While Israel is celebrating 70 years of independence, the voices of anti-Semites are still sounding from different corners of the world. The old, painful stories of hatred are being brought to the surface again through different mediums in order to help stop this continuing wave of terror.
One particularly special story is told in the play “Train to Zakopané,” directed by Henry Jaglom, which was adapted to film and will be released in May. The story is based on the true events that occurred in the life of Jaglom’s father as he crossed Poland on a train in 1928. Starring in this film is the beautiful and talented actress Tanna Frederick. I called Tanna to hear her thoughts on her role in the film, and how a film such as this has the power to change the still-present hatred of our modern day world.
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So most importantly Tanna—is why do you think you took this role?
“I took it because I believe Henry Jaglom is a beautiful playwright and I think the material is so important for right now with different Anti-Semitic movements that have been going on and popping up all over the world again. Even though this is an earlier time, it’s still a timeless story and it’s very important that it gets told. The character was very scary, it really frightened me to play an anti-Semitic woman.”
Why was that? I mean, you’re not Jewish, you’re Catholic, did you sympathize more with the Jewish character? Or with a Catholic character?
“It’s not about sympathizing with either side, I’m more interested in telling the story and having people leave and feel changed, and feel in some way that they need to look at the world politically and socially and be moved to become a little more activated as to what’s going on. I think I don’t sympathize with either side. I just don’t believe in hatred, I sympathize with people and doing artwork and theater and film that creates some sort of eye-opening experience, politically and socially.”
Do you really believe that art can change minds and hearts?
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.”
And in what way can a play or a film effect change?
“When I was playing the character, the anti-Semitic nurse on the stage, her name is Katia, I had to make such incendiary remarks about Jewish people, how my lines were written, like I said “I can smell a Jew from a kilometer away”, I said terrible things about Hasidic Jews, just a whole bunch of very incendiary remarks.”
Are they real remarks? Do you think the remarks came from real life occurrences?
“Yes. It’s a true story written about Henry’s father. When he was on a train in Poland he was in a compartment and met this lovely girl, the nurse. Henry’s father was Jewish but at the time there was so much Anti-Semitism, in 1928 Poland, that since he was such a wealthy businessman he would often pass as not being Jewish. So he was in this luxury train compartment, and all of the people in the compartment started making terrible comments about the Jews and that’s when my character, the nurse, said “I can smell a Jew from a kilometer away.”
“Yes, and Henry’s father, being Jewish, thought to himself, I’m going to kiss the girl, meaning, you know, sleep with her, and then tell her that I’m Jewish. So that was his plan to sort of get back at her for the comment. And the really neat thing too about the film is that Henry actually has his father, when he’s 96, telling Henry the story about this experience at the beginning of the film and at the end of the film, which is a really cool side note.
“But so what happened is the two ended up actually falling in love, this nurse and Henry’s father, this is a true story, and they end up having this affair on the train. They ended up actually falling in love with each other, kind of love at first sight.”
Did the affair continue? Or did it stop right there?
“So then what happened was they kind of almost made plans, but the whole time Henry’s father kept thinking, should I tell her I’m Jewish or should I not? Because he really developed feelings for her. And so he didn’t know what to do so he was continuing on this charade with her, and he was very upset and confused.
“So what happened was, when it was time for both of them to get off the train, they both got up, and he kissed her very passionately and he said “but you know, I’m Jewish.” And her eyes welled up with tears, she ran away, and then she actually ran back, put her father’s ring on his finger and then ran away again. And her father had lost his job and his life to a Hasidic Jew. So the whole story is seeing where hatred and love and bigotry come from.”
Where is it coming from?
“Oh gosh. Well I think with the political landscape right now, what’s going on in Syria, there’s a certain unrest that’s happening globally. I don’t know why it peaks and rises at some points. I would say it’s probably the administration, and I think people feel it’s okay to be judgmental.”
And to hate! I mean, do people feel that they have the permission to hate one another?
“Well, I don’t know the answer to that. But all I can do is try to create pieces, theatrical pieces and film pieces, where I might be able to make people think twice about that and themselves. And take a look at their own history and maybe discover something about their own judgment that might transform them. I definitely can’t change the world, especially right now, but I can try to create an artistic piece that transforms people. That’s what I have chosen to do with my life. And you know, I’ve certainly seen people transformed by film. There have been many films that move people.”
They do move people. But if we can go back to Anti-Semitism, how different do you think Anti-Semitism was then? On one hand you are that nurse from back then and you can smell the Jews from a kilometer away, why do you think she turned so bitter against the Jews?
“In this particular story it was because her father had killed himself after he lost his business to a Hasidic Jew. I think hatred comes from deep love and I think it comes from fear of the other.
I think that could happen with anyone, with African Americans, with Indian culture, I think it just happens when people are hurt and they can’t forgive. But it stems from love.”
Stems from love and turns into hate.
“Stems from deep love and turns into hate, I think.”
Love of something and hate of the other causes so much pain to the one you love? Could it be also from jealousy? Especially with Anti-Semitism, do you think it came from jealousy? I’m asking you now as a person and as an actress in this film. When you’re playing that character, do you feel the hatred and the anger is towards these Jews that are more successful than her father was?
“Yeah, at that time that was her story and that was her reality.”
Was she able to overcome that hatred by falling in love with this young man on the train?
“Well, it’s my character choice that, absolutely, and that’s because I’m an altruist and I need to believe change is possible or I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing as an artist and a human being. So I want very badly to believe that love can overcome hatred and that understanding can overcome hatred as well. So yeah, I chose as a character, I didn’t say it of course, the script didn’t allow me to say that, it leaves the audience guessing what she actually feels. But I believe that she fell in love and never found another man.”
So in fact, although she is sort of showing but not showing that in spite of the fact that she hates the Jews, since she fell in love with the Jewish man, that she is willing to forgive?
That’s the reflection of the film?
“Yeah, I think it is.”
And was it that way in reality?
“Well, Henry’s father never saw her again. But I believe so because Henry’s father kept the ring that she gave him and put it in a safe for the rest of his life. The fact that he saved that ring speaks volumes, I feel. I mean, he went on to marry a beautiful Jewish woman and have both Henry and his brother. But I think those tiny moments in life that people have like that, where they just brush up against something that is so moving, are the most life-changing and important experiences. And I guess that’s also what you show in film and theater; those tiny little moments that maybe take place in a day, two days, but those are the moments that last forever.”
Yes, and he treasured it, it was important to him that these moments will be treasured forever, not just for him but for other audiences.
Was it his wish or his sons wish, to put it into a play and a film?
“It was Henry’s wish. And he was very nervous to do it. Because I know his father didn’t even tell Henry about the story until he was much older.”
Which means he was still thinking about it from time to time.
“Right. And Henry said his mother walked by the doorway while his father was telling Henry the story and his father lowered his voice.”
Tsipi: Still he is afraid to tell it, as if he was not loyal to her, right?
Tanna: Yeah exactly. It’s amazing.
Tsipi: Even in his thoughts he feels guilty that he is even thinking about this young woman that he had this affair with. So it probably stayed with him forever. That is a human moment and it says a lot about his father, of course.
“And what I find really special about that as well is, at the beginning of the play and the movie, his father also has certain prejudices against the fact, you know, he said he was going to kiss the girl and then tell her he was Jewish, so there was a certain amount of animosity on his behalf as well. But then they were both moved, both parties were moved and still remembered each other for the rest of their lives. And that is a moment of love that overcame the anti-Semitism. Not just the anti-Semitism, but that sense of the other, that sense of hatred.”
So tell me about that interesting situation that people always ask, okay, how can you be so nasty on stage? How can you live with this? So you are nasty on stage and then you are coming home, do you have kids?
“No, no I don’t. I want to but I have to keep putting it off because I keep doing these difficult characters. Thank goodness I didn’t have kids while I was doing this show!”
That’s interesting! Why do you think thank goodness? Do you think if you were a mother and doing something so nasty, so painful, you would come home and continue to behave like that?
“No, absolutely not. Never.”
Where do you draw the line?
“Well, what I’m saying is, playing that role was absolutely exhausting, it was uncomfortable.
“When Henry wrote it I thought, this is such an awful character to play, how am I going to make anyone like her? How am I going to make this a love story where people want the two of them to get together when she’s saying these horrible things about Jewish people? So every night it was just exhausting to go through that and to play that arch of the character. I had to make her human, I had to make people start to enjoy her and fall in love with her and know her side of the story. And that’s really hard to do when in the first ten minutes of the play, or the movie, I’m saying “I can smell a Jew from a kilometer away”, that’s really, really hard to get the audience on your side after that, it’s pretty much impossible.”
For you to say that, what did it take? How many takes did you need in the film to say it with real hatred?
“I actually didn’t want to go over the top with the delivery of it. And I think an anti-Semite and a bigot has these comments that are passed down from generation to generation. So I really threw it away, I said it as if I were saying like, I hate macaroni and cheese. Because I think that’s a more powerful choice. And I was directed to do that. That made it all the more kind of eerie because it’s not being over the top. She said it very simply.
“I’ve studied a lot of documentaries and the people that are so intolerant of other cultures, they don’t scream about it as much as they just have this undercurrent. I find it more spooky when they throw their comments away and they say it so calmly and so matter-of-factly that they don’t believe in something, they don’t believe in a culture. So that’s the choice I made so it wasn’t too over the top.”
Yeah. That’s very interesting. That’s very good.
“Can I give you an example of what I think is a brilliant performance of a man whose opinion has changed and is not too over the top? Schindler’s List. Schindler’s List was brilliant because he played that so elegantly. He played his hatred and Anti-Semitism so elegantly, so that by the time at the end, when he was saying “One more, I could’ve saved one more”, which is where my character goes at the end of the movie and the end of the play. I don’t want to give too much away because we’re opening May 2nd, but I do want to say that she has that transformation. And it’s because of love and because of her father’s death, and because of life. I really loved that about the character and I loved that about this piece. I feel it changes people’s hearts.”