Thursday 22 March 2018

Happy Days as Yassur recalls ­silent meeting with Beckett

Last year the Enniskillen Happy Days Festival suffered a light blow when Winona Ryder never turned up. That can all be forgotten with the presence this year of Moshe Yassur, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor who knew Beckett.

He is directing Waiting for Godot in Yiddish, no less (until August 10).

Yassur, a Romanian Jew, worked with Samuel Beckett in Paris in 1963, but to his eternal regret they never exchanged a word.

Yassur was 29, a shy scholarship student working as assistant director on Beckett's aloofly-titled play, Play.

"I remember his being very reserved and very quiet. I did not dare approach him. I saw him from afar and I admired him and was afraid of him," says Yassur in his thick, rolling accent.

If he couldn't speak, what could he see?

"He was dressed as I imagined an Irishman being dressed. A tweed jacket and baggy pants. He had a look in the eyes. It was impossible to take your eyes off his eyes, and the rest was immaterial."

Beckett had gained prestige for his 1953 hit play, En Attendant Godot, about forlorn duo Vladimir and Estragon.

Yassur knew he would "change theatre for the world", but he was moved by Beckett on a deeper therapeutic level too.

"Nobody like Beckett was able to express the desolation and displacement that took place in the world after World War II", he says.

"We as Jewish people, we were wandering in the world just like Didi and Gogo. [Godot] expresses our own tragedy together with the tragedy of mankind." He adds with a laugh, "I don't want to kidnap Beckett to the Jewish cause."

Yassur was born in the town of Iasi bordering Moldova, the only son of a merchant. Of its 80,000 inhabitants, 40,000 were Jews. But in 1941 the Romanian fascists dealt a pogrom. Young Yassur, aged seven, went into town with his parents on the June weekend that 12,000 Jews were murdered.

He was separated from them and caught up in the massacre. When bodies fell on him, he played dead. "I had the spirit of theatre in me already. I said to myself, if I'm already dead they will not kill me again," he says. "I was left in the theatre of slaughter until the evening when they came to dig out the survivors."

He ran home through a gruesome scene of corpses being loaded into rubbish bins. His mother, Sarah, was waiting for him with a bloodied rag around her head, their bags packed. His father, Wolf, had not survived.

"It was an early experience with what Beckett describes in Waiting for Godot. When he says 'We are born astride the grave and the light shines for a second and then it's dark again', I understand very well."

"It's not a normal thing that as soon as you open your eyes all the world comes against you and tries to annihilate you."

During the war Yassur and his mother lived in hiding in a relative's cellar. Sarah, who was illiterate, plucked goose feathers to bring money in. Yassur received a good education from fired Jewish university lecturers, and performed plays when Soviet forces occupied the town.

In 1950 he and Sarah left and became refugees in Israel. While teaching, and directing theatre, Yassur followed the Israeli army into two wars.

The dramaturgist with Vartn af Godot is Beate Hein, Yassur's German wife and collaborator. The cast includes the play's translator and a Coen Brothers actor. The chosen language recalls a time when Yiddish theatre flourished around Eastern Europe.

"The Yiddish language has been decimated during the war," says Yassur of his mother tongue.

Yassur, in his seventh decade in theatre, would have "many questions" for Beckett now.

But most important for Yassur is that "waiting implies hope. Although you can be quite desolate after the experience of life, 'You must go on, you will go on', Beckett says.

'' That's a heroic act of humanity that still functions astride of a grave."

Waiting for Godot (Vartn Af Godot) will play the Happy Days Enniskillen festival on August 3, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10.

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