Ver iz ver?

[Who Is Who?]


Act I. Professor Alexander Schelling, a celebrated mathematician, is a German refugee who, with his son Ludwig, a college student, and his paralyzed daughter Elizabeth, have been living in the United States for the past two years. With him also is his sister Mary, who raised the children from early infancy and has been running the household since the untimely death of the professor’s wife. In Germany, Professor Shelling hid his Jewish identity so completely that neither his children nor his closest friends knew that the family was Jewish. But when Hitler came to power, the professor was sent to a concentration camp. Released after five months, he and his family fled to the United States. Here he declined a professorship at a large university in New York and accepted one at a smaller institution in Connecticut where he avoids all contact with other Jews. He even enrolled his son in a college in Nebraska. Mary’s beau Dr. Ziro (also a refugee and one of the professor’s few friends) tries to persuade him that total assimilation is unnecessary in the United States. Mary, too, pleads with her brother that he tell his children that they are Jewish. But Professor Shelling remains adamant. He thinks his children will suffer from a Jewish identity and wants to spare them this pain. Ludwig brings two student friends, Ada and Leo Samuels, to the house. Because their name is Samuels and they are Lower East Side Jews, the professor forbids them admittance to his home or further association with his son. Ludwig is outraged by his father’s conduct. He is in love with Ada and strongly resents being isolated both from friends and from New York. An American-Jewish author and journalist, Herman Schacht, is in love with Mary. Schelling voices, in no uncertain terms, his objections to Mr. Schacht. If his sister is to marry at all, his choice is Dr. Ziro. He will under no circumstances tolerate Mr. Schacht in his home. Mr. Schacht, who is compiling a new edition of Who Is Who, plans to include a short biography of the professor. When the proofs are submitted to him, the professor is beside himself with indignation. He finds himself in a frightful predicament. Confronted with the danger that his children will discover that he has been hiding their Jewish identity for years, Professor Shelling threatens to take take legal steps and compel Mr. Schacht to omit the biography. Mr. Schacht accepts the challenge. In this country, he says, no one need fear or be ashamed of being a Jew. Shocked and extremely agitated by this unexpected event, which threatens his children’s happiness, the professor leaves for New York to see his friend Judge Evans and seek an injunction against the publication of the book. No one, he argues, has a right to invade his private life, or the dictates of his conscience.

Act II. Judge Evans is a sympathetic, liberal, and broad-minded man who considers American democracy and the constitution sacred. He welcomes Professor Shelling and says he is willing to help in any way he can, but finds himself powerless to interfere with the free press or free speech. It is impossible for him to grant the injunction. When the professor learns from reporters that the news of his action against Mr. Schacht has already been made public, he breaks down. Judge Evans consoles his friend but also gently rebukes him for trying to conceal his faith. By denying and disowning his race he also denies the principles of American democracy and liberty, he tells him. Professor Shelling protests that he often hears his colleagues discussing Jews in derisive terms, and finds it necessary to continue hiding his Jewish identity and thereby protect his children. Schacht arrives at the judge’s chambers and vigorously protests the professor’s attitude and accuses him of being a Jewish antisemite. Judge Evans, however, is sympathetic. He realizes that the professor’s motives are neither selfish nor material and appeals to Schacht to omit the biography from Who Is Who. Schacht, an upright American and proud Jew advises Judge Evans to take the professor for a tour of a Jewish neighborhood and to involve the inhabitants in the debate. Professor Schelling tells Judge Evans his tragic biography. More than twenty years ago, during a pogrom in Ukraine, his wife was killed and infant daughter thrown to the ground and paralyzed. Before his wife passed away, she begged him to promise that their children would be spared from suffering as Jews. He should not even tell them the true cause of her death. He left for Germany and there educated his children as non-Jews. Even his time in the concentration camp did not change his mind. Schacht retorts that the professor is not the only victim; if all Jews who had been persecuted were to renounce their Judaism, the Jewish people would cease to exist. Mary and Dr. Ziro arrive. They try to persuade the professor to return home. Mary has already told Ludwig the truth of his identity. Professor Schelling is completely defeated. Ludwig enters and confronts his father. He demands to know why he has been kept ignorant of his Jewish birth. He is ashamed to think that he remained silent when Jewish students were ridiculed and beaten; he is ashamed to look at the portrait of his mother who had been deprived of the honor of being called a Jewish mother. In his agitation, he tells his father he will never forgive him. He leaves the judge’s office to go to his friends, the Samuels. Professor Shelling withdraws his suit against Schacht. Now that Ludwig knows all, it does not matter any longer whether the biography is published or not. But he asks Judge Evans who will protect his Ludwig when the terror of Fascism and Nazism reaches these shores. What is the world doing now to defend and protect the many Ludwigs who are being slaughtered like so many sheep? Subdued, broken, disheartened, the professor leaves the judge’s chambers.

Act III. Elizabeth and her nurse Emma are waiting at home for the professor’s return. Elizabeth suspects that her father was thrown into concentration camp for being a Jew, especially since Ludwig has been acting strangely. Professor Schelling comes home. She demands to know the truth of her mother’s death. She wants to rise from her wheel chair and go in search of those who crippled her for life, but falls into an exhausted sleep. Judge Evans comes to the house. He apologizes for his intrusion, but the hearing in his chambers earlier in the day left a deep impression on him. He wants to help Professor Schelling heal. He reminds his friend that he is living in the free United States not in Hitler’s brutal Germany; that America will defend the Jew against tyrants and despots. Ludwig returns, but only to get his books and a few personal belongings. He wishes to live openly as a Jew and the Samuels family is happy to receive him and his disabled sister. Ludwig is ready to take Elizabeth with him at once, but his father forbids it and Ludwig departs for the new life awaiting him. Elizabeth, awakened by Ludwig’s rage, manages somehow to struggle out of bed and drags herself, for the first time in her life without any aid, to her father’s study. She cries out that she heard everything Ludwig had to say; she is a Jewess and wants to go with Ludwig. She calls to her mother for help. But suddenly she falls to the ground in a faint; she only thought she had overcome her paralysis. Schacht and Ada come to urge the professor to go with them to New York and be reconciled with his son and the Samuels family. Schacht pleads with him to cease waging a war with himself. Judge Evans asks the others to go ahead and promises to follow with Schelling. When they have left, the professor loses complete control of himself and weeps bitterly. He sees no point in living and wants to follow the suicidal path taken by many of his friends in Germany. He reaches for a revolver which he obtained from a storm trooper in the concentration camp, where revolvers and poison were readily supplied to those able and willing to pay sufficient graft. Judge Evans succeeds in taking the gun from him. He tells the professor that suicide is cowardly and leads nowhere. It also helps Hitler. He tells the professor to rejoin his children and use his talents to help the Jewish people. Professor Shelling looks fondly and longingly at the portrait of his wife. Her eyes seem to console him and urge him on to return to his son and to his people.

Synopsis adapted from Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theater program by Sonia Gollance.