Jewish Journal


September 14, 2010

The rebirth of Holocaust survivor Jacob ‘Jack’ Garfein


Jacob ‘Jack’ Garfein

Jacob ‘Jack’ Garfein

On May 11, 1946, a 15-year-old boy named Jacob Garfein, one of the first Holocaust child survivors to arrive in New York, attended a Mother’s Day celebration in honor of Mrs. David M. Levy, chairman and benefactor of the national women’s division of the United Jewish Appeal drive. The New York Times note read: “Jacob, a red-cheeked, red-headed boy who lost his mother, father and sister in German concentration camps — two of them in a crematorium — and who recalls how he had to help bury 15 to 18 corpses a day in [Bergen-]Belsen, gave the flowers in a simple tribute of thanks from the Jewish children who are still alive in Europe.”

Before the war, Jacob — now known as Jack Garfein, and as a renowned actor, stage director and filmmaker — had a peaceful childhood in his native Czechoslovakia, where he lived with his mother, Zionist leader father and younger sister.

With the start of World War II, the Garfein family was fractured and Jack’s life forever changed. One of his recurring memories of this time is of his arrival at Auschwitz, where most children under 16 were exterminated.

“I was 13 and clung to my mother, but she wanted me to go over with the men. I didn’t want to go. I felt so jealous of my sister. Finally, my mother really cursed me out, and she stayed with my sister. A cousin of mine who stayed with her told me that at one point my aunt was about to convince her to leave, when my sister said, ‘Don’t let me go, Mommy.’ And so, she looked at my cousin and said, ‘I can’t go.’ I got on line among the men, and I came in front of Mengele. He touched my face and asked me, ‘How old are you?’ I don’t know why ... I said, ‘16.’ ”

It is unfathomable how the boy endured what followed. The end of the war found him at the overcrowded Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he was liberated by British soldiers in April 1945. His 48-pound body was transported to a makeshift hospital adjacent to the camp. He remembers the day his caretakers turned his bed toward the window so that he could witness the burning of the typhus-infected Bergen-Belsen, where a month before, children such as Anne and Margot Frank had perished. For Jack, the experience was cathartic.

The Swedish government, through the intervention of Count Folke Bernadotte, offered 10,000 temporary visas for survivors.  Orphaned and in a wheelchair, Jacob was transported to a displaced-persons camp in Malmö, Sweden. Once there, he began the process of recuperation under the care of a young nun named Sister Hedvig. In a matter of months, he began taking his first steps.

Many people didn’t survive the liberation, due to malnourishment, illness and suicide, which makes Garfein’s life story the happy exception. An uncle’s affidavit secured him a visa for New York, and he arrived there in January 1946.

Garfein began learning English and nurturing his interest in acting; he also found strength in his Jewish faith. The hard work paid off, and in 1947 the United Jewish Appeal awarded him a scholarship to attend the prestigious Dramatic Workshop of the New School, where he studied acting and directing under Lee Strasberg and Erwin Piscator.

In Garfein’s recently released book, “Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor,” he explains how personal experience at times became overwhelming during performances: “As I said my line about being quarantined and not allowed to deliver the letter to Romeo, I thought again of all those that didn’t make it through the war, and my own good fortune of being on a stage in New York. In fact, the thought overtook me. I quickly put a fist in my mouth to suppress the emotion.”

He moved on to study directing in Strasberg’s newly established Actors Studio, where he directed the stage adaptation of Calder Willingham’s novel “End as a Man.” The play eventually served as his Broadway debut.

On Sept. 18, 1955, it was announced that Sam Spiegel, producer of such films as John Huston’s “The African Queen” (1951) and Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” (1954), had purchased the rights to produce “End as a Man.” When Spiegel offered the film to director Kazan, the filmmaker suggested Garfein for the job. To prepare for his film directorial debut, Garfein spent months observing Kazan during the filming of “Baby Doll” (1956), a film that featured the work of Carroll Baker, to whom Garfein was married at that time. The film adaptation of “End as a Man,” titled “The Strange One,” dealt with strong issues that ranged from homosexuality to race relations; considering the state of affairs of 1950s America, Spiegel requested less screen visibility for the African American actors in order to avoid censorship in the South. Garfein refused and paid the consequences — he was prohibited from editing the final version.

In July 1960, Garfein began shooting “Something Wild,” a semi-independent production based on the novel “Mary Ann,” which followed the traumas of a rape victim, played by Baker. The film’s $900,000 budget was financed by United Artists, and this time the film was shot on Garfein’s terms. One of his main approaches was to shoot chronologically, to help maintain the intensity of the actors’ performances.

In 1961, during a promotional tour of “Something Wild,” Garfein found himself back in Sweden. At a press conference, he asked for help finding his “second mother,” the woman who tended to him during his rehabilitation. By then a former nun and married, Hedvig Ekberg was photographed by the press with Garfein at their reunion. But this time, it was the once-vigorous woman who was in frail health. Garfein embraced her and offered to pay for her treatment.

Garfein’s prolific career includes helping found New York’s Harold Clurman Theatre and Samuel Beckett Theatre; and the acting schools Actors Studio in West Hollywood, the Actors and Directors Lab in New York and Los Angeles, and Le Studio Jack Garfein in Paris, where he currently directs and teaches.

On Sept. 18 and 19, the UCLA Film & Television Archive will spotlight the director’s film legacy with “Method and Madness: The Films of Jack Garfein,” including screenings of “The Strange One” (1957) and “Something Wild” (1961). The tribute at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum will also feature a screening of Brian McKenna’s documentary, “A Journey Back” (1987), which follows Garfein’s return to Auschwitz.

Garfein will be in attendance at all screenings and will sign copies of his new book on Sept. 19 in the lobby of the theater.

“Method and Madness: The films of Jack Garfein” will take place at the: Billy Wilder Theater_, Courtyard Level, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024._ For more information: www.cinema.ucla.edu  or (310) 206-8013.

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