flare-ups of terrible heat inside him.
Albert has been planning to go to Yad Vashem with his old friend from the concentration camp, who has been given the honor of lighting the torch. But when happenstance flips the actual honor onto Albert, he is faced with a crisis, feeling that because of the horrible deeds he was forced to commit, he doesn’t deserve such an honor. In desperation he turns to the spirit of his wife, who was murdered in the camps along with their daughters. But her photograph has no definitive answer for him. Nor do the projected images of his memories writ large, memories of her, their daughters, happy times with friends in their old pre-war town.
“Searing” describes Attar’s performance, too. There is a slow build to the final horrific detail of Albert’s past, but he doesn’t mince words along the way, and all the depths of his emotions are written in his elastic expressions, his shouts on the phone, even his slow diabetic shuffle. The details of his life and dilemmas speak volumes. Shoes in the outside world, slippers and then a foot bath in the apartment. The numbers on a survivor’s arm, which he insists must not be removed when the body is prepared for burial – “Let the world eat it!” Which jacket to wear to the torch lighting ceremony?
And through a wider-angle lens, there is Albert’s sense of isolation as a Sephardic Jew among a community of survivors dominated by Ashkenazi culture. In truth, we read little of the fate of Sephardic Jews during the Holocaust.
Directed by Attar’s wife Geula Jeffet-Attar, Golgotha is a stunning solo piece, so emotionally draining there were moments when I had to look away from Albert’s pleading face.