The Setting: Warsaw, Poland | The Time: 31 August 1939 - Late Winter 1942
IMAGINE THIS opens on a dark stage, lit only by a “ghost light”. A halo of light reveals a toy carousel and REBECCA WARSHOWSKY as she remembers life before the war. Darkness turns to daylight and Rebecca’s family appears: her father, DANIEL WARSHOWSKY, the charismatic head of a Polish theatre company; her mother, Daniel’s wife and leading lady, HANNAH; Rebecca’s 10 year old brother, LEON; the comic acting duo of Daniel’s sister SARAH and her husband MAX; and Rebecca’s grandfather, Daniel and Sarah’s father, ADOLPH, a renowned Shakespearean actor. What a glorious day it was, that last day of Summer, August 31st, 1939 before the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1st of that year.
Fast forward two and a half years to the ghetto in Warsaw. Daniel and his family along with 450,000 other Polish Jews have been imprisoned behind stone walls topped by barbed wire. In the abandoned train depot where the Warshowsky family had taken refuge after their theatre was bombed, they and the other cold and hungry members of the acting company – IZZY, a comic from Berlin; OTTO, a German film actor; LOLA, a chorus girl; JAN, the son of a Rabbi; and JACOB, a young Polish actor – prepare to rehearse. Daniel has written a musical about Masada, the ancient Judean mountain where 980 rebels held 10,000 Roman soldiers at bay – a story to inspire his audiences.
ADAM, a resistance fighter, suddenly bursts into the building, looking to escape from the Nazis chasing him. Daniel quickly hides Adam’s gun and instructs him to pretend to be one of the actors. When CAPTAIN BLICK and his soldiers enter to search the premises and discover Jacob removing Adam’s gun from from where is had been hidden, BLICK has Jacob arrested. Adam has no choice but to keep up the subterfuge if he’s not to betray the Warshowskys for giving him shelter. So after Jacob is dragged away Adam is forced to play the leading part opposite Rebecca.
As they begin to rehearse, they find that one thing on which they can agree is there’s no place for love in a world like theirs. However, as the days go by leading up to opening night, both young people start to experience a strong attraction to each other.
The moment approaches for Daniel’s show to start. The actors are preparing while Adam argues with Daniel that it’s pointless to put on plays while the Nazis are bent on destroying them. Rebecca shares Adam’s disillusionment. She says they’re just playing into the Nazis’ hands, keeping the ghetto entertained while everyone starves to death. Daniel argues that they can still feed the souls of their ghetto audience with hope. As the curtain rises on Daniel’s play of “Masada”, he addresses his ghetto audience, asking them to see more than bare floorboards and starving actors, to close their ears to those who say they can’t survive, to come with him on a journey two thousand years ago…
Jerusalem 70 A.D.
A courageous band of rebels led by the freedom fighter ELEAZAR (played by Daniel) makes their way to King Herod’s former fortress, a desert mountain known as Masada, created onstage by the members of Daniel’s acting company with tables, chairs, ironing boards and all manner of found objects. As they arrive on the “mountain” a celebration breaks out, TAMAR (played by Rebecca) dreams of the handsome Roman General SILVA (played by Adam) she had met in the Jerusalem marketplace. Although the connection between them, as they gazed into each others eyes, was electrifying, no love is possible between a Jewish girl and a Roman General and so she watched him depart, with only a white rose to remember her by.
At the same time Silva, in Rome, receives orders from CAESAR (played by Adolph) to go back into battle and capture the rebels. Silva had returned to Rome expecting to be hailed as a conquering hero, allowed to retire from war. Upon receiving Caesar’s directive, Silva realizes he’s nothing but a slave at the mercy of a tyrant, all the while dreaming of the beautiful girl in Jerusalem.
Silva discovers that a palace slave, POMPEY (played by Izzy), has overheard his blasphemous diatribe. Silva draws his dagger and POMPEY begs for his life. Moved, Silva spares his life and agrees to take Pompey with him to Masada as his personal slave.
When Silva’s army surrounds the mountain to demand surrender, Eleazar refuses. On their mountain fortress, the rebels are safe from Roman attack. Silva, in his tent, despairs that he is losing the confidence of his men. RUFUS (played by Otto), Caesar’s Tribune in Judea, arrives and conveys Caesar’s order that Silva build a gigantic ramp from the desert floor to the summit of Masada along with a battering ram that can knock down the walls. Little does he suspect that the girl from the Jerusalem marketplace is up on the mountain at that very moment.
When Eleazar returns from a raid on the Roman camp with the news that one of the rebels, AARON (played by Jan), has been captured, Tamar’s pain and anger are unleashed and she grabs a dagger and heads down the mountain path toward the Roman camp.
At the encampment, Rufus discovers that Pompey is a hidden Christian and informs Silva that the slave must be crucified. Pompey refuses to deny his faith, despite the General’s pleas, and is dragged away. Silva decides to return him to Rome and allow Caesar to decide the slave’s fate.
That night, Silva sits alone in his tent, making final plans for the massacre of Masada. A figure flies out from behind a tent curtain, dagger raised high. Silva wrests it away, unmasking the robes to reveal Tamar. He stares, shocked to see she’s the one who meant to take his life. She stares, equally shocked, waiting for him to kill her – but he can’t. As Silva takes her in his arms and they kiss, the Nazi Captain, Blick, interrupts the performance. He addresses the ghetto audience, “Friends, your hunger is at an end. You may leave the ghetto tomorrow morning. A new life awaits you in the east where we Germans have built a beautiful new labor camp. You will each be allowed to take one suitcase. And as a bonus, all who cooperate will receive one loaf of bread and a jar of marmalade.” As the headlight of a train approaches and the whistle blows, Act I comes to an end.
Backstage, the actors are excited to leave for the labor camp at Treblinka. Rebecca believes they will find her missing mother there, that the family will be reunited. Adam desperately attempts to make them all listen to the truth – that Treblinka is a death camp and getting on the train, a death sentence. An angry Captain Blick arrives with his soldiers. Having discovered, from an informer, Adam’s real identity, he informs Daniel that he and Adam are under arrest and that the rest of the company will be on the trains in the morning, on a ride from which they’ll never return.
If Daniel and the others will finish the play, if they help Blick to keep the audience calm so they unsuspectingly board the trains the next day, in return Blick will spare Daniel and his family. As Blick departs, the actors turn to Daniel in desperation – do they continue the performance and save themselves without telling the audience what they know? Can they let thousands of others get on the trains and die? Without giving them an answer, Daniel orders everyone back on stage and the performance resumes as we return to the play of “Masada”.
Back in Silva’s tent, Tamar is full of remorse. Caught between two worlds, her only hope is a peace that seems impossible. Motivated by love, for Silva as well as her people, she heads back up the mountain to arrange a meeting between her father and the man she loves. At the same time, Rufus is determined to destroy the chance of an agreement between Silva and Eleazar and encourages an insurrection against Silva by the Roman troops.
When Tamar returns to Masada, she swears Silva will protect everyone if they will surrender peacefully. Eleazar says it’s a trick. But when Silva spares Aaron’s life and frees him, Eleazar agrees to meet with the General. Eleazar arrives at the meeting in time to hear Tamar and Silva pledge their love. Silva swears he’ll protect Tamar – and her people. Eleazar can’t help being moved. But just when peace appears to be at hand, Silva is betrayed by Rufus’s officers, determined to sack Masada and kill Silva. He and Eleazar fight them off but, in the end, Eleazar realizes that Silva’s love for his daughter isn’t enough to save them from Roman tyranny.
Eleazar retreats back up the mountain. He tells the rebels they have a choice – to live as slaves or die in freedom. The next morning, after the Romans attack, Silva enters the fortress to discover an eerie silence. The rebels have killed themselves. Silva sees Tamar lying dead next to her father. Thus ends the tale of “Masada”.
However the fate of Daniel, his family and his acting company is still unknown: will they save themselves or find a way to inform their audience not to get on the trains?