Karen’s Way to Jerusalem

A drama about poet Karen Gershon’s journey from the Kindertransport to England, Israel and back will feature at Beit Avi Chai’s Stage One Theater Festival.

Play Stars (photo credit: Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)
Play Stars
(photo credit: Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)
Like 10,000 other Jewish children and youths from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, Karen Gershon left her parents to take the only possible route to survival.
Gershon was on the second Kindertransport out of Nazi Germany in December 1938, just five weeks after Kristallnacht, when she was 15 years old. Like most of her travelmates, she would never see her parents again.
Gershon eventually became a writer and a poet, with all her works feeding off the trauma of her relocation to Britain and the subsequent experiences that stayed with her throughout her life. She died 20 years ago at the age of 70, and the story of her life and work will be portrayed in Karen’s Way: A Kindertransport Life at Beit Avi Chai this Wednesday and Thursday as part of this year’s Stage One English-language theater festival.
Karen’s Way was written by British playwright Vanessa Rosenthal, based on some of Gershon’s works. The play was one of the highlights of last year’s Edinburgh Festival and stars Rosenthal as the adult Gershon and Francesca Larkin as the young Gershon, with musical accompaniment by violinist David Riley and pianist Marion Raper.
Rosenthal is a respected member of the thespian fraternity in Britain. Her theater acting credits include roles in Alan Bennett’s The Lady In The Van, and in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, and she has appeared on TV and radio in a wide range of works.
She is also an acclaimed playwright and author, with four novels under her belt.
Her plays, which often feed off her Jewish roots, include Jerusalem North West, about an elderly widow who converted to Judaism to marry her man and is now dying in a Jewish retirement home, and Exchanges in Bialystok, which was produced on BBC Radio 4 in 2003 and is based on a trip made by a 76-year-old professor to the Polish town where his family perished during World War II.
The Holocaust features strongly in Rosenthal’s oeuvre, even though she says she has no direct connection with the Kindertransport. “My grandparents came to Britain in the late 19th century,” she notes, “so I have no direct family connection with the Holocaust.
Mind you, there was a young student who died in the Bialystok uprising called Herschel Rosenthal, and my father always said that he was a relative.
But I can’t verify that.”
Not having any personal Holocaust baggage was something of a doubleedged sword for Rosenthal in the context of Karen’s Way. “I suppose, in a way, it made it a bit easier to address Holocaust-related material. Actually, for a long time I couldn’t do that.”
In fact, however, she had already touched on the subject matter, in Exchanges in Bialystok, and it was the Jewish producer of that play who gave her a nudge in the requisite direction.
“I told him I didn’t feel I had the right to write, in any way, about the Holocaust. He was the one who said I must, and that was the first time I really contemplated writing something about the Holocaust.”
The seed for Karen’s Way was planted long before Exchanges in Bialystok.
Rosenthal came across Gershon’s work some time ago. “Way back in the 1980s, a non-Jewish writer I know asked me if I knew Karen Gershon’s poetry and I said I didn’t, and he gave me a book of her poems. I was very struck by them,” recalls Rosenthal.
She finally got down to putting her impressions of Gershon’s poetry, and Gershon’s life, into tangible form around 12 months ago, although the original format soon changed. “I decided I would write a one-woman show about Karen Gershon,” she says, “but while I was writing it, I thought we needed to hear Karen as a younger person as well. So we have Karen as an older person and a youngster in the play, and the story is told through her writing and through music.”
While Karen’s Way: A Kindertransport Life is a dramatization, with live music, of Gershon’s life based largely on her own words and poems, Rosenthal says she had her work cut out for her to achieve the final product we will see at Beit Avi Chai next week. “I have had to be very very careful about devising the whole thing and putting it together, to make her tell a complete story within a time frame of an hour and a half,” she says.
Rosenthal was very sensitive to how Gershon’s story would come across and says she ran her work by a source very close to the heroine of the play. “I was in touch with Karen’s older daughter, Stella, and I was sending her the drafts and making sure the family was happy with what I was doing. Obviously, I had Stella’s full permission to go ahead with the play.”
GERSHON’S OTHER daughter, Naomi Shmuel, is also a writer and lives in Jerusalem. She is, naturally, delighted about the prospect of her mother’s story being told in her adopted hometown and was, in fact, the one to broach the subject to Beit Avi Chai.
“I’m sure it would mean a lot to my mother [to have the play performed here],” says Shmuel. “I have seen a DVD of the play – I missed the Edinburgh Festival because I broke my leg. I was very impressed and look forward to seeing the real thing on stage.”
Shmuel is fully supportive of Rosenthal’s decision to opt for a dualrole portrayal of her mother’s life, adding that there is essentially no dividing line between the younger and older Gershon. “The dialogue between the younger, recently orphaned Karen and the older, wiser version with hindsight, depicts the story of her life. She never really let go of the 15-year-old girl she was when she left home.”
That also informed Shmuel’s own early life. “Every separation carried with it her final separation from her parents. As a child I was intuitively aware of this; it made even short-term partings hard.”
Rosenthal believes that Karen’s Way addresses a far wider issue than just Gershon’s life and work. “The play is largely about the consequences of the Holocaust. It is about the effect, about little children being uprooted from family, culture, country, everything. And it’s not just about the Holocaust, it is also about Karen’s emergence as a poet.”
The latter, says Rosenthal, was not a direct result of Gershon’s traumatic relocation and subsequent events. “She would have been a poet with or without the Holocaust. She wrote poetry when she was seven or eight, but she wrote about the Holocaust because of her experiences.”
Toward the end of her life, Gershon got the opportunity to revisit her childhood vistas when a British TV Channel 4 documentary team went back with her to Bielefeld, Germany. Sadly, a year later, Gershon went into hospital for heart surgery and died as a result of post-operative complications.
According to Shmuel, her mother will be well represented at next week’s performances.
“The way things worked out, most of Karen’s grandchildren grew up and live in Israel today. I’m glad they will have this opportunity to see the play,” she says.