Jack Garfein’s life was so bountiful that the obituary writers overlooked a fundamental piece of it when this great man of the American theater died the other day at age 89.
Garfein was a director and producer who helped found the legendary Actors Studio West. He discovered Steve McQueen, Ben Gazzara and George Peppard. He married the actress Caroll Baker. He worked with Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett and Calder Willingham.
All of this, after barely surviving the Holocaust at 11 different concentration camps and the deaths of his parents, grandparents, sister and scores of uncles and aunts.
The obit writers covered much of this. What they missed was the ghostly 15-year old liberated from Bergen-Belsen who weighed 48 pounds, and then left a displaced persons camp as one of the first survivors to gain an exit visa out of Europe.
And arrived in Baltimore.
He came here six months after the war ended, and he came back here again in the 1980s when we sat down for a long dinner and he talked lovingly about his first memories of America.
“For the survivors who came to America,” he said, “Baltimore was our Plymouth Rock, and nobody seems to know it. We were the first ones to America, and we landed here.”
He arrived on the Swedish SS Saggatt, bound for New York until it hit stormy weather and headed for South Baltimore.
“I remembered thinking on the boat, ‘I’m coming to America. There will be a parade, a heroic welcome, the Statue of Liberty.’ I had all these visions out of Life magazine.”
The visions were wrong, but not so wrong as those that Americans had of the Holocaust.
“No one believed what had happened,” he remembered. “My family in New York, they said, ‘Come on, you always had such a big imagination, you’re exaggerating.’ You don’t know what this is like, to be so hurt and find you can’t even express it, no one around you can grasp it. There is terrific isolation.”
He recalled that day in 1942, in his hometown of Bardejov in Czechoslovakia, when the Germans rounded up the Jews. Garfein’s father was already gone, working in the Underground. His mother managed to sneak Jack and his younger sister out of town beneath the backseat of a car.
They made it to Hungary, where they were captured and taken to Auschwitz, which was only the first of 11 camps Garfein managed to survive.
“Who knows why some live and some do not?” Garfein mused when we talked years later. “I went through years of analysis asking this. It was like being under a death sentence, sitting in the execution chamber, 24 hours a day. It was a daily death sentence – no judicial process, and you weren’t even waiting for the executioner. He was right there in the room.”
By the time we spoke, Garfein was here to direct Arthur Miller’s play “The American Clock” at the Mechanic Theater. He’d already spent years directing plays on Broadway, TV and some movies.
But his thoughts came back to Baltimore and his first arrival here when the pain was still so fresh in the aftermath of the war.
“Ever since I came back this time,” he said, “it’s all hovered around. It hit me coming down on the train. I remember the harbor and coming in on the ship. I want to go back to the harbor. I want to, and yet I can’t get myself to do it. Just to walk around, to see if any of the feeling is there. I want to, and yet …”
It was roughly 40 years since the war’s end, but its painful remnants haunted him still.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.