Steven Fisher is not Jewish. He actually grew up in a Catholic family in Delaware County.
But he was inspired to write “The Last Boy,” a play about the Holocaust, anyway.
The playwright described the story of “The Last Boy,” which opened a two-week off-Broadway run at the Theatre at St. Clement’s in New York City on July 10, as “Dead Poets Society Meets Anne Frank.” It’s a historical fiction inspired by Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp where a group of young boys created a secret literary society and hand-produced a weekly magazine, Vedem, with poems and prose. Toward the end of World War II, as the Allies advanced and the Nazis started burning their records, the only remaining member of the society left in the camp, Sidney Taussig, buried the Vedem archives.
Upon liberation, Taussig dug up the archives and brought them with him to Prague, ensuring their survival. Most of his friends in the society, though, about 85 out of the 100, according to Fisher, died in the Holocaust.
Fisher discovered the story in his former life as a youth choir director in the Philadelphia area. Every year he would take his Keystone State Boychoir on performance tours/educational trips. Several years ago, he decided to take the choir to the Terezin site in the Czech Republic because he was worried that the historical memory of the Holocaust was fading, he said. During a pretrip to the site, now a museum, to scout the location,
Fisher bought a book with the highlights from those old Vedem archives. He took it back to his hotel room, started reading and didn’t sleep that night.
Fisher was hooked on the boys’ stories about missing food and about being excited to be away from their parents, and to be living with other boys their own age. He was also amused by their bawdiness and their evisceration of their “dorm dad.”
“These were teenage boys,” Fisher said.
After the choir trip to Terezin, Fisher learned that Taussig was still alive, and living in Florida. He visited the survivor and got a firsthand account of life in the camp. Taussig told his guest stories about hearing other boys crying themselves to sleep over hunger, and about seeing the Nazis post regular lists of about 1,000 people who would be “transported east.”
“They didn’t know what was east,” Fisher said. “But they knew it wasn’t good.”
Taussig also explained Vedem’s editorial process: The 100 or so boys would submit entries to the editor each week, and three or four would be selected. Then, the boys would gather every Friday at sundown — in the attic during winter, outside during summer — to read their poems and stories aloud.
After that visit, Fisher brought Taussig to Philadelphia for the choir to honor him at the National Museum of American Jewish History. For that June 2019 event, Fisher wrote a musical performance about the Vedem story. But when the performance ended, he asked Taussig if he could take it a step further: Fisher wrote plays in his spare time, and he was still holding onto a childhood dream of getting one to Broadway. Now he wanted to write a play inspired by the story of Taussig and Vedem.
Taussig gave his blessing, on one condition.
“I just want to see it on Broadway before time does to me what Hitler failed to do,” Taussig said to Fisher.
The choir director wrote the play and in October 2020, after 30 years of running youth choir programs, he retired. Then, he decided to raise money and turn the play into an off-Broadway production, hoping it would be ready to debut just as the world was ready to reopen after the pandemic faded.
“The Last Boy” was the first NYC premiere since the theater industry closed in March 2020.
Taussig can’t attend this run because he’s recovering from a broken femur, but the plan was never for him to be there: It was for him to be in the audience for the Broadway opening.
“We do have hopes of moving it to Broadway, and we’ll bring him up from Florida as the inspiration for the story,” Fisher said.
Tickets to the remaining shows are available via the event’s website: thelastboy.info. Ten percent of the proceeds will go to NMAJH in honor of the late real estate icon Ron Rubin, who was instrumental in the museum’s founding, according to Suzanne Cohn, a Philadelphia resident, Holocaust survivor and friend of both Fisher and Rubin.