Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cache of audiotapes inspires new play about a Holocaust survivor in Pittsburgh

Melvin (then Mieczyslaw) Goldman and his siblings photographed in the 1930s, in Poland. Only Melvin (on the far right) and his brother Aron (second from left) survived the Holocaust.
Courtesy of Lee Goldman Kikel
Melvin (then Mieczyslaw) Goldman and his siblings photographed in the 1930s, in Poland. Only Melvin (on the far right) and his brother Aron (second from left) survived the Holocaust.

Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Lee Goldman Kikel heard about the historical genocide then starting to become widely known as the Holocaust. She also knew her relatives were few, and she understood her father, Melvin Goldman, had survived the camps. But Melvin, a Squirrel Hill jeweler, never really talked about his experience, and details were scant.

What changed that was a box of cassette tapes Kikel found after her father died, in 1996.

Melvin had made the tapes starting in 1978, sitting at the office desk of Lee Trading Company, the shop above the landmark Manor Theatre he’d opened in the early ’60s (and named for his only child). Speaking into a handheld microphone, this fixture of the Squirrel Hill community privately shared thoughts and stories that, as far as Kikel knew, he’d never shared with anyone else.

Melvin Goldman
Courtesy of Lee Goldman Kikel
Melvin Goldman lived most of his life in Pittsburgh.

When Kikel found the tapes, she had a sense what was on them. So it took her two decades to work up to listening to them, and even then only after she was prompted by an upcoming family trip to Europe, including Melvin’s hometown of Lodz, Poland.

The tapes formed the nucleus of “Perseverance,” a 2019 book of Goldman’s recollections, with supplemental research by Kikel. It’s now been adapted by locally based playwright L.E. McCullough, who was commissioned by Prime Stage Theatre.

The show will premiere with live performances at the New Hazlett Theater Sat., April 15, and Sun., April 16. It will also be recorded, and available for video streaming April 24 to May 7.

Kikel said she is pleased with the adaptation. “I am overjoyed with the way it has turned out, and it's a creative and artistic way to talk about my father and his story,” said Kikel.

A youth "cut down"

Melvin Goldman was born in 1923, into a prosperous Jewish family in Lodz, Poland. By his account, his childhood was nearly idyllic. He was 16 when Germany invaded Poland, and, as he put it, his youth "cut down": His family was forced into that city’s infamous ghetto. In 1944, all of them were transported to Auschwitz, and Goldman never saw his parents, or five of his six siblings again. He was liberated by U.S. forces and spent years as a displaced person in Europe before stepping off a train to Pittsburgh on Dec. 31, 1950.

The stage version of “Perseverance,” with a script by locally based playwright L.E. McCullough, is told mostly in flashbacks narrated by Goldman, as portrayed by David Nackman. The remaining four cast members play multiple roles, including Goldman’s parents, his younger brother, Aron — his immediate family’s only other survivor — his wife, Mildred, and Kikel herself.

Kikel’s book — her father is credited as co-author — is a carefully edited assemblage of tape transcripts and other information. Some of it, of course, is horrifying, as in a passage describing life in the camps. “You were out and you smelt something,” Melvin says. “You couldn’t feel but you knew deep down that it smelt like human flesh, after being in Auschwitz for three days …”

But Prime Stage is known for making work for young people, and this hour-long, one-act play spares the most graphic details of Goldman’s experience. Rather, it focuses on how one survivor remade his life afterward.

As Goldman says in the play, for a prisoner to dream was a form of resistance: “You dream. Dream of a life after. Not an afterlife, but this life resumed. The life you will make for yourself when the last Nazi, the last tank, the last bomb, the last strand of barbed wire has vanished from the earth.”

A story secretly shared

That Goldman didn’t tell his family of his experiences during the war is not surprising. Squirrel Hill has long had a large Jewish population, including recent immigrants; Kikel estimated that in the late ’70s, about 200 neighborhood residents were Holocaust survivors. But for decades, many survivors didn’t discuss their wartime experiences even in private, let alone publicly, said Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

But Goldman still told his story, if only through the tapes. “What was really incredible here was that he had done so much work to document his own life and his own experience,” said Lidji. “That already is rare.”

Actor David Nackman said the tapes helped inspire his portrayal of Melvin. “He learned how to be normal, coming out of a world that was anything but normal,” he said.

In the book “Perseverance,” Melvin’s words make clear that luck played a large role in his survival. He also expresses gratitude to many who helped him along the way, including the woman with the Jewish Social Service who sponsored his immigration to Pittsburgh; his English teacher here, a Mrs. Freundt; and Aron, his brother, another transplant to Pittsburgh who put him up when he first arrived.

Said playwright McCullough, “I think when I was writing it, the first thing I realized is the impact the community had on sort of Melvin Goldman's ability to reconstruct his life.”

Nonetheless, Goldman is defined by his refusal to ever give up. “This story is just the story of human resilience, and I think that’s a story that we enjoy hearing and needs to be told always,” said Art DeConciliis, who directs “Perseverance.”

"A good life"

The play is part of the enGAGE series, a collaboration between Prime Stage and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh to explore the atrocities of genocide around the world.

The show’s cast also includes Amanda Anne Leight, Anne Rematt, Matthew J. Rush, and Johnny Terreri.

The play also nods to a mid-century Squirrel Hill that’s largely vanished – not just Lee Trading Company, but Rhoda’s deli, Ratner’s Hardware, National Record Mart, Bageland and more. (Playwright McCullough says that for a few years in the ’70s and ’80s, he lived right down the block from Lee Trading Company, though he doesn’t recall ever meeting Goldman.)

“I think that everyone can relate because it starts off and it is very, very dark and it ends up being very light,” said Kikel. “There's a lot of hope. And I say that even if you can't wrap your head around the Holocaust or anything that happened, if you even have your own troubles, just seeing his human behavior in the way he acted, he did not let the Holocaust define him. He moved along and made himself a good life.”

More information on “Perseverance” is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: