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Apr 19
HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR FINDS HIS "VOICE" WHILE AN OCC THEATRE STUDENT
Jim CarnettBy Jim Carnett

(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 36th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)

George Rothman

George Rothman

In the seventh decade of his life – as an Orange Coast College student – George Bardin Rothman discovered who his parents were.

It’s not that the retired dentist, now 74, had never met them. It’s that his recollections had faded over the decades. The Nazis arrested his mother and father in occupied France in 1942, when Rothman was nine years old. They were put on a train for Poland and were gassed at Auschwitz.

Over the years, Rothman meticulously cataloged every memory he had of his parents. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, following his retirement and while an OCC theatre student, his journey of self-discovery reached its apex. In attempting to learn more about his parents, and what they were actually like, he created a tetralogy – a series of four related plays – that chronicle their life together and death. The creative endeavor permitted George to put into context many details of his life.

“Some of what I wrote is true and based on personal remembrances, and on stories that friends and relatives have shared with me,” he says. “Other things I had to deduce, following considerable research. Still others – out of necessity – were my invention.”

For instance, the Irvine resident devised a romantic love story surrounding his parents’ first meeting. It had to come from whole cloth because his mother and father took to their graves the details of that first encounter.

“The story I tell is based upon discoveries I made about my parents while researching their lives,” Rothman says. “Though not literal, the story of their meeting is plausible. And, in the latter years of my life, I find it rather satisfying.”

Rothman, a UCLA graduate who earned his dentistry degree at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, later completed a music degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He enrolled in OCC theatre classes in January of 1998, following his retirement, and fell in love with playwriting. He remained a Coast student through 2002. During his time on campus he wrote 10 plays.

Rothman enrolled at Orange Coast College because he’d heard from friends that it had an excellent theatre department. In the five years that he was on campus he took acting, writing, directing, set construction, scenery, lighting, sound, costuming and make-up classes. He took, in fact, every single theatre class listed in the catalog!

“I’d never before taken a theater class, but I wanted to write for the theater,” he told me with an amused smile. “My wife and I have been avid theater-goers for years. We’ve been season-ticket holders. We love the theater. But, as I began writing my first script in 1997, I realized how horribly ignorant I was about the theater. It was pretentious of me to call myself a playwright without even knowing the most rudimentary details of stage direction, design and movement.”

George also enrolled in OCC film classes.

“In order to become a better playwright I needed to learn every aspect of the theater, and I had that opportunity at OCC.”

Rothman was active in the Theatre Department. He was a member of the college’s Repertory Company, and had acting roles in three productions. He served as stage manager for OCC’s production of Brendan Behan’s acclaimed and colorful work, “The Hostage.” Two of his plays were produced.

George completed nearly 60 units at the college, was named to the president’s and honors lists numerous times, and maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average. During his final semester he shopped his family tetralogy to 25 theatre companies around the country. Some expressed interest. He’s continued to do that since leaving the college, and he’s also continued to write. He is still looking for his break.

The first play in the series, titled “Mamman et Papa” (“Mother and Father”) concerns how his Jewish parents – his father, a Russian émigré, his mother a Rumanian – first met in Strasbourg, France, on the German border, in 1932. He doesn’t know for certain that that’s where they actually met, but the first years of their marriage were spent there, and he was born there.

The play looks into their love affair, his conception and birth, and the nine years he spent with them. It concludes with their arrest in 1942 and deportation to Poland. They managed to shelter their young son from the Nazis, however. Rothman also speculates as to what happened to them after their arrest.

Acts one and two are followed by an epilogue in which the couple’s son, David (Rothman), visits Auschwitz in 1990 and leaves a love letter to his parents in the tall summer grass.

The second play, “The Silent Heroes,” concerns the French family that rescued David and protected him in an orphanage. It ends with David returning to France 35 years later to meet the surviving members of the family.

The third play in the tetralogy, “Where Were You on Your Ninth Birthday?” was produced at Orange Coast College in 2001. Prior to that, it captured an award in a play-writing competition in Dubuque, Iowa, and was produced on stage there. I saw OCC’s production, and was deeply moved by it.

“That was actually my first play to be produced,” George says. “When I saw audience members leaving the first showing dabbing tears from their eyes, I became very excited. I thought, ‘I can be successful at this! This is the exact reaction I’d hoped for.’”

“It’s a wonderful play...extremely moving...very thought-provoking,” said OCC theatre professor, Alex Golson, who directed the show on campus. “It’s filled with wisdom that comes from a person who’s lived a full and meaningful life.

“George first gave me the script to read in 1999 when he was taking my play writing class. I was touched by it and knew that I had to someday direct it.”

The play is about Rothman reconciling with his past. He goes from being a Jewish boy in peril in Paris during World War II to a successful California dentist, husband and father. It’s a play about appreciating sacrifices. As a young American who speaks unaccented English, David comes to grips with his separation from his parents, their deportation and death, and his own Jewish ness.

The final play in the series, “The Vase of Montpelier,” concerns the couple’s granddaughter – David’s daughter – now a successful San Francisco young-married. The daughter – far more comfortable with her family’s saga than her father at a similar age – seeks to know more about her grandparents’ legacy. The play’s had several staged readings.

Several scenes that Rothman wrote appear more than once in the plays.

“In one play, a particular scene may lead in one direction,” he says. “In another, that same scene may lead into something entirely different.”

Rothman did not construct the plays, written over a five-year span, in sequence. Nor were they fashioned in isolation. He simultaneously worked on other plays while writing the tetralogy.

“At the time that I was conceptualizing the four plays and writing them, I didn’t see them as necessarily being linked,” he said. “I know that sounds silly, but it was only as I was wrapping them up that I saw I had a tetralogy on my hands. I had four plays that each formed part of a whole – yet they each stand on their own.”

George enjoyed his journey of discovery.

“When I first enrolled at Orange Coast College in 1997, I didn’t anticipate that this would happen – that I would discover my parents. It happened after I fell in love with playwriting. The writing process brought me closer to them. I’m grateful for what I received from OCC’s program.”

Rothman long harbored aspirations to write. He’s enjoyed attending theatrical productions since he was a young man. But it was at OCC that he began to understand the nature of stage direction and the complex and Byzantine process of bringing a script to life on stage!

For many years, Rothman didn’t tell people he was from France. Nor did he disclose that he was Jewish.

“My goal in college, and later, was to become as Americanized as possible,” he says. “I didn’t want to be different. I worked like crazy to assimilate...and I succeeded.”

His parents were apprehended by the Nazis in Paris in ‘42 and put on a train that was headed east. Rothman spent five months in a Paris hospital that year, undergoing treatment for a kidney ailment. He was confined to bed rest because antibiotics were unavailable to treat the problem. He wasn’t with his parents at the time of their arrest.

“The Nazis apparently didn’t know about me,” he said. “At the time that my parents knew their arrest was imminent, they arranged for me to be taken care of by an elderly Parisian couple, Messr. and Mme. Lequien. Putting their own lives in jeopardy, the Lequiens quietly placed me in a nearby orphanage and took charge of my well-being.”

He remained there for five years.

Rothman admits that he is mystified as to why the couple elected to protect him.

“They’re my heroes. They did it at great personal risk, and I’ll probably never understand why. I’m certain that, at the time, I didn’t express gratitude as I should. Today I feel extremely grateful for what they did. They saved my life.”

Over the past three decades, George has been transformed from a person who avoided discussing his religion or heritage at every turn, into a playwright who’s attempting to tell his story to the world. The way he used to see himself – an American, devoid of a past – began to change in 1979 when he visited Israel with his wife, Gail.

“We were non-observant Jews and lived in a community that included few other Jewish people,” he says. “I was 45 when we visited Israel, and it was then that I discovered what it means to be Jewish. It was my epiphany. It took me until mid-life to do so, but I finally came into the Jewish fold.”

In the early 1980s he returned to France and visited relatives of Messr. and Mme. Lequien. The couple passed away several years after the war. Rothman met with their son, then in his 80s, and their grandson.

“That was a wonderful reunion,” he says. “I continue to correspond with the family, and we’ve been back several times. The first time I returned to France I hadn’t spoken French in nearly four decades. But it all came back to me.”

The Orange County playwright has spotty memories of his parents. The couple probably met and married in France, though he isn’t certain of that.

Rothman – who took his name from the American uncle who adopted him after the war – was born in Strasbourg. He’s since returned several times to the ancient city near the Rhine. During one visit, he uncovered his birth certificate.

When he was a small child, the family moved to Bordeaux, and later to Paris.

“The memories I have of my parents are not vivid,” he admits sadly. He was, after all, nine when he last saw them. “I remember certain incidents with my father, like the time he scolded me for playing with matches. But, as for his personality, I can’t recall what he was like.

“I remember that my mother seemed quite emotional. She must have been extremely worried about me, though I couldn’t appreciate that at the time.”

He grasps hold of other treasured memory fragments. They’re all expressed in his personal journal.

“I remember that my father liked to read the newspaper, which indicates to me that he was interested in what was going on in the world around him. In later years, my American uncle who raised me produced a letter that my father wrote to him during the war. In it he expressed concern for the safety of my mother and me, and voiced a philosophy on life. I take it that he was intelligent and sensitive.”

George also picked up tiny clues about his mother.

“She didn’t appear to be interested in world events, but did maintain an interest in music and the arts.” Rothman has embraced that same passion.

In order to fortify his play’s structural integrity – and for his own enlightenment – he took time to muse at some depth about his parents’ possible first meeting and subsequent love affair. He arrived at a pleasant – and plausible – scenario.

“They met in 1932, of that I’m certain,” he says. “In the process of doing my research, I discovered that the great German composer, Richard Strauss, gave a Christmas concert that year in Strasbourg. It fit perfectly into my time-frame.”

Earlier in 1932, according to Rothman’s hypothetical construction, his mother, who lived in a small one-room flat, attended a piano recital. His father, who frequented a small wine bar near the recital hall, walked past the hall one evening and was drawn to the music. He stepped inside and looked for a place to sit. He spied, in the last row, an available chair next to a beautiful young Rumanian woman.

“I know that’s a bit contrived, but a mild contrivance never hurts when you’re telling a love story.”

As George tells it, the young man and woman are immediately attracted to one another. They begin to date and, shortly thereafter, the woman confesses to the young man that she longs to attend the upcoming Strauss concert. To her dismay, she has no money for a ticket. He surprises her with a gift of two tickets, and they attend the concert together.

“The music is rich and sensual,” Rothman says, “and they’re swept away by it. That evening, during a passionate indiscretion, I am conceived.”

Later they marry, George is born and the couple move to Bordeaux, then Paris.

In 1942, under Nazi occupation, the couple was underemployed, like most European Jews of the day.

“During my research, I discovered that my father tried to become a French citizen. He even joined the French army before the war in order to gain citizenship, but becoming a citizen was a virtual impossibility for a Jewish immigrant in France in 1940. He left the army after France capitulated to the Germans, and ended up working in a factory.

“My mother cleaned houses.”

She regularly cleaned the home of Messr. and Mme. Lequien.

“They seemed to take a liking to her. They even invited my parents to lunch once or twice at their home. But things in Paris were rapidly disintegrating for Jews. At some point along the way, my parents realized that they were soon to be arrested and deported. They asked Messr. and Mme. Lequien to take me. The Lequiens agreed.”

Rothman, now a father and grandfather himself, can’t imagine the wrenching pain his parents must have endured when they gave him up. As they boarded the train, they no doubt suspected that they’d never see him again.

“I was in the hospital when they were deported. The Lequiens didn’t let me know what was going on. I knew my parents were gone, but I didn’t know they were dead...not until after the war. I didn’t fully appreciate my parents’ sacrifice until much later. I still feel guilt over not having felt bad enough about them at the time. I didn’t miss them as I should have.”

Decades later, George was able to learn the details of the final hours of their lives. His own grown daughter, Elizabeth, discovered the documentation.

“Elizabeth wanted to know what happened,” he says. “A number of years ago she went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. There she found the convoy roster that listed the names of my parents. They traveled east together on the same train.

“After looking at the paperwork, we determined that my mother probably went to the gas chamber immediately upon their arrival at Auschwitz. The Nazis usually gassed the women and children first. My father no doubt lived an additional month. His name was on the first roll call list, but not the second. He was a man, and the Nazis could get some work out of him.”

Rothman made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz in 1992, just like the character in his play. He took with him a photo of his son and daughter, their spouses and his grandchild. On the back of the photo he wrote the words, “Now you see that your life was not in vain. Your little love tryst was responsible for this.”

He folded the picture and placed it in a tuft of grass by a cluster of chimneys that stand as solitary reminders of the now-demolished prisoner barracks.

“I walked away and left the photo. I don’t know if it remained in the grass, blew away or was picked up by a caretaker. I chose to let that remain a mystery. But I needed to leave it on the same ground where my parents died. I wanted them to know that their lives had counted for something important.”

Rothman survived the war in the orphanage. He finally began to enjoy safety once the Americans liberated the French capital in August of 1944. Eight months later, Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, and Nazi atrocities began to leak out to the rest of the world. On April 29, 1945, the U.S. Seventh Army liberated Dachau. A day later, Hitler committed suicide.

George’s American uncle began inquiring about him after the war, in 1946.

“Many members of my family had perished in the camps,” he says. “My uncle tried to track down as many relatives as he could. Somehow, in 1946, he made contact with the Lequiens. They corresponded back and forth for many months. The Lequiens wanted to make certain that they weren’t going to be giving me over to some horrible person.”

In 1947, at age 13, Rothman moved to California. Unable to speak a word of English, he embarked upon a new life, living in Los Angeles with his uncle, an ardent Zionist.

“I didn’t understand the Diaspora, and I didn’t care about the new country that was forming in the Middle East. I basically refused to listen to my uncle when it came to matters about Israel or Jews. According to him, everything about Israel was wonderful. If he held a delicious California radish in his fingers at the dinner table he would say that it couldn’t compare to an Israeli radish.”

Rothman quickly separated himself from his past as he entered the eighth grade.

“I hated the fact that I couldn’t speak English,” he said. “I didn’t like being different. I strove to fit in.”

By the time he started high school, in September of 1947, he spoke English reasonably well. By his junior year he spoke the language with only the slightest hint of an accent. When he enrolled at UCLA as a freshman two years later, he had no accent whatsoever.

“Virtually none of my college friends knew I was born in France or that I was Jewish...I never mentioned it,” he says. “They didn’t know the story of my parents dying at Auschwitz. I shared my secret only with a few very close friends.”

It took him years to come to terms with his past.

George Rothman

“Now, I enjoy telling people that I’m of French descent,” he says with a laugh. “And I’m proud to be Jewish. When my wife and I go to France, I try hard to blend in. When I’m in a French shop with my wife, it’s a game for me to convince the shopkeeper that I’m a Frenchman who’s showing my American guest around.

“It’s ironic. When I was young I wanted so much for Americans to think that I, too, was an American. Now, as a senior citizen, I try to convince the French that I’m French.”

After earning his dentistry degree at Case Western, he served as a dental officer in the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s, then he owned his own successful practice in Manhattan Beach for nearly 20 years. Later, he picked up a music degree.

In mid-life he opted for a career change. He hated the dentistry.

“I didn’t like the stress, the work didn’t fulfill my interests, and I didn’t like dealing with pain,” he says. “I continued dentistry despite my dissatisfaction with the career. I distracted myself with writing and attending workshops and classes at UCLA. It put me in touch with interesting people that I had fun with.”

He dabbled at writing a novel.

He finally left dentistry and went back to school to study computers, and worked as a computer technician with a major aerospace firm for 10 years. He retired in 1993.

It was then that he began to seriously pursue his long-held avocation, writing.

“I put my plays together in rather unorthodox fashion,” he admits. “I mull a play over in my mind for months. I do the research, and I work on the characters, the plot and the dialogue. But I don’t write anything down, other than a few notes. It all sort of percolates in my brain.”

Then, in a flurry of activity, he’ll write a play in two weeks.

“My friends say, ‘You mean you wrote that whole play in two weeks?’ No, it actually took many months. I must first spend time spinning it around in my head.”

After he’s written a first draft on his computer he goes back to the script, time and time again, to rework the language. Words are crucial.

“Now that we have computers, there’s no excuse not to write well,” he says. “It’s easy to go back and make changes; to improve what you’ve written. I agonize over every word.”

Rothman has come to the most difficult part of being a playwright – marketing his finished work.

“Writing plays is easy, compared to trying to interest publishers or producers into buying them. I’m busy writing cover letters, and that’s not nearly so much fun as writing scenes and dialogue.”

After finishing his Orange Coast College classes in May of 2002, Rothman began his pursuit of a playwriting career. His goal is an ambitious one.

“I’ve had two major careers in my life, and now I’m seeking a third,” he says with a smile. “I want to be a playwright and win a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize.”

He’s serious about that.

“You never know. A person must set goals for himself. I say, why not set goals that are a stretch?”

Rothman feels an urgency about writing his plays – and getting them produced. He is, after all, 74 years old. He’s sent out hundreds of letters and drafts of his plays to agents, publishers, producers, directors and theater companies around the country.

“I’m waiting for someone to say yes,” he says. “I’m still new at this, but I know I have a chance at being successful.”

What George Rothman honed in Orange Coast College’s classrooms and on its stages he hopes to refine in the “real world.”

I’m impressed by his fervor, his work ethic, and his storytelling ability. Frankly, I hope like heck he makes it!
 

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WE GET LETTERS….

Judy LindsayDear Jim:

Again, you have outdone yourself in telling about my "old" friend, Jerry Richards (Orange Slices, April 5, “Dr. Jerry Richards: OCC Pioneer, Sophisticate, Dean”). What a wonderful, touching story. Didn't realize he and Bernie Luskin were old "buds." Jerry, if you are reading this, we still have a "reunion" to organize!

I also enjoyed the article by my friend and former teacher, Hank Panian.

Judy Lindsay
Senior Staff Assistant (1975-2003)