Local Holocaust survivor’s story retold by Holocaust Center/Prime Stage Theatre
New play tells the life of former Squirrel Hill businessman Melvin Goldman
Playwright L.E. McCullough is quick to note that he doesn’t have Jewish ancestry. He is just as quick to explain that he has Jewish blood.
“When my mother was ready to deliver me, she was critically ill,” McCullough said, “and the only thing that kept her from dying and allowed me to be born was that a friend of my father in dental school, Gerald Epstein, had the correct blood type.”
Epstein’s gift of his blood “saved my life,” McCullough said.
His connection to Judaism has remained strong throughout his career. He has written two books of Jewish plays— “Plays of Ancient Israel” and “Plays of Israel Reborn”— and also adapted the book “Perseverance: A Holocaust Survivor’s Journey from Poland to America” for the stage.
Prime Stage Theatre and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh are partnering to produce “Perseverance” on April 15 and 16 at the New Hazlett Theater in recognition of Genocide Awareness Month.
This is the third year the two organizations have partnered to present a play for Genocide Awareness Month. In 2021, they produced “Miracle In Rwanda” and last year “The White Rose” was staged. This year, McCullough said, the two commissioned “Perseverance” because they wanted to have a local focus.
“This is very local,” he said. “It starts, obviously, in World War II, but then it’s really about how the Pittsburgh community embraced this one Holocaust survivor’s journey from Poland to Pittsburgh — and that was Melvin Goldman.”
Goldman immigrated to Squirrel Hill after surviving both the Łódź Jewish ghetto and Auschwitz. He founded the G&S Jewelry Store on the corner of Darlington Road and Murray Avenue.
The store, McCullough said, is where the audience meets Goldman, who tells his story of perseverance and survival.
“The first time we see Melvin, he’s in his shop and answering the phone,” the playwright said. “In the next 30 seconds, we see who he is. He’s humorous, he’s generous, he’s kind. He’s actually done something to enhance a piece of jewelry for a customer without even charging more. We just see who he is. He takes on challenges and just wants to make the world a better place.”
Goldman’s daughter, Lee Goldman Kikel, penned the book on which the play is based, relying on audio tapes recorded by her father during downtime at the store while she was away at college.
“He would be conducting business and then you hear the doorbell ring and the telephone ring, and the tape turns off and then he picks it back up,” she said.
Her father recorded the tapes in the 1970s, telling his life’s story chronologically.
“He did it before a lot of survivors were recording and telling their stories,” Kikel said. “He thought it was important to preserve those tapes.”
Goldman put the tapes in a box in his closet where they sat until he died in 1996. His wife moved them to another closet, and when she died in 2012, Kikel brought the tapes to her house where they remained unopened until the family planned a trip to Berlin in 2015 to retrace some of her father’s steps.
“My son said, ‘I think it’s time you listen to the tapes,’” Kikel recalled. “It was almost 20 years since he was gone. Just hearing his voice, I immediately turned off the tapes and said, ‘OK, I’ll do this in increments.’”
What she found when she listened to the recordings was her father saying numerous times that he was recording his memories as the basis for a book. Kikel decided to honor his wishes.
It was a Prime Stage Theatre board member who suggested adapting the book for the stage, said Wayne Brinda, the production artistic director and co-founder of the theater.
“The book brings up something very unique,” Brinda said. “It’s about a Pittsburgh survivor and what he did to basically turn his life around.”
Brinda, who also serves as a museum teaching fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said that he’s read a lot of Holocaust literature.
“But this one got to me simply because of the whole thing about preserving, and what [Goldman] learned from his father, how he practiced it his entire life in the ghetto and in Auschwitz and even when he came to Pittsburgh as a refugee,” Brinda said.
Brinda said he was moved by Goldman’s story of survival and perseverance and how he “really made a difference in the community.”
Christina Sahovey, the Holocaust Center’s operation manager, said the center is pleased to partner with Prime Stage Theatre for a third year and to bring a play focusing on the Holocaust — with a local connection — as part of Genocide Awareness Month.
Prime Stage Theatre was awarded a $10,000 National Endowment of the Arts grant to produce “Perseverance.” Sahovey said the play will be the first offered by the two organizations live, due to the COVID restrictions of the last two years.
“This play will be another great opportunity — and a pretty unique one, at that — for people to learn more about a local survivor’s story, which is always at the heart of everything we do at the Holocaust Center,” Sahovey said.
McCullough said that the play has universal themes and will appeal to a large audience, both in and out of the city.
The play, he said, offers “a sense of the local color.” Through Melvin, it also imparts a universal message:
“No matter what life throws at you, you have just one direction to go — find the way.”
“Perseverance” will run in person on April 15 and 16 at the New Hazlett Theater. A recording will be available to stream from April 24 through May 7. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at [email protected]