Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


My Father, Maurice Schwartz

by Risa Schwartz Whiting, as told to Robin Whiting, author and editor

I 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 using 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.


Abraham Joseph Englander, Risa's birth father.   Chana Englander, Risa's birth mother.
Abraham Joseph Englander   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.


The Vander Voordt Family, Risa's Foster Family.
Son Luc with Parents Denise and Maurice Vander Voordt
date unknown

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 charity.  

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.

The orphanage 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.


The Schwartz Family, 1948, at their Greenwich Village Apartment.
Maurice and Anna Schwartz, with their children Frances (later Risa)
and Marvin 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 language.

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.

Anna and Risa (Frances) Schwartz
 in South America, 1954.

Anyway, Schwartz's 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 loved it.

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 at the piano, 1948.
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.

A Gathering for Frances' Ninth Birthday Party, 1948.


at the Schwartz Greenwich Village Apartment
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 Golub).


The big concern among the audiences of the Yiddish Art Theatre was that their children would be assimilated and lost to the American culture.

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 Jewish ghetto. 

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 Torah perfectly.

And we both spoke Yiddish well enough to do all the plays of the repertory. 

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 story.

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.

Risa and Denise Vander Voordt at Memorial, 1972.

  Risa and Maurice Vander Voordt in Belgium, 1972.

Risa, Luc and Maurice Vander Voordt in Belgium, 1972.


photo, far left: Risa and Denise Vander Voordt
at location of Malines Holocaust Memorial;
photo, center: Risa and Maurice Vander Voordt;
photo, above: Risa, Luc and Maurice Vander Voordt


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 presence.

Risa and Maurice Schwartz, Brazil, 1955.


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 better.

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!

Good Theatre

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. 


The Schwartzes in Israel for Marvin's Bar Mitzvah, 1951.

photo: The Schwartzes in Israel for Marvin's Bar Mitzvah, 1951.

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 Unseen

"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 fiction.  Magic!


In the biography of Maurice Schwartz that appears on this website, my brother, Marvin, is quoted as saying, "Papa works too hard."

Marvin Schwartz, 1968.

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 payroll.

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.

photo: Marvin Schwartz, 1968.

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.






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