A Little-Known Story: ‘Refuge’

A scene from “Refuge.” Left to right: Eshref Durmishi and Ilire Vinca of Teatri Oda, Perri Yaniv and Becca Schneider of Blessed Unrest. (Photo by Maria Baranova)

Sometimes the best way to get some perspective on the present is to take a fresh look at the past, to uncover history that has gone unmarked. And sometimes the best people to help us do that are artists.

The remarkable theater companies Blessed Unrest, based in the U.S., and Teatri Oda, based in Kosovo, do just that with their haunting new production, “Refuge,” which is having its world premiere at Rose Nagelberg Theatre at the Baruch Performing Arts Center through May 11. The little-known story of how Albanian families took in thousands of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe during World War II unfolds through movement, flashbacks, folk songs, Klezmer accompaniment and a gripping bilingual narrative. Captions aren’t necessary, and it’s impossible to watch the play without contemplating the cross-currents that mark our lives today – a time when immigrants and refugees are turned back by wealthy Western governments, when anti-Semitism has escalated, when attacks on houses of worship and hate crimes are reported daily. As you learn how Albanians, mostly Muslim, opened their hearts and their homes decades ago, you wonder where the generosity of spirit came from, and why such basic humanity is seemingly in such short supply today.

The program notes for “Refuge” state that Albania is the only country in Europe whose Jewish population was greater at the end of World War II than at the beginning. For Florent Mehmeti, co-founder of Teatri Oda, as for many Kosovans – the majority of whom are ethnic Albanians – the story of the protection given Jewish refugees was a familiar one, often handed down by family members. And Mehmeti does not have to look far into his country’s past to see the painful twist of fate that suddenly turned thousands of compatriots, descendants of those protectors, into refugees from their own land as they were subjected to a campaign of terror and expulsion by Yugoslav military forces in 1999, an event the show references as well.

“Refuge” is the third collaboration between the two companies, which have worked together since 2005. Four years ago, Mehmeti and Blessed Unrest artistic director Jessica Burr began workshopping the show with their ensemble members. Matt Opatrny, managing director of Blessed Unrest, began to write the text – using source material from rare firsthand accounts of the period, but says he mostly based his work on watching how the actors were approaching the story. “I was following what was happening in the room,” said Opatrny, adding that the three “very instinctual and knowledgeable” Metropolitan Klezmer band members, who joined late in the process, provide an indispensable elaboration of the show’s story.

Because the companies practice physical theater, which showcases movement as a key element of the narrative arc, “we always begin with movement,” said Blessed Unrest’s Burr. As “Refuge” evolved, Mehmeti and the Kosovan actors made sure that the specifics of local customs and habits, even the way men would sit, or cough, or hold a cigarette, were thoroughly absorbed by the characters – in much the same way as Albanians had to instill such customs and habits in the Jewish refugees they were harboring. After all, says Mehmeti, “these were crucial saving elements” that the Jewish refugees had to adopt to survive. Only in this way, as one Albanian character says, could all be “hidden in front of the eyes” of the Nazis.

In a trailer for the show, Burr notes that “not one Jew was taken to a concentration camp [from Albania] over the entire course of the war, even during Nazi occupation. This happened because of the way that people were sheltered, they were taken in as family, because of besa, which is the Albanian code of honor. These were people who didn’t share language, culture or religion, but they took in people and protected them with their lives, because it was the right thing to do.”

The story is told through the particular lens of one Polish Jewish family who fled south and was taken in by an Albanian family. The Jewish father, mother and daughter adopt Albanian names and papers, and learn how to behave among the locals as their Albanian benefactors gently instruct them, in scenes both humorous and touching. While the story focuses on these two families, other accounts are woven throughout. A chilling choice made by an Albanian father is described; in another tense sequence both families work to protect themselves from Nazi soldiers by getting them drunk.

Every such event related in the show, says Mehmeti, is true and based on accounts from that time.

The two companies hope to take the show to Europe and the Balkans in 2020. Before then, they may perform the play elsewhere in the U.S. This story, says Burr, was “made to be told” today.

“Refuge” is playing at the Rose Nagelberg Theatre at the Baruch Performing Arts Center through May 11. Tickets are $36, with a student rate of $16. Baruch faculty and alumni also receive discounts.

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