want to thank Steven Lasky for creating a website and
inviting me to contribute to it. I also thank Steven for
making this website interesting and attractive and for
Martin Boris' captivating biography of Maurice
Schwartz, my last father, which brings me to the
beginning of my story: On November 25, 2012, I turned
seventy-three years old. As I read in the website, in
1939, when I was born in Antwerp, Belgium, I was given
the name Fanny Englander. My father was Abraham Joseph
Englander and my mother was Chana Englander.
In 1942, my parents were
deported to Auschwitz, while my brother and I, and three
other children, were hidden by the underground and
distributed to different Christian families. I became
Marcelle Vander Voordt, the daughter of Maurice and
Denise Vander Voordt.
By the time Maurice and
Anna chose my brother and made an agreement to adopt me
as well, I had lost all memory of my first parents, and
as far as I knew, I was the true and only child of
Maurice and Denise Vander Voordt.
A FAMILY PORTRAIT
Son Luc with Parents
Denise and Maurice Vander Voordt
As you can imagine, I
didn't relish learning I was no one’s child, being
uprooted and sent to an orphanage and meeting a whole
new set of characters in my life. In Wezenbeck
Orphanage, I met my blood brother and was introduced to
a new religion -- Judaism. I had never heard of it. I
was about to learn a great deal.
The only family I had
known was rarely seen in their Catholic Church, but in
taking me into their home, they practiced true Christian
Now I learned that I was
really Jewish. In the beginning, all of this was
puzzling, but I became curious and began to wonder what
my new parents would be like.
administration hung a picture near my bed of Maurice and
Anna Schwartz. On October 17, 1947, a few months later,
the Joint Distribution Committee shipped us off to La
Guardia Airport on Sabina Airlines.
Skipping past the
inevitable emotional challenges, I received the most
rounded education backstage in the Yiddish Art Theatre,
whose members became my new family. Seeing photos of
them on this website brought me back in time. Because
Anna was willing to sit at my bedside and listen to my
longing for my Belgian family, I was gradually able to
let go of their memory and call Maurice "Papa" and Anna
"Mama." They were patient. Maurice knew what it was
like being displaced.
As adoptions go, we were
well matched. My brother and I took to the theatre as
if we were born there. I would sit in my father's
dressing room as he put on his make-up and wigs and
beards and costume. I loved the transformation! Magic!
It fired my imagination! I could see myself doing this
for the rest of my life.
NINTH BIRTHDAY PARTY
Maurice and Anna
Schwartz, with their children Frances (later Risa)
in the Schwartz apartment in Greenwich
Village, New York
I remember the three
gongs and the hush before the curtain went up on
“Shylock and His Daughter.” It was a few days after we
arrived in 1947, and we were seated in a box at the
Anderson Theatre, waiting for the curtain to rise. One
of the actors, Anatole Winagradoff, spoke French and
told us that we were about to see a play and to be
quiet. I had never been to a live theatre before and
was awed by the beauty of the stage scenery, the
costumes and the music. I spoke only French, so I
didn't understand, and yet I was transported anyway.
The actors were expressive, colorful and conveyed a lot
with body language. There is a seamless quality among
ensemble performers who've worked together for ten and
twenty years. Teamwork is the invisible magic.
It was this invisible
magic that cushioned my brother and I from the shock of
the change in language, culture, friends, etc. Charlotte
Goldstein, who played Jessica to Schwartz's Shylock, was
exquisite and instantly became my idol. The warm hugs
overcame the language barrier. Pantomime is a universal
The Triangle Fire
One of the anecdotes the
Schwartzes told me about the early years of their
marriage was about the struggle to make a living. One
thing Schwartz tried was selling blouses that Anna
designed. That's how Anna helped support her family --
by designing blouses. She started by trying to be a
seamstress, but she kept getting her fingers caught in
the machine, so they tried her in the designing
department, and she did very well. In those days, the
shop was locked, and everyone was checked before they
left to make sure that no one took any valuable cloth or
trim. One day, when Anna was out for a break, a big
fire broke out in the factory and many seamstresses who
worked with my mother died because they couldn’t get out
fast enough and there were no fire escapes. That was
known as the famous Triangle fire.
Anna and Risa
in South America, 1954.
salary as a young actor was hardly enough for the young
couple, so Schwartz tried his luck selling her designs.
Selling blouses was not
for Schwartz. He was unable to succeed at anything but
theatre. Or maybe it's the only thing that he could
really stay passionate about long enough to succeed.
I don't think Anna
minded leaving her design work. In addition to
balancing the checkbook and making the statement every
night, she helped design the costumes for the plays and
was involved in the endless details of every show. She
I read about Schwartz's
love affairs, but was unaware of them. When my brother
and I first came to their home, Maurice and Anna went to
the theatre together every night, left us with a
babysitter and came home together after the show. It is
likely that those affairs came before my time. Or, if
he was still having affairs, he was discreet.
However, they treated
each other with a level of kindness that I used as a
model for my marriage. In the forty-eight years my
husband and I have been together, I have often drawn
inspiration from the Schwartz's dynamic, working
partnership. They had a knack of defusing an angry
moment with humor or with a favorite line from a play.
That always seemed to work. Magic.
Like Anna, I also
married a handsome and talented young actor. But we did
not use theatre to create income. We have done a lot of
community theatre, theatre in schools (arts in
education), psychodrama, Interfaith Theatre combining
spiritual leaders and performers, interactive theatre
(audience participation), a free-access TV show, and
we're not finished yet. Below is a link to a play we
performed on Maui ten years ago.
Frances and Marvin
Schwartz at home, playing the piano at the
Schwartz Family Home, Greenwich Village, New
York, New York
After the honeymoon was
over, and my brother and I had mastered enough Yiddish
and English to communicate with the Schwartzes, we went
to public school -- P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village. It
was a short walk from the Schwartz apartment and still
remains one of the best public schools in N.Y. (our
children also went there). They sent us to a private
school for a while, but they found the public school
just as good. School was a good balance for the heady
environment of the theatre. In the theatre, Marvin and
I were cooed over and treated as if we were very
special; in school we were not. Being a Yiddish actor’s
daughter was not considered special by our schoolmates.
If your father wasn't a famous American film or stage
actor, he didn't count. Being Jewish, I learned, was
not as good as being a WASP. I stopped mentioning what
my father did for a living.
As we settled into the
routine of living together, we began to realize that
working in theatre was no fairy tale. We were aware of
the tension when the income was not so good.
On good days, Maurice
would forget all that, find a humorous story book in
Yiddish, sit my brother on one side and me on the other,
and transport us the way he transported his audiences.
Years later, I did the
same with my children with the same wonderful results.
Children are natural actors. They love getting into a
story and being transported by it.
My husband and I never
lost that pleasure of being transported by a good story.
at the Schwartz Greenwich
26 East 10th Street, Apt. 6-F,
Frances' Ninth Birthday Party
Top left: Semel, Wolf Mercur, Maurice
Schwartz. Bottom left: Inserted photo of
Charlotte Goldstein, unknown couple, Anna
Schwartz, unknown woman, Joseph Rumshinsky,
Rosetta Bialis, Frances and Marvin Schwartz
(sitting on the lap of Anna's nephew, Albert
The big concern among
the audiences of the Yiddish Art Theatre was that their
children would be assimilated and lost to the American
The people who came from
the old country were sure of their identity. Those of
us who assimilated didn't have that certainty. We had
to create a new identity.
In the shtetl it was
normal to be a Jew. All the Jews lived together in the
In some parts of New
York, Jews lived that way. The Schwartzes didn't.
We were given Hebrew
lessons in the Old Testament in preparation for Marvin's
bar mitzvah. I learned everything he did, although I
never had a bat mitzvah. The Schwartzes did no formal
prayers that I know of, but whenever we were in N.Y., we
celebrated the Friday night Kiddush, which Maurice did
in beautiful melody and full voice, and he loved to sing
Shalom Aleichem welcoming the angels of peace. He
believed that the Friday night Sabbath was the most holy
of Jewish holidays.
We went to synagogue to
promote the Yiddish plays we did, but not as a regular
practice. Maurice believed you didn't need a building
or a book or a lot of people to pray. But he wanted us
to know what the Old Testament said, and he wanted us to
know it in Hebrew. We did learn Hebrew, and during
Marvin’s wonderful bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, he read the
And we both spoke
Yiddish well enough to do all the plays of the
And I became
assimilated. I love the memories of that world I grew
up in, and I expanded on it. I enjoy a note of
recognition in people's eyes when I inject a Yiddish
word like "balabuste" in a conversation. "Oh, you're
from the tribe," someone will occasionally respond, or
"You're a landsman?" And every so often, someone will
say "What does that mean?" And that would start another
Those of us who were
“hidden children” and who lived as Christians and became
Jewish again have ambivalence about religion. I like to
think my life qualifies me to be a world citizen. I
know that my Christian parents and my Jewish parents
each in their own unique ways were kind, sensitive,
caring and generous.
After our second child
was born, I went for psychological treatment for severe
depression and anxiety. Part of my treatment was to
return to Belgium to reconnect with my past. The
outpouring of love from Maurice and Denise Vander Voordt
was tremendously healing for me.
photo, far left: Risa and Denise Vander
at location of Malines Holocaust Memorial;
photo, center: Risa and Maurice Vander
photo, above: Risa, Luc and Maurice Vander
The Schwartzes never
went back to Belgium with me. I believe they loved me
very dearly and wanted to forget that I had been someone
else’s child. The irony is that our story as children
of the Holocaust was repeated over and over again in the
publicity articles for the theatre.
Maurice and Anna
Schwartz were dead when I returned to Belgium and I
realized that the Vander Voordts did not want to give me
up, that they loved me as if I had been their own. The
Joint Distribution Organization had told them that our
parents had come for us. They did not want to separate
me from my family, even though they didn't want to part
with me. It was a wonderful reunion for all of us.
They came to visit our
home in the U.S. and became devoted grandparents to our
children. And now, many years later, our daughter is
aunt to their great grandchildren.
Although I lost my
parents early in life, I feel they would be pleased with
how I landed. And sometime I feel as if they’re the
angels who arranged it all from backstage.
When Bob and I were
doing numerology readings for clients on Psychic Friends
Network, I thought back to my first exposure to
metaphysics -- the Yiddish Art Theatre’s production of
“The Dybbuk.” The idea that there is a plan for the
soul before it enters this world and that you can
communicate with other worlds! The saying above the
Torah on the ark is “Know thyself.” I never forgot
that. But, when I hear Israelis speak Hebrew, I
understand hardly anything. And there are many Yiddish
words I can't remember anymore. I remember some songs
that bring a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.
As we approach
Halloween, Bob and I will be celebrating a pagan holiday
that acknowledges the time when spirits come to earth.
Perhaps Bob's parents and grandparents, as well as
mine, will be among them. It brings to mind the bride in
“The Dybbuk” who goes to the cemetery to invite the
ancestors. Anything is possible when you have the
imagination of a child and/or an actor. Many of the
costumed little ones in the Lahaina parade, here in
Maui, look like real angels. Blessings.
As an adult, I spent many hours in psychotherapy seeking
to understand the love/hate I felt for Maurice Schwartz.
As a child, I did everything in my power to emulate him.
He had the power to get people to do what he wanted
them to do, and they did so not only because he paid
them, but because they wanted to please him. Some
people call it charisma.
Some people said he always took the lead role. I believe that whatever
role he took became the lead role. He had that kind of
Growing up, I wondered how I could acquire the ability to influence
people with such skill. The children of famous and
brilliant parents often grow up with feelings of
inferiority; I was no exception. The other side of the
coin is that such parents offer us high standards, which
are helpful in challenging us to do better. My father
rehearsed and rehearsed for each performance, yet he was
always polishing the show with notes to the actors.
photo: Risa's sixteenth birthday, with Maurice Schwartz
on tour, Brazil.1955. She played all the ingénues in his
troupe and was billed as Frances Schwartz, the name she
was given when she was adopted.
"Each show," he said, "is a rehearsal for the next
one." In other words, we never level off, we never sit
back and say we've done it all. There's always more and
As I prepare for my seventy-third birthday, I wonder: What's the next
show I've been rehearsing for?
We've just returned to Maui, HI, the scene, ten years ago, of a great
theatre victory for Bob and I when we won Actor and
Actress of the Year Awards for our performance in the
play, "First Love". Is there more in store?
If there's anything I learned from Maurice Schwartz it is that, in
theatre, all things are possible. It's magic!
What is good theatre,
some people want to know. Having lived with and
performed with one of the great theatre people of his
time, I can say it's “living truthfully under imaginary
circumstances.” I am quoting Sanford Meisner, one of New
York’s great theatre teachers. This is not an easy
thing to do on cue in front of a group of actors, or for
hundreds of audience members in a hall for eight shows a
week. In order to get and hold the attention of the
audience, an actor has to fully believe and be totally
involved in something that doesn't exist – a piece of
fiction. Yet during the show, the actor convinces
herself, her fellow actors and the audience of the story
as it is written in the script.
Still, despite the best of intentions, it doesn't always work. It
remains a mystery what makes a show a classic that
survives through the years. Many shows open and close.
But when it works, it's wonderful! It's magic.
Quite a few years ago, I
went back to Antwerp, Belgium, to look for records of my
birth family. Since I didn't know where to go, I
stopped an Orthodox Jew in traditional garb and asked
him in Yiddish where I should go to find out. He
responded to me in perfect Yiddish, as if he had just
walked out of the Yiddish theatre from my childhood.
That's when I realized that Yiddish isn't dead. It is
spoken to this day by Orthodox Jews who believe Hebrew
is a sacred language and should be used only for prayer.
However, most Orthodox Jews do not support Yiddish
theatre because they believe it is profane.
Although my time with the Schwartzes gave me a sense of belonging among
Jewish people, I feel alien around Orthodox Jews.
Some time back, I was approached by an Orthodox group who wanted to
record the stories of survivors of the Holocaust. A
couple came to our home a couple of times to listen to
my story. They brought their food carefully wrapped in
paper. I offered a dish to put it on and they refused.
And then I remembered, my dishes were "treif," unclean
because I didn't follow the dietary l laws of separating
meat and dairy. Although I understood all that, I felt
the gulf between us and was no longer able to open up to
these well-meaning people. I couldn't share my story
with people who saw my home as unclean. I'm sure they
didn't mean to offend me, but their revulsion was so
evident it made my skin crawl. I thanked them for
coming and told them I would not be telling them my
story. When they left, I sadly realized there was a
huge difference between us.
Schwartzes in Israel for Marvin's Bar Mitzvah,
It reminded me that I was separated from my loving Christian family,
because well-meaning Jews thought that a Jewish child
belonged with Jews. But my Christian family didn't have
the prejudices this Orthodox Jewish couple had. They
wouldn't treat my dishes as if they would get an awful
disease from them.
Perhaps I overreacted to that incident, but it underscored the wide gulf
between me and others of the Jewish faith.
I suppose that if you grow up from childhood in one religion, it may be
easier to make peace with all the inconsistencies that
exist within its framework.
"The Dybbuk" came to mind
again when our son died at age sixteen. The sense of
loss was devastating to me, and I thought I wouldn't
survive the experience when I began to hear him speaking
to me and seeing his face on other peoples’ bodies. I
was terrified I was losing my mind until I visited a
community of psychics in Florida. For the psychics,
seeing the dead is not a strange experience.
The Baal Shem Tov was said to have manifested miracles that many Jews
repeat to this day. We had such an experience while
living in Woodstock, N.Y., hosting a free-access cable
TV show. A man walked in promoting a workshop on
fire-walking, and we were curious enough to say we would
borrow a portable video camera to record it. None of our
friends believed it was possible and would not lend us
their cameras. We went with a still camera, hoping they
would be pleased with that kind of coverage. They told
us we could only come to the workshop if we were going
to do the fire walk. We had to take off our shoes and
socks, fold up our pants and tuck up long skirts and
listen to a lecture about reality and illusion. At a
certain point we lit a log fire that became hot enough
to burn a steak. When it was the coals were red hot,
our leader raked them till they were relatively smooth
and led us across. My husband and I, and a whole group
of other people, walked on fire that day, and no one had
even a blister.
Truth is stranger than
In the biography of
Maurice Schwartz that appears on this website, my
brother, Marvin, is quoted as saying, "Papa works too
Maurice's formula for keeping his audience's interest was by continually
putting on new shows and restoring golden oldies from
time to time. This required maintaining a full theatre
company full-time, and the constant pressure to meet the
During the lean times, I don't recall the Schwarztes applying for food
stamps. To Maurice, applying for government support was
repugnant. He preferred organizing another production.
He was stimulated by the potential of making money
again in show business, one of the most risky businesses
in the world! I think he measured his self-worth by his
ability to bring in money.
He and Anna could have collected Social Security and lived modestly in
their rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village.
The eternal optimism that led him to the next show was each
show-person's dream – the next hit! That's always the
pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And he'd already
had quite of few big successes by the time I came on the
scene in 1947.
Even when it was obvious that audiences were dwindling and there was no
more profit, the need to stay in the game drove him. It
was an addiction.
Looking back, I think that picture of him driving himself is what made
me seek balance and calm.
I looked at other fathers who weren't "famous stars" who didn't drive
themselves into the ground and managed to provide for
their families, and thought, "I want to be different."
At seventy-three, I
realize I am different. I have spent years learning and
practicing meditation as well as being a wife and
mother. I have learned the value of calm. I value
action and stillness. I do my best to slow down before
I drop. To a great extent, my life with Maurice
Schwartz taught me to value that.