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CPA-turned playwright brings Irena Sendler’s WWII heroism to life


Unlike Schindler's List, Sendler's list has not had the lustrous litany of recognition accorded a list of other Holocaust tales of horror and heroism: Irena Sendler's sentient response to the Nazi tyranny of those tragic times was to track and catalog Jewish kids at risk, leading to their soulful salvation rather than the Final Solution for some 2,500 children smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Christian social worker and her cadre of cohorts.

Yet this profile in courage, with its prolific portraits of brave hearts and selfless sacrifices, has been relegated to the backwaters of benighted World War II tales and tumult.

A new play by Tim Caso might just help change all that.

As part of the Philly Fringe Festival, playwright/producer Caso is about to send Sendler's saga from the fringes to front and center stage, putting a face on the fascinating Polish gentile and genteel woman/warrior who braved the bracing prospects of losing her life to save those of juvenile Jews she had never known.

His play, "I Kiss Your Hands: A Story of Hope, Rescue, and Deliverance," delves into this drama of angels and demons, demonstrating the heart's healing power during a time when the devil had a hellish handshake with history that begat the Holocaust.

"I Kiss Your Hands" will have its world premiere during a seven-performance schedule ( at Newtown's Chandler Hall, beginning Sept. 8.

A certified professional accountant and financial planner, and decades-long Bucks County resident (before moving to Lansdale two years ago), Caso is making a down payment on a piece of history that he hopes will pay dividends in its education of the public about Sendler's sympathetic, bittersweet story.

"I've been a student of World War II for many years," says the 64-year-old former resident of Warrington, Chalfont, Buckingham and Bedminster, "and, while reading about the larger operations, such as D-Day and Iwo Jima, I have been intrigued about the more anecdotal, lesser-known events of that time."

He then made book on Sendler, coming across "a blurb on Facebook describing 'Life in a Jar,'" about her Herculean heroics. "And I was hooked."

He was reeled in by the nearly incredible reality of her efforts. "Hers is a story of selflessness and courage. She was a young woman who took a stand against the Nazi regime; her only weapons were her love of humanity and her wits, with which she helped save thousands of children from the Nazi Holocaust. The more I read about her, the more I wanted to tell her story."

While Caso was living in Chalfont, the borough "graciously allowed me to set up a memorial to Sendler in Krupp Park. After this was done, I wanted her story to reach an even larger audience. So, I decided to write a play about her."

It was a new stage for the CPA who "had no playwriting experience but felt that Irena's story was too important for me not to make it work. So, in 2018, I started writing."

He refuses to pocket all the credit for his accomplishment albeit funds for the production came from his own pocket.

"I've had quite a bit of help along the way," including aid from Chandler Hall, an assisted living facility, which is making the space available for free.

Caso's inexperience was no kiss of death for this first-time scribe, whose forever fervor for the humanism of the hero fueled his commitment to getting it right as he wrote. It was all a telltale testament to Sendler's wonderful, willful whispers of encouragement to those looking for the good in others. And sometimes, Caso discovered, good things do happen to good people.

"The youngest child Sendler saved was just six months old," Caso comments. "Years later, she wrote Sendler a letter and expressed her gratitude, saying 'I kiss your hands,'" hence the title of the play.

The circle of life sometimes squares with serendipity.

"That girl wound up meeting Sendler and, at 17, became a caretaker for her in Irena's old age," Caso said.

The playwright took care to find that caretaker.

"We are now Facebook friends," he says of Elzbieta Ficowska.

Coming face-to-face with history can be incredibly emotional, no matter the age. Doylestown's Lucy Spiegel, 13, cannot relate readily to the youngster she portrays on stage, who has been stripped of her family and relatives to become one of the hero's hidden children.

“I couldn't imagine what it took to leave her parents and go with someone she barely knows,” Spiegel said.

But she does understand the critical core of her character, Hanna.

"We are both Jewish, we are both kids," she said.

While this drama is far from a child's play, it is also not child's play to get into character. But the eighth grade student at Tohickon Middle School is examining it all from a higher perspective. She is well grounded in her people's history of enduring hate, celebrating joyous occasions; the nagging notion of tears of happiness alternating with tears of sadness has always torn at the Jewish soul.

Spiegel heard the play's backstory firsthand: "I was able to speak to a survivor who had been a hidden child."

Whereas she is open about her hopes that the drama speaks to those her age, the teen concedes "a lot of kids my age don't understand" the ramifications of the rage and hate that led to the Holocaust.

She knows that her heritage harbors elements of both pain and promise; its significance is personal and painful. Lucy has appeared in a number of area productions including stagings at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, Music Mountain Theatre and Town and Country Players.

"But this is different," she says of connecting to "Kiss." "It is really ... real. It is one of the most important things I have done."

Financial planner Caso is hoping that Hollywood will focus on Spiegel’s story, one he says he would not mind scripting.

In the meantime, awaiting the opening of the curtains, he can't curtail excitement for his first act as a playwright. Is this the best investment the money man has ever made?

"Outside of my children, yes, it is," he said.

Michael Elkin is a playwright, theater critic and novelist who lives in Abington. He writes occasional columns about theater and the arts.

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