"Let me tell you how I felt," began Leo Lauffer, who spent four years of his adolescence as a prisoner in Auschwitz.He picks his words carefully. He has a trace of an accent, but it's not that of Dallas, where he has lived since 1949.
"I had," he says, "mixed emotions in regard to watching or not. But in the privacy of my own house, I thought, 'Let me take a look.'"
'I turned it on.
"Then I turned it off.
"Then I went back to it again.
"But it just wasn't real . . . What she was, what she had said kept getting in the way of the part. . .it just wasn't real."
Laufer is 56. In 1940, when he was 16, he was sent to Auschwitz, where he stayed until the pre-liberation evacuation in 1945. Four days before Allied troops seized the infamous extermination camp, Leo Laufer managed to escape.
He is deeply disturbed, even now, by the selection of Vanessa Redgrave, who is seen as an outspoken enemy of Israel and friend of the terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization, to portray Fania fenelon in the CBS-Arthur Miller teleplay based on Fenelion's accont of her Auschwitz years.
He made his concern known to CBS months ago, he said, when the casting was announced, and he refers with some mild bitterness to the "negative answers" his letters got from CBS.
"They didn't see how it would hurt those of us who were in the camps," he says. Pause. "It belittles the dignity of my own experience, but it dishonors the people we left behind. For the ones that survived, well, we can live with it, but the ones that died. . ." His voice breaks, just for a moment.
The broadcast is over. "Playing for Time" is hailed as a tour de force for Vanessa Redgrave, the contrary and povocative actress who used her Academy Award acceptance speech in 1978 to excoriate Jewish protesters as "hoodlums," and to praise the PLO.
It was controversial from the start, Redgrave's selection for the role of Fania Fenelon, who spent her Holocaust years in the death camp as part of a musical group, playing and singing a bizarre descant to the genocidal Nazi horror around her. It raised a bitter outcry from Jewish communities all over the country, some protests and an attempt at an organized boycott, which provoked a lot of hostile phone calls to television stations Tuesday evening. But, given the high overnight ratings, it didn't do too well with the off buttons.
It also raised the old debate of politcs versus art, as indeed it is raised within the tale itself, as well as invocations of McCarthyism, blacklists and censorship.
Fania Fenelon, author of the autobiographical book of the same title, objected unsuccessfully to Redgrave's casting and this, in itself, became cause for some criticism of CBS.
It is the kind of story that is filled with the stuff of drama -- human weakness and triumphs of heroism. But because it happened, because people alive today were there, or had relatives there, or friends, some reactions are inevitably personal, intense, emotional.
These are samplings.
"This lady [fenelon] suffered greatly," says Manfred Swarsensky, rabbi emeritus of Temple Bethel in Madison, Wis., and a professor of religious studies at Edgewood College of the Sacred Heart in Madison. "I think she has a perfect moral right to suggest, recommend or reject someone to play her. There is a dimension of decency and sensitivity which has been grossly ignored."
Swarsensky in 1939 was a young rabbi in Berlin "with lifetime tenure," he notes with a small ironic laugh. He was interned, albeit briefly, in a camp. "But don't be misled," he says quickly, "there were no crematoria there." He escaped to this country in 1940.
Now 74, Swarsnsky has spent years studying, interviewing and lecturing on the Holocaust. (He will participate this month in a discussion following a showing on the Madison public broadcasting station of ABC's docu-drama "Holocaust".)
His feelings, too, are mixed. "The insensitivity of the CBS people is indeed overwhelming," he says. "She [Redgrave] is capable, no doubt about it. . .but it is true irony that someone who so opposes the state of Israel, where so many survivors found refuge, and deeply dislikes the people for whatever reason, should portray the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
"Nevertheless," he says, "the portrayal did a job because it again highlighted the reality of our age: the total moral decay and dehumanization of man, which is progressing at such a rapid pace. It served a purpose and we should not forget it is true history. It really happened.
"The human mind will never be able to comprehend, the human heart will never be able to fathom the enormity of this crime which occurred -- in our age -- in a nation that excelled in science and music and art and theology and medicine, or the complexity of the Nazis, who loved music and flowers and little children and engaged in this incredible savagery of murdering human beings. . ."
Ben Kaplan, an executive of the Jewish Association for Service for the Aged in New York City, met the 20-year-old Leo Laufer when Auschwitz was liberated in 1945. Laufer credits him with his survival, and the two remain in reasonalby close touch.
Kaplan thinks the drama was "overrated. It was absolutely bad taste, selecting a person like her for a part like that."
Then he adds, "I've got a sneaking suspicion they knew the furor it would cause and the they'd get a little free publicity. . ."
"It's really a problem," says an American woman who lived in Israel for several years. "After all, she is a great artist. There's no doubt about that. In Israel you can't even play a Wagner opera.
"On the other hand, she'll get rich from this. . ."
"But, well," says a Jewish man, "she has to earn a living, too."
"I've mellowed since those years," says Leo Laufer. He is now vice president of a chain of clothing stores in Texas. He is married, has four daughters and a 16-month-old granddaughter. He will tell you with great pride how three of his daughters have -- or are about to have -- graduate degrees. (The youngest is still in high school.)
"I was disturbed [at the choice of Redgrave] but I feel that Boycotting wouldn't do any good for us," says Laufer. "On the other hand, voicing our opinion is very, very good because I have seen what it meant in the treatment of Soviet Jews.
"In Auschwitz the men's camp was separate, but where I worked there were a lot of women. If she could really have taken a look at these women I worked with, maybe she . . . but maybe after playing the role -- and I hope she would watch the play afterward -- maybe her feelings would change . . . to a better understanding between the Jewish people and the PLO."