The Act 3 Production, “By Wheel and By Wing,” was meant to be told on stage, and maybe even film, it seems.
Set in 1941, the story is inspired by the Parnes family’s escape to Russia from the Ukraine during the Holocaust.
The family’s journey and how the story came to includes many seeming miracles, if not a guiding Grace. The musical premiered Thursday at the Sandy Springs playhouse.
“I’m so excited,” said Jeannie Wechsler, 74. “I can’t sleep at night.”
Jeannie is the youngest of the Parnes children. She was four-years-old when her parents fled the Ukraine during World War II. The family says they survived bombings and danger through the will of their mother and father, Esther and Mickey, and the ingenuity of family friend Azriel.
An underlying theme in the Act 3 play is the love story of Azriel and Sally, the oldest Parnes family daughter. The couple married during the war.
Nine high school students, following a workshop with playwright Corey-Jan Albert, wrote the play. An anonymous donor helped to fund the production with a $30,000 donation following a stage reading in May 2011.
Mother's inspiration is far-reaching
Esther Parnes first documented the family story in 1960, writing in a blue loose leaf notebook at her kitchen table. It inspired her grandchildren to have a book published, in 1999, titled, “One Step Ahead: A Mother of Seven Escaping Hitler’s Claws” by Avarham Azrieli.
“She was a very stong matriarch character,” said her granddaughter Helen Kasten, who lives in Sandy Springs. “We lived with her until I was 10 when she died. I remember her sitting and writing her stories down. It’s all written in Yiddish and it all rhymes.”
Helen’s mother Tonia Weisz is the second youngest of the Parnes children. Five of the seven children are still living.
Jeannie said her parents sometimes performed on stage before the war.
“Imagine my mother and father were actors and to have their dream come true through singing, it’s unbelievable,” said Jeannie, on a teary phone call from her New Jersey home. “Act 3 did an amazing job.”
The Parnes family lived in a village called Skalat when word spread that Adolf Hitler was separating children from their families. Two older Parnes children fled toward the Russian border first.
Helen said the family later followed in a wagon with one horse that Esther procured from the town constable who endeared her.
“She helped a lot of the soldiers who were coming back from the Front. She was very active in the community,” she said. “They packed up and left following a caravan east. My grandmother said, ‘I’m not staying here. I’ve heard these stories of what these Nazis are doing [to the] children.’ “
Jeannie added, “There was only one way towards the border. And we did find [the two siblings]. And it was bittersweet.”
The family narrowly escaped a bombing, Jeannie said. “I will never forget it. I saw a little girl without a head. And my mother covered my face. It was devastating. Tell me how did our carriage not get attacked,” she asked.
On another occasion, the family including Azriel had stopped to bed down for the night near a barn, Jeannie recalled.
They soon heard bombs and planes overhead. Jeannie said her parents, Azriel and the older siblings each grabbed a younger child and ran for cover.
“My oldest brother grabbed me under his arm and ran with me into a barn. And there was a cow, and he laid me down next to her. The cow with her tale kept rubbing me, “said Jeannie. “By the morning the bombing had stopped. Everyone came out.”
Men, women and horses had been killed, their bodies scattered about, Jeannie said.
“It’s impossible to describe. And from every corner of that field came a sibling. We all survived. Our carriage wasn’t touched. The horse was tied to a tree,” she said.
During some of the worst times of their travel the family experienced swollen bellies from hunger, Jeannie said. Still, her mother would set up shows for the kids to dance and sing, as a distraction and to bring in some joy.
Perhaps somethings are meant to be
Jeannie and were strangers on an airline flight from the New York area to Atlanta, in May 2007. Jeannie is a nervous flyer and struck up a conversation with her seatmate, Patti.
They soon learned that Jeannie’s son was Patti’s anesthesiologist during her back surgery. Also Jeannie’s nephew was Patti’s son’s roommate.
“She’s now become like my mother,” Patti said.
After hearing the Parnes family story on the plane ride, Patti knew she wanted to bring it to the stage.
“I was directing "Les Miserables" at Walton High School and I thought, ‘My God, you could have a musical about this.' And I was thinking it should be written by kids because it was kids that went through it,” recalled Patti.
Students from North Springs Charter High School, Riverwood International Charter High School, Walton High School and Paideia School were the playwrights.
As proud as the family is, Helen Kasten say it’s also emotional to have aspects of the story portrayed. “Of course, it’s a very personal thing for me and certainly for a lot of the siblings and grandchildren to see it on stage,” she said. “I could almost hear my grandmother telling these stories. And music brings whole different level of emotion to it.”
[Helen’s husband Stan Kasten is former president of the Atlanta Braves, and along with Magic Johnson and Mark Walter, recently purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers.]
The message of the play
Some of the Parnes family stories have been changed in the play but the message is glaring, Jeannie said.
“If you stay together and love each other it will pull you through anything. And when I go to talk to kids, I don’t tell them such horrible things that happened, as I try to explain to them how important family is,” said Jeannie.
“By Wheel and By Wing” is running through July 7. This weekend showtimes are 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.