Making Others' Stories His Own

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Howard Hersh Felder is just 29 years old, but a conversation with him is like a visit with an older, wiser relative you don't see very often. A great-uncle, maybe. Or a grandmother. Someone who's lived so long that there are few things left that don't remind the person of a story.

Partly it's the setting: the dark, gracious living room of the Canadian consular residence in Hancock Park, a place out of a different era, where the Montreal native and traveling performer resides with his "partner in life and arts" (her words) former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, 50, now Canada's consul general in Los Angeles.

Partly it's the cookies, artfully arranged on a plate with dark purple tulips, which he immediately rushes to provide, along with full gold-rimmed white china tea service (today used for decaffeinated coffee).

And partly, it's just Felder. He fusses over things. He calls people "dear"; they call him "Hershey." He'll die if you're not comfortable. When dignitaries visit the consular residence, he busies himself in the kitchen, making chicken soup and cabbage rolls for everyone.

Now Felder is performing his one-man show "Sing! A Musical Journey," a story of survivors of the Holocaust in which Felder--actor, composer, pianist--portrays a handful of real people and spins their astonishing tales. "Sing!" opens Wednesday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

"I've always felt very old," he muses. "Not decrepit old, but I've always felt close to older people, and I've always felt that their values are the ones I wanted to pursue.

"You know how a lot of people get together and make fun of the old folks? They are past tense. I wish I had the wisdom of an old person when I was young. They know how to look at things."

Even if he does not believe he possesses that wisdom, Felder has done his best to document it in recent years. In 1995, Felder was one of four interviewers who traveled to Auschwitz for the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation, to interview the visiting survivors on behalf of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, which the director established after his 1993 film "Schindler's List."

Felder, also fluent in French, Yiddish and Hebrew, used four languages to conduct his interviews. His interviewees included Helmutt Spryzcer, Nazi "Angel of Death" Dr. Josef Mengele's Jewish errand boy--whom Felder met in a Krakow, Poland, coffeehouse during his visit and whom he portrays in "Sing!"--and some of the "Mengele twins," survivors of the genetic experiments that Mengele performed on twin siblings. The twins he met reside in Israel and had traveled to Krakow for the anniversary.

This was not Felder's first visit. In 1988, Felder felt compelled to make his own trip to Auschwitz. "I had to go; I was drawn there," he says. "I took a look at the barracks, and I took a look at the gas chamber, and it finally hit me that the world was not what I thought it was. Any world that is capable of that. . . ." He does not finish the sentence.

Felder calls "Sing!" "the Jewish side" of the Holocaust story, which is told in Spielberg's film through the eyes of German businessman Oskar Schindler, a crusader to save the Jews. Of "Schindler's List," Felder observes: "For all intents and purposes, Mr. Spielberg opened up the world to something that was not talked about for close to 50 years. How many survivors, including the ones I portray in this piece, say: 'This has given me a whole new life. We're not dead yet, you know. We're not forgotten. We're not gone.' "

With simple makeup and costume changes, Felder portrays two living survivors--Spryzcer and a woman, Dasha Lewin--and one fictional character, based on his own uncle from Poland, who serves as narrator. He called the show "Sing!" because it involves music and because Spryzcer and Lewin both sang as children in the camps as a means of survival, since those who could entertain were sometimes spared. "Singing doesn't necessarily mean with your voice, but with your soul and with your heart, and that's how you survive," Felder says. "It's amazing, the people that I am portraying--they have become friends, they are grandmas and grandpas and mothers and fathers--they will call me and say, 'May I call you my son? . . . They say, 'You are giving us life again.' Whoa. To think that I am 29 years old, and I am doing that?

"And it's not a conscious choice that I want to do something good for the world. It is, very seriously, because I feel it. They are part of our culture, they are part of our texture, and they are part of me."

And a part of Los Angeles. Lewin is a Cheviot Hills resident now in her late 60s, a past vice president and treasurer for Neutrogena Corp. for 33 years who continues to work as a business consultant.

From her, Felder borrowed a teacup that he uses in the show. The teacup comes from a set of dishes Lewin's mother packed away in a box before the war. Lewin's mother gave the box to a Gentile neighbor, instructing the neighbor to keep the box and to give it to any family member who returned for it. Lewin, the only member of her family to survive the camps, did return for the box. "Everyone I knew drank from this teacup. This is all that's left," Lewin told Felder.

Felder says the cup is something "you guard with your life" between performances, but it is one of several in the set, and Lewin herself serves her guests with them at home. So he uses it too.

Felder says he can't quite explain his profound connection with older people, his link with the Holocaust, as well as issues of survivor's guilt. But then, he does. His survivor friends would probably tell him he thinks too much.

"I come from Montreal, which is essentially an immigrant society, in terms of the Jewish community," says Felder, nephew of the late Jewish scholar Rabbi Gedalia Felder of Toronto. His father, from Poland, is president of Best Kosher Foods, Canada; his mother was from Hungary. "I grew up in a very Orthodox Jewish community. We spoke Hungarian and Yiddish at home, which is very unusual for someone my age," he says. "It is a real experience to grow up as part of a real shtetl, a real European village. We kept Sabbath and did things like they did in Europe, except with washing machines.

"Growing up with all these grandmas and grandpas, these bubbes and zaydes, you become very used to what's valuable at a very young age. And these people encountered true evil.

"That, coupled with the experience that my mother got very sick when I was young--she died when she was 35, of cancer--somehow gave me a little bit of a jump on old age. . . . There is something very specific about someone who has lost a parent or a sibling. I don't think I can explain it in words, but you tend to recognize people who that has happened to, immediately."

Felder may also get his sense of being older from packing a lifetime into his 29 years. A child actor in film, television and Yiddish and English theater in Montreal, Felder became serious in his early teens about being a concert pianist.

"When my mother got sick and passed away, there was this necessity to do something real, to really escape," he says. "When I analyze it now, it was because they took my mother away from me when I was a baby, so I wanted something that was mine, that no one could take away from me."

At 13, Felder entered Montreal's McGill University school of music, where he studied music, theater arts and voice. At 18, he began dividing his time between Montreal and New York, where he took private concert studies with Juilliard's Jerome Lowenthal; he also studied conducting and received vocal coaching.

Felder began touring North America as a pianist before age 20; he made his concerto debut in 1989 in Britain with George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which was to become a signature piece for him, and which he performs in "Sing!" In 1994, Felder was named a Baldwin Artist, giving up the title in 1994 when he was named a Steinway Concert Artist--both honors awarded by the piano companies.

Throughout his piano career, Felder has continued to act, direct, produce musical recordings and create stage shows. A recent effort is the musical "Noah's Ark," a collaboration with partner Campbell. The show received a semi-staged presentation with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last June, and the world premiere is slated for sometime this year in Los Angeles.

Felder wants to make sure that audiences know "Sing!" is about hope. "It's about survival; it's not about depression--you never hear about people dying and getting killed," he says. "And if we do, it's almost in a funny way, because these people have such an incredible will to live."

*

"SING! A MUSICAL JOURNEY," Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Sunset Boulevard at Hilgard Avenue, Westwood. Dates: Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2 p.m. Prices: Wednesday, $50; other performances, $30. Phone: (310) 825-2101.

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