CAMBRIDGE, MA – Four years ago, Elie Wiesel’s archivist stumbled upon an unfamiliar manuscript amid the files – one of some one million documents written in either French, English, Hebrew or Yiddish in the collection housed at Boston University.
It was a play written in the mid-1960s called “The Choice,” about the night a young resistance fighter named Misha grapples with a terrible dilemma: which one of three hostages to execute before daybreak, on the orders of his leader.
“Even Elie Wiesel did not remember writing it,” Israeli researcher and archivist Dr. Yoel Rappel told an audience at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre last Sunday, where the play received its first-ever public reading.
An eclectic group of readers was assembled to play the various characters, including Ilya Grad, an Israeli champion of the combat sport Muay Thai; Arthur Applbaum, a Harvard professor specializing in political ethics; and Jimmy Tingle, a well-known Boston-area comic.
According to Martha Hauptman, Wiesel’s assistant of 27 years at Boston University, the play has echoes of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s 1961 novel, “Dawn” – one of the novels in Wiesel’s trilogy contemplating the Holocaust, that include “Night” (his most famous book, based on his experiences in Nazi death camps) and “Day.” In “Dawn,” a Holocaust survivor in Mandatory Palestine who has joined the Irgun pre-state underground militia is informed by higher ups that he must execute a British officer at dawn. The novel traces his soul-searching.
French actor-director Guila-Clara Kessous, whose work revolves around human rights issues and who is a former PhD student of Wiesel’s, decided to stage the first public reading. She translated it from French (the language Wiesel most often writes in) and read the character of Ilona, Misha’s fellow resistance fighter and lover. The performance was sponsored by Harvard Divinity School, where Kessous currently teaches.
The Holocaust, Kessous told the audience, “is remarkable in what it teaches about strength, courage, and the will to live.”
Guila Clara Kessous, who produced and acted in 'The Choice,' holds a memorial candle during in a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony that followed the play's reading. Photo by Vidal Ekechukwu / Hottspot
In the play, an older resistance fighter, Frank, counsels the younger Misha about the act of killing: “The first time, you feel it. Later, you get used to it.”
But what does a person on the brink of crossing over to become a life-taker look like? That is very much the focus of “The Choice”: a close-up examination of the questions a person asks those around him, but, more importantly, asks himself.
“How can I choose?” Misha agonizes.
In the play – whose sluggish pace made it difficult to sit through – Misha interrogates each hostage, one by one, asking repeatedly what makes their individual lives essential.
One hostage, a primary school teacher, pleads, “If I’m guilty of anything, it’s that I did not immunize them [the children] against the future against war.
“When the world survives its own destruction, the world will need me,” he says, his last desperate line of defense.
[Spoiler] He and the others will be spared by the play’s end. Misha’s ultimate choice is to walk away from his deadly assignment.