Hearts, memories united

Jewish war veterans see themselves in Center Stage play

December 01, 2007|By Katy O'Donnell | Katy O'Donnell,Sun reporter

It's 9:15 on a Monday night, and eight of the Chatham Club boys, hunched around a plastic-coated table in Pikesville's Edward Meyerburg Senior Center, are just getting into a second hand of pitch.

"This is a big money game," one says with a wink as he organizes his hand. "Someone's gonna win $3!"

The handful of Jewish men in their 80s is raucous. As they start playing, passing around peppermints and snacks, the ribbing really gets under way.

"You realize, if we didn't have a viewer here, we'd be a lot noisier," one player stage-whispers in an aside.

"And a lot raunchier!" another chimes in.

The men have an easy rhythm, one that almost perfectly mirrors the tone of Donald Waldman's interactions with his three card-playing buddies in Willy Holtzman's Hearts, currently in production at Center Stage. Punctuated by the constants of card games and World War II memories, the play examines post-traumatic stress disorder and the desperate isolation of life after combat. Donald Waldman and his friends rarely discuss the war, but the shared experience of being in it is enough to keep their interactions easy and normal.

The same is true of the 50 members of the Chatham Club, who recently took a field trip to see Hearts. Their second-nature companionship has been honed since the club started in 1946, after the founders were barred from other organizations because they are Jewish.

About two-thirds of the members are World War II veterans, and their appreciation for each other draws on a shared history. In a post-play discussion of Hearts with the playwright and his father, they immediately formed a connection with Donald Holtzman, the inspiration for the work. Barely two minutes into a chat that quickly turned from polite Q-and-A to enthusiastic free-for-all, the Chatham men jumped into trading war stories with the elder Holtzman in a manner that suggested they'd all been chums for decades.

Donald Holtzman was equally comfortable: "Pitch is a ladies' game!" he shouted with a smile when they told him of their own card game tradition. But they barely paused for the laughs that followed; questions about divisions and anecdotes about battles streamed forth easily, while the rest of the audience listened with wide eyes and open mouths.

The Chatham Club men were part of a bigger, quietly understood club, where membership simply boils down to World War II experiences.

Alvan Schunick, who organized the event after hearing about Holtzman's play, says his reasons for doing so were simple.

Getting together to delve into the war, he notes, seemed important because he and his friends wanted to pass on clear, complete stories of their experiences to their children and grandchildren. He even took a bit of a warning from the play; as World War II veterans age, he explains, time is running out for relaying their experiences to their descendants.

"We do not, as a rule, discuss the war, but because of the Hearts play, we started to discuss it," he says at the Monday night game. Later in the night, one veteran mentions his time in Calcutta, India; another responds, "You were in Calcutta too? No kiddin'!"

It's easy to see why Schunick recognized this play as a way to get the dialogue going; many of the members would watch their own lives portrayed.

But it was the similarities between the play's Donald Waldman and club member Sol Goldstein, a D-Day veteran, that seemed almost eerie.

Each killed an SS officer who called him a "Goddamn Jew" ("The only difference is I used a knife, and he used a gun," Goldstein says); each was involved in liberating the Buchenwald concentration camp and watched in horror as prisoners collapsed and died when he fed them; and each ran into a downtrodden elderly villager who brought him to tears then and still does now.

The Chatham Club men, like the play, avoid romanticizing the war.

"It had to be fought," says Bobby Taubman, who was stationed on a ship in the Pacific.

Their talk of war, though, isn't always solemn. As the cards are dealt Monday night, one player turns and begins a story.

"I remember it," he says. "I enlisted in 1942 - "

But his buddies aren't about to let him turn serious.

"And I enlisted in 1943," another adds.

"And I enlisted in 1943!"

"And I was drafted."

Schunick's admission, punctuated by a card slammed onto the table, brings an abrupt - but humorous - end to the exchange.

He trails off, shaking his head as he chuckles. "You guys enlisted."

katy.o'donnell@baltsun.com

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