BH: I’m assuming they’re big fans of Pope John Paul II in Czestochowa, Poland — just guessing? [laughs]
TF: Just guessing. They showed me where he comes to give his Mass, the outdoor ‘field,’ if you will, and the altar. It was a magnificent experience, and Poland is very concerned that the — I wouldn’t call it the resurrection of Poland, but that the point of view of Polish participation in World War II is specified. There are 50,000 recorded acts of heroism where Polish Christians tried to save the victims and succeeded at saving victims, Jewish victims of the Holocaust. And we must remember that though the concentration camps were built on Polish land by a dominating military complex called the German Reich, that Poland didn’t initiate the creation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The initiation, particularly of Birkenau (Auschwitz actually was an old army barracks for the Polish army that the Germans took over and turned into a concentration camp) this was initiated by the victor, by the person who was running the country at the time.
BH: Sure. Our guest this evening is Tony- and Emmy-nominated actress Tovah Feldshuh, who is starring right now on Broadway in Irena’s Vow. It’s at the Walter Kerr Theater, open-ended run —
TF: Open-ended run — a triumphant story. A story with humor, and a story about a good, Catholic woman — child, really; child — who without warning and without training saved twelve strangers and a newborn infant by hiding them in the basement of the highest-ranking German officer of Tarnopol; at that time, Galicia, Poland. And she saved them all, so you have thirteen corroborated testimonies at Yad Vashem where she has a plaque of honor. She’s among the Avenue of the Righteous, next to [Oskar] Schindler.
BH: This story is amazing because you picture someone harboring Jews maybe in some farmhouse — No. This was in the house of one of the highest-ranking German soldiers!
TF: And she was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and had the name ‘Gut’, which is a German name. It’s funny — ‘Tovah’ means ‘good’ in Hebrew, and ‘gut’ means ‘good’ in German. A little synchronicity.
BH: You have certainly played many characters with strong faith in your career; you actually changed your name to your Hebrew name, Tovah.
TF: I did. I did. It’s been a good name and it’s given me my, what they say, what the Talmud calls the tikun olum — which is the principle that believes that every human being is put on the earth for the purpose of healing the world. That one must dedicate yourself to a purpose greater than yourself if you want to live a long and fruitful life. So if you look at little Yentil, who had to sacrifice her feminine identity in order to become a scholar — a talmid hakham, a Torah scholar — which in Judaism is the way you get close to God. It’s almost the Jesuit approach to Judaism, if you will. So that was that huge struggle. A prime minister from [in accent] “Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who never expected to run a country” — Golda Meir — becomes the fourth prime minister of the Jewish State and the only female prime minister to date.
BH: And you’ve played both these characters. You played Yentil, you played Golda Meir.
TF: And Golda Meir was a utopian socialist. She really didn’t have a formalized belief in God but she had a very formalized belief in what I call her prima genitor — her first child, which is the Jewish State. That the Jews should have a postage stamp on which to live in peace. And the irony of it is that is the one place that is often most dangerous for the Jewish population.
BH: What was that like, playing Golda? It was a one-woman show, the longest in the history of Broadway, just you on stage — there’s no other actors to give you a break when your voice is tired.
TF: Right. No. It was a big thrill. You’re kind of in partnership with the sound cues. I had 300 sound cues that we designed so I could react to explosions, and we have slides — large projections behind me. But I play her and I play Henry Kissinger, King Abdullah; I play everybody in it. About 30 characters.
BH: You play Kissinger?
TF: [in accent] “Yes, I do.” [laughs] And it gives people a break, it gives you a break. Likewise in Irena’s Vow, I play Irena at 72, Irena at 17, and three Nazi officers. Yeah, two or three boys.
BH: You seem to like voices. You have a gift.
TF: I love — I’m an aural learner.
BH: How long does it take to pick up an accent? You had to do Irena, a Polish accent.
TF: [in Polish accent] Well, the thing is, she has got tapes on her at the Shoah Institute where I go to Columbia University visual history library and under Robert Scott — thank you, Dr. Scott, and the professors there — they let me in to listen. So, it depends on how diligent you are. If you are diligent and you do your job, and everybody goes, ‘Oh, you’re so fantastic.’ it is not fantastic; it is the core of my job to sound like her. And she has much higher voice than I. She is kind of like Zsa Zsa, saving Jews.