downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 | Issue 24 | Oct. 27 - Nov. 2, 2006 Theater

Portrait of a family reunion

Portrait of a Silent Spring
By David Verbeeck and Griet De Wolf
Music by Wim Verhoeven
Performed in English
Fri. & Sat., Oct. 27-28 at 7:30 p.m.
Sun., Oct. 28 at 3 p.m.
Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
(212-766-9200; henrystreet.org/arts)
Tickets available at theatermania.com or 212-352-3101

Photo by Luc Monsaert
The New York premiere of “Portrait of a Silent Spring” will reunite 60 members of the Kalter clan, likely related to one of the characters in the internationally acclaimed musical.

By Vivienne Leheny

The curtain rises and through the lifting darkness we hear Moses Kalter (David Verbeeck) reading from his love letter to his wife Chaja: “Sometimes we must return to yesterday to explain today.”

This is true not just for Moses but for the entire Kalter family, and specifically two men, from different parts of the world, whose private obsessions inspired personal odysseys that spanned centuries, and an ocean, to join them this weekend in an extraordinary event.

David Verbeeck’s “Portrait of a Stolen Spring,” winner of the Dutch 2004 De Morgen Prize for Best Musical, makes its U.S. premiere for three performances at the Abrons Arts Center (October 27th – October 29th). The musical chronicles the relationship of Moses Kalter and Chaja Zimmerman, Verbeeck’s great great grandparents, and their failed attempt to emigrate to America. Sitting in the audience will be over 60 members of the far-flung Kalter family, reunited through the efforts of Logan J. Kleinwaks. His own genealogical research led to Verbeeck, and the realization that the musical’s Moses Kalter is likely the Moses Kalter to whom Kleinwaks’ has traced a common ancestry on his mother’s side, dating back to the 18th century. In a moment of perfect symmetry, the extended Kalter family will be witness to Moses’ and Chaja’s final “coming to America” — bittersweet for its belatedness, joyful in its significance.

Verbeeck’s journey began on the New Year’s Eve of 2003 when his father handed him a copy of the Jewish Registry of Oostende (Belgium). There he first learned the names of Moses and Chaja and that they were Russian Jews. His curiosity became a fixation when he discovered they had left their small hometown (likely destroyed during WWII) outside of Odessa, to make the long and arduous trek to Antwerp with the intention of boarding a Red Star Line passenger ship to join Chaja’s sister and her family in America. Their hopes were cruelly dashed when the tickets they’d purchased proved to be counterfeit. With no money left to buy passage fare, and three young children in tow, Moses and Chaja settled in Antwerp and built a new life from scratch.

The more detail his genealogical search uncovered, the more compelling his need to tell their story and to bring Moses and Chaja to life — to “give them back a face, and dignity,” says Verbeeck, an award-winning actor and director in both Belgium and Holland. The culminating moment came when Verbeeck was handed Chaja’s passport and other papers that had been taken from her just before her deportation to Auschwitz. “The state had confiscated all documents instead of letting them be destroyed by the Germans. So one day, the Ministry of War Veterans called me up . . . an envelope with her belongings had been kept for over 60 years and I could come and reclaim it if I wanted to. It was a very intense experience, holding those documents of a woman I had never known. . . it suddenly made me realize where I came from.” Not long after, the idea of “Portrait” was conceived and along with writer Griet De Wolf and composer Wim Verhoeven, Verbeeck gave Moses and Chaja, not just their “face and dignity” back, but their voice.

At the same time that Verbeeck was embarking on his excavation of Moses’ and Chaja’s life together, Kleinwaks’ began his own family dig. His interest had first been “sparked” by a genealogy project in junior high school. His grandfather was alive then and gave the teenager “years of correspondence with relatives known and suspected,” Kleinwaks says. But the genealogical trail went cold as Kleinwaks’ devoted himself to his school studies. Then in 2003, “with the benefit of the Internet. . . and using my grandfather’s old correspondence as a starting point,” Kleinwaks began his research in earnest. In the last three years, he’s compiled information on over 3200 Kalter family members, relying heavily on online resources like JewishGen Family Finder (at www.JewishGen.org).

It was through a JewishGen discussion group that Kleinwaks’ first learned of Verbeeck. “I had asked for information about records from a town, now in Ukraine, where some of my Kalter relatives had lived, and mentioned that I was particularly interested in the Kalter surname. A Belgian genealogist responded…There was a Kalter family in Oostende. Searching with Google, I found ‘Kalter’ and ‘Oostende’ mentioned in an article about ‘Portrait.’ ” Kleinwaks sent an email to Verbeeck, care of the theatre, and they began a regular correspondence. Verbeeck was amazed at the connection. Kleinwaks would email “with all sorts of interesting things about the family, things of which I often wondered, ‘How could he possibly know this?’ It was mind-boggling. He sent me pictures of Moses’ grave in Holland even before I knew where it was.”

A talented researcher, the 27-year-old Kleinwaks is a scientist based in the Washington, D.C. area. He’s used his prodigious gifts to effect this remarkable family reunion, bringing together Kalter family members — many of whom will meet for the first time — from Florida, Virginia, Massachusetts, Arizona, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Canada, Israel, and, of course, Belgium. “David mentioned long ago the possibility that he might bring “Portrait” to New York, and when it actually happened, we jumped at the opportunity to organize a reunion around it,” says Kleinwaks.

“In times like these, with all these wars and all of this hatred going on… I think it is important that little plays like ours give people some time to reflect on their own lives and the world in which we live,” adds Verbeeck. Family is at the heart of this reflection. And like their ancestor Moses, Verbeeck and Kleinwaks believe that the past holds the answer to our present.

Because the performances are presented in conjunction with the South Street Seaport Museum’s “Antwerp and the Emigrants of the Red Star Line,” adult admission to the museum exhibit is 50% off with presentation of the musical’s ticket receipt during the weekend run of the show.

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