A life on stage
Palo Alto actor, 85, pens a play about a Holocaust survivor — and tells his own remarkable tale
Even sitting quietly in a garden at his senior community, Malcolm White looks like an actor. He has dynamic eyebrows and high cheekbones. His goatee is neatly shaped. When he admires the rosebushes, his voice holds theatrical conviction.
If White's face seems a bit leaner than in his headshot, that can be understood. He goes to dialysis three nights a week and has been diagnosed with end-stage renal disease.
"My doctor said I'm too old to get a new kidney," says White, 85. "I'm outraged by that." He lets out a full laugh with no bitterness in it.
After years on stage, from plays in Paris just after World War II to more recent shows with TheatreWorks and Palo Alto Players, White has become a playwright as well. He's in the process of revising his play "My Name is Richard Rozen," about a Holocaust survivor who hid from the Nazis in a cupboard.
White's health situation seems to make him only more determined to put on his play, which he plans to do next spring at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. It will be a one-man drama, with White playing Rozen.
"This is my swan song. If I'm going to leave anything behind, it'll be this," White says. "I have to be realistic. I don't have a lot more time."
The actor has put down a deposit for four performances at the JCC's theater, from April 15 through April 18, but still needs to raise more money for the whole fee. Overall, he has designed a show budget of $39,000 — with $26,000 still to raise. Costs include a stage set, lighting and sound design.
"It's a technically complicated production," White says on a recent afternoon at Palo Alto's Lytton Gardens, where he has lived for 20 years. Sitting at an outdoor table with a fountain burbling contentedly nearby, White spreads out old theater programs, black-and-white photos and letters from Rozen, who now lives in Australia.
White learned of Rozen's story by reading "The Hidden Children: The Secret Survivors of the Holocaust," a 1993 book by journalist Jane Marks. Later, he read more about White in the 2002 "Child Survivors of the Holocaust" by Australian psychiatrist and survivor Paul Valent. The second book was "darker and more psychologically probing," and also inspired White's play, he says.
The Rozens, a Polish Jewish family, went into hiding in 1941, when Richard Rozen was 6, White says. For 13 months, they lived in a cabinet in a farmhouse cellar.
Farmers brought food, water and a toilet bucket from outside, but the young Richard's world was dark, and his physician father taught him the alphabet by tracing the letters on his hand. When the Rozens ran out of money, the farmers kicked them out, White says.
Rozen's life continues to read like a wartime play after that, according to a bio published online by the Australia Day program, which recently chose Rozen as an inspirational "ambassador" in honor of the national Australia Day.
After the Rozens left the cellar, their travels took them to the Lublin ghetto in Poland, according to the bio. Richard lived with his mother for a time disguised as a village girl, and then joined his father and the resistance movement in the forest. His father was captured by the Nazis in 1944 and not seen again, but Richard and his mother survived. They emigrated to Australia in 1951.
Richard grew up to become a business owner, a stock-market investor and an active volunteer and speaker in education about the Holocaust.
He also became a champion in chess and bridge, White says. "Living in a totally dark environment for 13 months taught him how to remember things and how to visualize things you couldn't see," he says. "He's an extraordinary man."
It naturally follows that lighting design is a major element of White's play. Audiences must feel the close darkness of the cabinet and the open blackness of the forest — and experience the first sunrise the family sees in 13 months after leaving the cellar.
White imagines the moment as one of stunning, almost blinding beauty, with oranges and pinks bursting across the sky. Richard's father tells him to cover his eyes to protect them, but he peeks through, White says. "For him, at that moment, time stops."
White, who is still lining up his designers and other crew members, has a clear picture of his set design as well. It will incorporate a reproduction of the cabinet, and a French window with light pouring through it. That window will represent the home in Australia where Richard Rozen lives now. White also plans to use projections of photos, from images of World War II to pictures of Rozen with his wife, children and grandchildren.
Securing Rozen's permission to write the play was important to White. The playwright tracked him down in Australia about four years ago.
"When he got on the phone, I couldn't talk. I am so impressed by his life story," White says. "He was just so generous."
Since then, White and Rozen have written back and forth as the play has evolved. White held a reading about four years ago, and has sent Rozen versions of the script for his feedback and approval. In return, his subject has promised to come to the States if the play ever makes it to New York.
To this day, White clearly feels a strong connection with Rozen. As he reads aloud a section of his play in which Rozen discusses his feelings about evil and human nature, White's eyes grow watery.
"It means a lot to me," he says.
White is not Jewish, although his wife, the late writer Vera Randal, was. But he has a different personal connection with Holocaust survivors that goes back to World War II.
During the war, the native New Englander was in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He wasn't sent to Europe until six months after the fighting had stopped, and when he got there he fell in love with Paris. Because he was a radio operator and knew cryptography, he found a job with the U.S. Embassy at the age of 20.
White had acted in church plays at home. Now he began taking the stage with an English-language theater group in Paris. For two seasons, he acted with the troupe at the Theatre Monceau and the Theatre de l'Humeur.
At his Palo Alto garden table, he leafs through photos of actors emoting on stage, crew members climbing ladders. In White's headshots from the '40s, he has the serious gaze of a matinee idol, with his hair swooped back.
White is also one of the dapper men in uniform in a movie-set photo from the French film "Retour a la vie," which starred Louis Jouvet and Francois Perier. Playing an American military officer, he appeared "fleetingly" in that film and the American movie "The Man on the Eiffel Tower," directed by Burgess Meredith.
On the back of the "Retour" photo is scrawled: "To Mal with best of luck. Francois Perier. Paris 1948."
White was being paid in dollars, which meant he had the resources to bring his mother and sister to live in a villa just outside Paris. During that time, his Polish friend was reunited with his sister, Adele Lepka, who had been liberated from a concentration camp. The friend asked White to take his sister in.
Like Richard Rozen, Adele Lepka had ended up in a camp for displaced persons. She then lived with White's family in the villa. In photos from that time, she is youthful and glowing, sometimes sitting astride a motorcycle with her coat draped over her shoulders.
"Adele's story has a happy ending. She met another survivor in Paris and married him," White says. "Adele never talked about her experiences in the camp to me. She was a good-hearted person, sweet."
She, perhaps, is the true inspiration for "My Name is Richard Rozen," White muses. "There is a line there somewhere."
As for White, he returned to the States after two years in France. He had what he describes as an "attack of Puritan conscience" and decided to come home and get a real job. He earned a psychology degree at Columbia University and lived in New York City for 25 years, doing mostly market research, before moving to California.
Friendships led him and his wife to Palo Alto, and White returned to theater in 1975, acting in Mendocino and on the Peninsula. He was in shows including "The Skin of Our Teeth" and "You Can't Take It With You" at TheatreWorks, and "George Washington Slept Here," "Mornings At Seven" and "Prisoner of Second Avenue" at Palo Alto Players. He also performed with the late Menlo Players Guild at the old Burgess Theatre before it was torn down.
From 1994 to 2002, White acted in a different local venue. As part of a program at Stanford University's School of Medicine, he feigned symptoms to assist students in building diagnostic skills and bedside manner.
White hasn't been on stage in a theater since the '90s, so he plans to start auditioning again at local companies before his own play goes up, to help him get back in the swing of things.
To ensure that he'll have time to attend rehearsals, White has worked out a flexible dialysis schedule. Instead of undergoing the more traditional three-hour sessions during the day, White goes to dialysis three nights a week from midnight to 8 a.m.; he can sleep during the treatments. His Stanford doctor, Glenn Chertow, made the arrangements for White to undergo nocturnal dialysis at Satellite Healthcare in Redwood City. White says the longer sessions are less stressful on his body.
Ruth Sherer, a longtime friend of White's, says in a later interview that she's observed White feeling much better on the days that he acts. Not long ago, he and another friend did a dramatic reading at the Palo Alto senior organization Avenidas from Sherer's book "Forward Motion: On the Road With Scooters and Wheelchairs." Sherer was thrilled with the outcome.
"If you are engaged with your passion, your health is going to be better," she says.
Sherer also attended White's staged reading of "My Name is Richard Rozen" about four years ago, and says she's greatly looking forward to the production next April.
"He read it so well and the story is extremely moving, of course. Even though it's something in the distant past in some ways, it's something that we still deal with in many situations in the world," she says. "It's good to keep these things in front of us."
Info: To contact Malcolm White about his play, call him at 650-322-5953.