George Stern never celebrated his bar mitzvah. The Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944, a month before his 13th birthday on April 21. Now, over 70 years later, playwright Alicia DesMarteau is doing her best to make up for Stern’s loss.
DesMarteau is co-ordinating a staged reading of her new play, My Lost Bar Mitzvah, which is about Stern’s life from 1941 to 1948, beginning when he was 10 and ending when he was 17. The reading takes place at Beth Torah Congregation in Toronto on Dec. 12. Stern died last year, but his remaining family is appreciative of DesMarteau’s efforts to memorialize their patriarch.
DesMarteau based My Lost Bar Mitzvah on Stern’s memoir, Vanished Boyhood, nine hours of interviews with him, as well as research from “dozens, if not hundreds, of books,” she said.
The play begins with Stern showing up to his bar mitzvah class 70 years late. This fictional bar mitzvah class anchors the structure of the play, which weaves together Stern’s memories of his childhood with his preparation for his bar mitzvah, eventually ending with a bar mitzvah rehearsal.
“There was sort of this empty space that was this ache that was still there from all those years ago, the sort of missing piece of his identity.… It dawned on me that it wasn’t just George who had lost his bar mitzvah, it was this entire generation that came of age during the Holocaust that lost that moment,” said DesMarteau. “It asks the question: is it possible to restore in some sense that moment that was lost?”
Stern grew up in Ujpest, a suburb of the Hungarian capital of Budapest. When the Nazis invaded, Stern’s father acquired Christian identity papers for him and sent him to hide on a vineyard owned by a Christian farmer. Stern returned to Budapest on Oct. 15, 1944, under the assumption that Hungary was poised to surrender to the Allied forces. In actuality, that was the day that the fascist Arrow Cross Party staged a coup and took power.
Stern displayed some moments of defiance while living in Nazi-occupied Hungary. As a 13-year-old boy in the ghetto, he refused to wear the yellow star. Also at 13, he became an air raid commander for a building he was hiding in during the siege of Budapest, meaning it was his job to direct the civilians in the building. At one point, Arrow Cross soldiers came to him asking if he knew of any Jews in the building. Stern replied something along the lines of, “No, brother, but if you want, I will go and I will look for them with you.”
“The presence of mind for a 13-year-old, it’s extraordinary,” said DesMarteau.
Stern was able to survive the war and became part of the first legal aliyah from Hungary to Israel in 1948. He fought in the War of Independence, ran a successful business in Brazil and eventually settled in Canada.
“There is definitely kind of a sense of trepidation, just that weight of responsibility to being faithful to who he was, being faithful to his story, being faithful to his spirit, as well,” said DesMarteau. “There was this defiance that characterized him, there was this joy that characterized him … and that was something I wanted to bring out in this play. So the play is structured as a dramatic comedy. It’s not structured as a tragedy.”
She also related a story about watching him dance with the Torah as an 83-year-old man during Simchat Torah, which helped her realized that Stern’s “sparkle, that zest for life, was still evident.”
Paul Stern, George Stern’s son, is moved by DesMarteau’s adaptation of his father’s life.
“I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s kind of surreal and she’s very talented. She had a special relationship with my father, she knew him personally, and this is a great honour,” he said. “My father would have been very happy that she is doing it.”
To register, go to mylostbarmitzvah.eventbrite.ca. Admission is free.