This very personal journey began in 2014 when I was invited by my parents to attend a performance of Wiesenthal while visiting them in Florida. This wasn’t just any performance; it was a moving experience and virtual awakening of an important part of my life that had been buried deep in my subconscious.
My father, Leo Weiss of blessed memory, was a Holocaust survivor. Of course, this much I knew, but he had never really shared his story. Sitting next to him that night, it struck me that this brave, intelligent and compassionate man was a survivor of one of the biggest atrocities against humanity. And here we were sitting side by side — my dad with no blame or anger in his heart—watching a mirror of his story unfold before us.
My dad was from Drohobycz, Poland, a town with 30,000 Jews prior to WWII. Thanks to his father’s tailoring skills, which were valued by the Gestapo who required perfectly fitted uniforms, my grandparents and aunt were offered relative protection and safety while my father and uncle were sent to work in the labor camps. They were five of 200 people from Drohobycz who survived the war. After liberation, they immigrated to Canada in 1948. And while waiting for their immigration papers, my dad actually worked for Simon Wiesenthal at the Jewish Document Center in Austria.
My father never spoke of the Holocaust in my childhood home. It was just not a topic for discussion. It wasn’t until he had grandchildren that my father realized it was time to speak about his experiences. And then, rather than speak of the horrors that he witnessed, he chose to explore the question of why the Holocaust happened and focus on how to prevent it from happening again. He spoke in schools, at conferences and throughout the community about respect, kindness, integrity and finding good in one another. He offered messages of hope and inspiration, teaching children, many of whom faced their own difficult life challenges, to embrace love not hate. And in turn, they wrote him letters of thanks, telling Leo that if he could live through what he lived through, they felt hope for themselves.
Sitting in that darkened theater, shoulder to shoulder with my dad, I watched Tom Dugan as Wiesenthal bring history to life before my eyes. This was my dad’s story and this was why he felt compelled to share it; to bring justice to all who perished at the hands of the Nazis, and to bring this story forward as a memorial to them.
At one point during the performance, my dad turned to me and said, “If I didn’t know better I would think that I was sitting in Simon’s office with him discussing some of the work that we were doing.” It was at that moment I felt my moral obligation and responsibility to continue to tell the story and keep these memories alive. And be the voice of my father when his voice was no longer able to do so.
It was after the performance that I vowed to bring this important work home to the Twin Cities. I approached JCRC of Minnesota and the Dakotas in January 2016 and am grateful that they signed on to be our co-sponsor. Together we approached the Illusion Theater who agreed to share this award-winning work with our community. A wonderful partnership was formed, and together with our incredible donors, this vision has become reality.
Now more than ever, the message of my father and Simon Wiesenthal needs to be heard, and I am honored that we are able to help spread the word. This award-winning piece will debuts in the Twin Cities next week, directly following Yom Hashoah, at a time when revisiting history and teaching our community about tolerance and justice could not be more important.
The play runs April 25-30 at The Illusion Theater. Tickets are available on the Illusion Theater website.