Arts and Entertainment

A Will To Live: The Force of Nature That is Helena Weinrauch

“One learns to live moment by moment, merely trying to survive another day,” is what Holocaust survivor Helena Weinrauch wrote in her 1945 memoir A Will To Live. Her story of persistence and resistance is now being told through a one-woman show at the Chain Theatre.

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By Winnie Yang

The Chain Theatre in Manhattan has hosted A Will To Live, a simultaneously inspirational and heartbreaking one-woman show adapted from Helena Weinrauch’s 1945 memoir of the same name, since August 16. The role of Weinrauch in the play is undertaken by actress Masha King, who gives an astounding performance as Helena fights for her life—time and time again—in Nazi Europe between 1939 and 1945.

Both Weinrauch’s memoir and the show begin in 1945, after Helena has endured an agonizing journey through three different concentration camps. By that point, she has physically recuperated, but the audience does not yet know the extent to which she has suffered.

The show then flashes back to when Helena is only 16 years old and living in Poland. Young Helena is forced to go to school and work a full-time job to support her family until she is separated from them in 1939 when German soldiers invade her home. Helena takes on a fake identity as a young German girl until she is caught by a German soldier and taken to a Jewish ghetto. There, she is brutally beaten and electrocuted for information on who supplied her with her new German identification. Helena finally tells her jail cell guards a story she has fabricated, so as not to endanger those who have helped her, and is subsequently sent to three different concentration camps where she witnessed death daily. From Auschwitz, Helena is forced on a death march to Bergen-Belsen, where only 5,000 out of the 18,000 prisoners survive. When the British soldiers liberate the camp in April 1945, they find Helena, still alive but weighing only 66 pounds, and send her to the hospital for recovery.

Throughout the production, King takes her audience through heartbreak, devastation, and everything in between with her commanding portrayal of Helena. King is able to flawlessly express agony while incorporating an authentic sense of fierce persistence and determination. 

During the talk-back at the end of the show, Chain Theatre artistic director Kirk Gostkowski said, “[The narrative is] just incredible. It’s incredible that in that state of mind, at that time, and so shortly after experiencing it, that [Weinrauch] documented it, and documented it so well, and articulated things that are almost indescribable.” Though Weinrauch’s words and stories are powerful on their own, King’s performance is crucial to making the true story come to life. “The first day that [King] walked in, she left, and [Gostkowski] was like, ‘We don’t need to see anyone else. That’s Helena,’” A Will to Live’s managing director Rick Hamilton said. “The way that Masha [King] does this performance is so personal that it takes an element of history and gives you a little peek into what it could’ve been like that I don’t think you could’ve gotten any other way.”

The show’s production choices take important steps to preserve the authenticity of Weinrauch’s story. Dialogue written in Weinrauch’s novel is represented by recordings of voices that play from different speakers within the theater. Though these characters could have been portrayed on stage, the directors ultimately made the decision to maintain a one-woman show to emphasize a focus on Helena herself and not distract from the fact that this is her story. “The idea of it being one person’s story, their words, it’s extremely powerful. This woman is incredible, she’s still very much alive, and I didn’t want to take that from her,” Gostkowsi said in regards to this artistic decision.

Additionally, Helena’s entire story is told on a small stage, with only a background projection signifying changes in setting. Throughout the show, Helena’s bed and small desk that first appear at the beginning,remain as important elements of the setting even after her journey has ended. They—along with lighting changes that represent her being trapped in jail cells and concentration camps—depict the inescapable nature of Helena’s story as it progresses.

In the end, A Will To Live is more than just an impactful production by the team at the Chain Theatre and Masha King; it is a true piece about a devastating tragedy and the immense courage it takes to go on when there are so many reasons to give up. Weinrauch was able to eloquently and astonishingly tell the story of her time amidst inescapable hardship, and the fact that she is still alive today goes to show how recent this history really is. “It is imperative to me that we understand how this is not very long ago. This is very much in our lifetime. Helena [Weinrauch] has seen the show, she’s been in this theater. This is recent past,” Hamilton said.

The show powerfully ends with recent footage of the now 99-year-old Weinrauch preaching the belief against hate that she has come to embrace over the course of her life. “I hope that my story may bring hope and love into the lives of those who hear it,” Weinrauch wrote in a statement following the publicization of her memoir. Despite the heart-wrenching injustices she has endured over the course of her long life, Weinrauch continues to be a force against hate and holds on to hope for all those who are suffering, just as she did for herself over 70 years ago.