Susan Ettinger of East Meadow doesn’t remember much from her native Graz, Austria. After all, she was just 2 when her Jewish family fled its Nazi-occupied homeland in 1939.
The story of Ettinger, her sister and only sibling, Gitta Wachs, and their mother, Margaret Welisch, is being staged in “Displeyst,” a new play running in the East Village.
“Displeyst” is a Yiddish transliteration of the word “displaced,” explains Ashley Adelman, who is directing the play she co-wrote with Caroline Peters and Niki Hatzidis.
Using Welisch’s diary and the oral histories of her daughters as originally told to the University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation, which documents the stories of Holocaust survivors, “Displeyst” tells the tale of the Welisch family, which owned a flourishing, upscale clothing store before World War II and fled to the Philippines to escape persecution. According to Adelman, an estimated 1,200 European Jews fled to that country before 1941.
“When Hitler came in, Jews could not own a business, so everything was taken from them very quickly,” says Adelman, who lives in Astoria, Queens. “We found it really important for people to really just start to understand what happens when you tear people’s lives apart in any such way.”
The story of displacement is one that should be told, Adelman says.
“Not only does it affect that generation, but it affects all the generations afterward,” says Adelman, who got the oral histories and diary through the Ettinger family, which initially shared them with the foundation.
Life displaced by war
Because only men were taken to concentration camps at first, explains Susan’s son, Stephen Ettinger, 59, of East Meadow, his grandfather was permitted to leave the camp and take his family to the Philippines once he had an exit visa provided by a family friend in that country.
For his mom, memories begin in Manila, where her family lived in exile for 10 years. “We lived more or less a normal life. My parents tried to make it as normal a childhood as they could,” says Susan, 82.
But life changed radically when, in 1942, the Japanese invaded the Philippines.
“We tried to stay away from them as much as we could,” says Susan of the Japanese occupiers, whom she remembers displaying many acts of public cruelty.
Despite the hardships, Susan has lighthearted memories from that period. Like the family’s experience with the Japanese general who invited himself for dinner and became smitten with Margaret’s apricot chicken.
“For a week, he would send his houseboy over with a chicken — my mother should fix it for him,” Susan recalls.
On the day the general’s houseboy brought over a pheasant, Margaret saw a way out, as her daughter tells it.
“My mother said she never saw such a bird and sent him next door,” Susan says, explaining that they didn’t want anyone to think they were conspiring with the enemies.
Quotas on immigrants to the United States kept the family in Manila until 1949, she says.
“We were happy to leave the Philippines,” says Susan, who was 12 when her family settled in Washington Heights in Manhattan.
Still, her father, then in his 50s, had difficulty finding work. Albert eventually found work as a sales rep for a pet company. “He adapted, because you take what you can get,” she says.
Susan says she grateful for her parents’ stoicism during the turbulent time in Manila, where they lived through bombing, fire and air raids. “They really tried to make my life normal,” she says.
Margaret and Albert shielded Susan and Gitta, 86, of East Windsor, New Jersey, from the harsher realities surrounding them.
“We never really knew how much danger we were in,” Susan says. “I think my father did a fantastic job in keeping the family together.”
Susan moved to East Meadow in 1963 with her husband, Melvyn, and two sons, Stephen, 3, and David, 2.
“That’s basically the theme of it,” says Adelman of the play. “This amazing family that continued to stay together and stay strong, no matter how many times someone came in and took things away from them.”
A theme resonates
When many people think of the Holocaust and the displacement of Jews, they often think about immigration to the United States and, eventually, Israel.
“Nobody really knows that much about the Jews that fled to Manila,” Stephen says. And they were eager to get to the United States, he adds: "They were hardworking men of business. They were industrious. They were intelligent.
“Eventually, with sponsorships, they made it here.”
“Displeyst” is being produced by Infinite Variety Productions, a nonprofit theater company based in Astoria that spotlights untold or little-known women’s stories.
The play came about through Stephen’s friendship with Julia Lauria-Blum, a board member for Infinite Variety. Adelman had asked Blum whether she had an idea for an untold story of the Holocaust, and she immediately thought of Stephen's family.
For Blum, whose own father escaped fascist Italy in 1934 with his mother and brother, the Welisch-Ettinger family history resonates because America is a country of immigrants.
“This country, to me, is a country where people of that generation rebuilt their lives or built [them] from the ground up,” says Blum, 59, of Farmingdale.
A family's survival story
WHEN I WHERE 8 p.m. May 2, 3 and 4, and 2 p.m. May 5 at Under St. Marks Theater, 94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan
INFO Tickets $15 and $18; infinitevarietynyc.org