Sunday, May 3, 2015

New York City Actor/Playwright Randyl Appel Writes Musical About Mother In The Holocaust . . .

Christal Cooper

Article 2,221 Words

Someone Else’s Sky
“I think my passion for creating this story has so much more to do with the idea of what are we going to do as a species, as a human race, with regard to each other and this idea of community.  If we accept persecution and holocaust and any sort of atrocity for anybody we accept it for ourselves.”
Randyl Appel on his play Someone Else’s Sky

Artist Randyl Appel, 51, is campaigning for funds to produce an actor’s equity reading in New York City on his musical Someone Else’s Sky based on his mother’s experience as a Holocaust survivor.

Someone Else’s Sky details the three years in the life of Ilse Steltzer, the daughter of Christian Emil Steltzer and Jew Else Steltzer who, who are both executed by the Nazis – Emil at Buchenwald and Else at Auschwitz. 

Christian paternal grandfather Opi (Ernst Steltzer) hides his two granddaughters six year old Ilse and her baby sister in a root cellar for two years.  

While Opi and her baby sister venture outside to get some needed medicine, the Gestapo come and take Ilse to Terezin Concentration Camp, where she remains for 15 months, in which she is subjected to torture, horror, sexual abuse, and experimental testing.

What makes Someone Else’s Sky so unique, with its own brand of humor, melody, and horror is Ilse’s incredible imagination and ability to maintain her own sanity and strong spirit by creating her own fantasy and alternative world in which she is a Princess, friends with Harriet Tubman, and, along with Biblical Moses, is able to find the Promised Land, long before the Russians come to liberate the camp.     

Appel knew of his mother’s past all of his life, she was the mother from Germany who endured terrible things.  By age 10, Appel had a better understanding of his mother and her past.

My mother said what really kept her going was the alternative life, this imagination, basically reassigning what was happening around her and to her that she could put it in context which of course was impossible to do but she did.”

       Ilse’s father Emil Steltzer was a local celebrity and accomplished athlete in soccer in Germany.  Even today there is a museum in Germany that has a display of Emil Steltzer and other local celebrities from the area. 

       “Because he was a Christian and married this
Jewish woman, there was no precedence with what was to come in the Third Reich.  For some reason they felt secure staying there while all the Jewish families fled.  And there was some speculation that he got involved in some underground work as well.”

Emil and Else Steltzer had two daughters Ilse and Mariana.  They had Mariana baptized, hoping to have their family identified as Christian instead of Jewish, which would protect them from the concentration camps, but that is not what happened.

“He married this Jewish woman (which) was the same as being Jewish, if not in the Nazi’s strange rulebook, even worse.  So my grandmother and grandfather were taken away to different concentration camps and eventually were executed.” 

His mother also told Appel about her childhood before the Third Reich, such as when her Opi took occasional trips to America and brought her back a present – a book on American History, where she first read about slavery, Harriet Tubman, and the amazing things she had done:  escaping to the north on her own, only to come back to deliver her people to the proverbial Promised Land, an expression that was first used in the story of the Biblical Moses.  To the young Ilse, it only seemed fitting that Harriet Tubman was known as the ‘Moses of her day”. 

       And certainly Ilse needed her own Moses at the time, especially when, just as the Third Reich was coming into power, her grandmother took her to Christian relative’s homes and pleaded for them to hide her. 

       “They slammed the door in her face.  And so my mother became compelled of this idea of finding a Promised Land, an idyllic place, and then as her surrounding area in Frankfurt am Main, Germany became unattainable she began to wonder how she could find the Promised Land in someone else’s story because she can’t find it in her own.  And indeed if it is in someone else’s story perhaps it is under someone else’s sky.”

Appel without being aware of it, was writing pieces of his mother’s story into the pages of his brain; but instead of writing he pursued a career in music, which he inherited from his mother.  Appel received his degree in Drama and supported himself as a full-time artist with his acting, dancing, booming voice, and choreography skills.  He obtained roles in regional theaters in California, Colorado, and New York. 

       The big change in his career came in his 30s when he felt compelled to go back to New York City where he worked what he described as a survival job – the typical 9 to 5 job – as a desk clerk at the first W Hotel in New York City, becoming their first corporate director of training. 

Now he is the owner of his own company Appel Hospitality Associates ( and trains hotel employees on utilizing musical theater as instructor tools. AHA used this unique approach of training the hotel staff of the first Virgin Hotel.

       Then the Bosnia Genocide hit the news, and the world, along with Appel, was horrified, and he felt compelled to write Someone Else’s Sky.

“As a son of Holocaust survivor I just thought there was a threshold that we as a human race needed to cross where we are no longer just beating each other up and saying, “My religion is better, or my culture is better, or my skin color is superior.”  It had less to do with I want to write than to say, “Hey I have something I want to say about a particular subject.  And that subject has to do with our human interaction.” And so that became the genesis for this story.”

The first thing Appel did to begin Someone Else’s Sky was the same thing his mother did when she was at her darkest moment – used his imagination.

“I imagined Harriet Tubman was running through a forest to the North escaping slavery.  And there was Moses in the desert.  There was the place outside time and space where Harriet and Moses intersect and both stopped to have a little picnic.  What would they say to each other?”

       Appel in his New York City apartment wrote the first lines of Someone Else’s Sky about a conversation between the two great historical figures.  The conversation between Harriet Tubman and Moses is no longer in the final script, but it was the first step in completing what is now Someone Else’s Sky.   

       For the next 20 years Appel worked on the script, from different apartments in New York City.  He now resides in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. 

 I attempted to find a way to tell my mother’s story as more than just a story about one child in the Holocaust.  I wanted to find a way to sort of universalize this persecution story. Asher who reads his mother’s journal in the Someone Else’s Sky says, “Oh I’m just reading this journal.  This has nothing to do with me.  This is someone else’s history.”  I was compelled and it became a life mission, a calling if you will to write it has a human story, as our story.”

Appel describes Someone Else’s Sky as 80% fiction and 20% fact; and the most important fact is that Ilse, his mother, did create this fantasy world, which most artists would describe as an incredible gift and talent, but Ilse describes to her son as simply a survival skill.
There are also many factual elements of the musical that are in the play or at least hinted in the musical which include rape and sexual abuse.

“My mother’s memory is that the people running the camp could not sustain any kind of semblance of sanity (because of)  behaving so hideously and inappropriately to other human beings.  She remembers tremendous incidences of highly in despicable behavior. And all of that was capsulated in the fictional rape of the Mariana in the second act.  “The guards were kind of enough to give me the baby.”  There was a lot of testing going on and my mother was often tested for her threshold of pain.  She had her nails pulled from her fingers.  And there were different medications and things and shots she remembers being tested on her.”

 Of the many factual elements is the ending, which seems hard to believe and larger than life.
       “The Nazis running the camp were essentially gone and those who survived were asking, “Where did everybody go?”  So the survivors did not know if they were coming back and they began to forge for food and hotwire busses and trucks.  My mother was loaded on the back of an open-air bus with the doll that in real life did exist, given to her by Opi.  Ilse drops the doll and screams which scares the driver and the driver stops.  She jumps off the bust to get this beloved doll.  Someone says, “Go!  Go!  Go!”  And they leave without her and about two football fields over  - and this is all true – the bus blows up – having gone over a landmine or a boobie-trap.  So everybody on the bus except for my mother perished.  And this was all before the Russians came in to liberate her and the remaining survivors.”

       Appel’s goal in writing Someone Else’s Sky is two fold – to write about human spirit conquering atrocity and to do it in such a way that has not been done before.  

       “There is the Diary of Anne Frank that deals with the hiding and the diary; there is the complete indescribable inexcusable human behavior in Schindler’s List.  I needed to find a way to convince the audiences to sit in this show and kind of convey the horror in a way that could be processed.”

       In the end what Appel wants to accomplish is what the Oscar winning actor Roberto Benigni accomplished in Life Is Beautiful.

       “Along comes this magnificent film where the father takes this unspeakable horror, creating a game and asking the audience to laugh.  He is so successful in doing that that we are laughing and this clown is creating this beautiful experience for his son.  

What Mr. Benigni did so magnificently was take us on this ride, and you think you are safe as an audience, safe looking at this story, safe in creating this identification, and convinced that this set up is going to be an acceptable ending.  We are taken in as an audience and everything that we think of as safe, familiar, and acceptable is turned upside down.  And yet we are not safe, and when the father is killed in Life Is Beautiful the audience is supposed to say, “How dare you!  I loved this man!”

In away I am looking to mislead the audience in this sense of saying:  Here is something beautiful through a child’s eyes and her hopes.  It’s great!  Isn’t hope wonderful! Isn’t she keeping hope alive!  And at the end you get slapped in the face anyway.”

But that slap in the face only applies to Someone Else’s Sky, because in real life Ilse’s story does not end when the bus blows up; it continues when Ilse is liberated by the Russians, and reunited with Opi and her baby sister Marianne. The three made passage to America where they settled in Newark, New Jersey, the two girls reared by their maternal Aunt Alice.

 “Alice was not a nice woman.  The first thing she said to my mother was “If you were a good little girl it would have been my sister who had been there and not you.  She was raised by this woman up to the time she married my father.”

The marriage of Joel, a retired electrical contractor, and Ilse Steltzer has been a happy one, producing three sons:  Lawrence, Randyl, and Glen. 

“My older brother is deaf and my younger brother has a learning disability and for the first 30 years of his life was an epileptic.  So my mother went from hiding in a basement, losing her parents to the Nazis, being in a concentration camp, coming to America to being adopted by her aunt and uncle and that did not go well, and then having three children – two of whom are severely disabled.  She’s had her share of drama.”

Ilse believes that organized religion separates and excludes people; and so, as a result, she reared her sons without organized religion, but at the same time, to respect all faiths.  

       “We were exposed to a tremendous amount of the Bible – both the Old and New Testament.  There is no sense that religion is negative.  I have a real love of the story of Jesus Christ and his ministry, and I particularly resonate with that but not in the sense of organize religion.  My mother just wanted us to sample the world and sample the stories; and connect with what was real for us as individuals.”


Since my days are unkind
And I’m truly confined
To a life much too hard endure,
I awake late at night
When the sad’s out of sight
I am once again me.
To be sure!

Every night I explore
Something more than dumb war
Something I can live for that is mine.
Something fresh!
Something free!
Some more radiant me.
Out here with these stars!
Where I shine!

     Shining brighter than bright with my most sparkly grin.
     I will focus my light on new lives to drop in.   
Into histories or fables and whatever enables
A star who must truly express
Her royal descent.  Live her life as it’s meant
All ablaze in a princess’s dress

In a princess’s dress why it’s anyone’s guess as
To which fairy tale I might find
In a princess’s dress yes it’s me who confesses
That I am truly a one-of-a-kind

Not a girl who’s asleep waiting for some dumb kiss
From some hero who helps me arise
No, I’m more of a princess who cleans up my own mess
To see life through her own royal eyes.

In a princess’s dress I shall have more successes
With those villains who’d never be mean
To a princess who dresses and clearly possesses
A star shine befitting a queen

(The music swells and dance ensues.  To establish that our story moves swiftly and unapologetically in and out of this child’s imagination, some of the dance sequence allows Ilse to appear as if she were actually defying gravity. It is as though she were flying among the stars!)

            Yes!  That’s right what you see!
     That’s the accurate me!
     I am not bound to obvious things.
Not to time or to place
I am choosing my grace
And to what my imagining brings

It brings all due respect with my great intellect
And I’ll educate those who have none
But I don’t choose to wait for the ones filled with hate
And it’s them who should be on the run.

Yes, in a princess’s dress watch as beauty impresses
The willing and those with kind heart
So into whose story shall I twirl with such glory?
Tell me when can my princess-ing start?

(A bit more dance.)

Not to time or to place
I am choosing my grace.
And I’m turning my life into art
So into whose story shall I twirl with such glory?
Tell me when can my princess-ing start?

Tell me when can my princess-ing start?

Excerpt from Someone Else's Sky
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photograph Description And Copyright Information

Photo 1
Someone Else’s Sky logo
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 2
Randyl Appel
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 3
Ilse in Someone Else’s Sky
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 4
Emil Stelzer marker
Public Domain

Photo 5
Else Stelzer marker
Public Domain

Photo 6
Ernst Steltzer
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 7
A female concentration camp prisoner shows her wound after liberation.
Public Domain

Photo 8
Randyl Appel as a young child
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel
Photo 9
Cropped image from The Railway attributed to painter Edovard Monet.
Public Domain

Photo 10
Emil Steltzer featured in both photographs as part of an exhibit in Germany.
Public Domain

Photo 11
Emil Steltzer featured in both photographs as part of an exhibit in Germany.
Public Domain

Photo 12
Massed crowds at the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, Germany in 1935 where and when the Nazi announced the Nuremberg Race Law.
Public Domain

Photo 13
The Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 deprived German Jews of their rights of citizenship, giving them the status of "subjects" in Hitler's Reich. The laws also made it forbidden for Jews to marry or have sexual relations with Aryans or to employ young Aryan women as household help. (An Aryan being a person with blond hair and blue eyes of Germanic heritage.)
The first two laws comprising the Nuremberg Race Laws were: "The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor" (regarding Jewish marriage) and "The Reich Citizenship Law" (designating Jews as subjects).
Those laws were soon followed by "The Law for the Protection of the Genetic Health of the German People," which required all persons wanting to marry to submit to a medical examination, after which a "Certificate of Fitness to Marry" would be issued if they were found to be disease free. The certificate was required in order to get a marriage license.
The Nuremberg Laws had the unexpected result of causing confusion and heated debate over who was a "full Jew." The Nazis then issued instructional charts such as the one shown below to help distinguish Jews from Mischlinge (Germans of mixed race) and Aryans. The white figures represent Aryans; the black figures represent Jews; and the shaded figures represent Mischlinge.
The Nazis settled on defining a "full Jew" as a person with three Jewish grandparents. Those with less were designated as Mischlinge of two degrees: First Degree - two Jewish grandparents; Second Degree - one Jewish grandparent.
       After the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, a dozen supplemental Nazi decrees were issued that eventually outlawed the Jews completely, depriving them of their rights as human beings.

Photo 14
Nuremberg Race Law Chart
Public Domain

Photo 15
Painting of Little Girl Reading by John George Brown
Public Domain

Photo 16
View of false wall hiding place in Corrie Ten Boom House, Haarlem, North Holland;
Closeable Hole in Cabinet through which divers crawled into hiding place during alarms.
Public Domain

Photo 17
View of false wall hiding place in Corrie Ten Boom House, Haarlem, North Holland;
Hole in wall to reveal hiding place (right)

Photo 19
Jacket cover of Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad In The Sky by Faith Ringgold.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 20
Randyl Appel, far right, portraying Barnaby Tucker in HELLO DOLLY.
“I did FOUR productions of HELLO DOLLY! In my career always playing the role of Barnaby Tucker.  I played that role so frequently that my beloved black lab was named Barnaby.” 
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 21
W Hotel In New York
Public Domain

Photo 22
Appel Hospitality Associates web logo
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 23
Bosnian mass grave being evacuated by forensic scientist.
Public Domain

Photo 24
Another logo for Someone Else’s Sky
From left to right:  Ernst Steltzer, Harriet Tubman,

Photo 25
Illustration from an early children’s book
Public Domain

Photo 26
Jacket cover of Moses:  When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carol Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 27
Illustration of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery
Public Domain

Photo 28
Another logo for Someone Else’s Sky
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 29
Randyl Appel
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 30
Image of a diary entry from Anne Frank
Public Domain

Photo 31
Jewish girl and concentration camp prisoner holding her doll.
Public Domain

Photo 32
Pictures taken of the children used in Kurt Heissmeyer's tuberculosis experiment at Neuengamme. The children of the Bullenhuser Damm show incisions where axillary lymph nodes had been surgically removed after they were deliberately infected with tuberculosis at Neuengamme concentration camp. In a "cover-up" operation, all were murdered with their 4 adult Jewish caretakers and 6 Red Army POWs in the basement of the school on 20 April 1945, as British forces approached to liberate them.

Photo 33
Image of a doll given to Zofia Burowska by her parents in the 1930s which she kept with her while living in the Wolbrum and Krakow ghettos. #N00052

Photo 34
DVD jacket cover of the 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 35
DVD jacket cover of Schindler’s List
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 36
DVD jacket cover of Life Is Beautiful
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 37
Film clip from Life Is Beautiful
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 38
Film clip from Life Is Beautiful
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 39
Picture and article about Ernst Steltzer
Public Domain

Photo 40
Newspaper photograph of Ernst Steltzer and his two granddaughters older sister Ilse Steltzer and Marianne Steltzer.
Public Domain

Photo 41
Newspaper photo of Ernst Steltzer, Aunt Alice, and 10-year-old Ilse Steltzer.
Public Domain

Photo 42
Newspaper photo of Ilse Steltzer (far left), Aunt Alice (second from left), Ernest Steltzer (second from right); and Marianne Steltzer, (above Ernest Steltzer)
Public Domain

Photo 43
Wedding photograph of Joel and Ilse Steltzer.
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel.

Photo 44
Appel Family Photographs
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 45
Ilse and Joel Appel
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 46
Joel and Ilse Appel
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 47
Appel Family
Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

Photo 48
Logo for Someone Else’s Sky

Copyright granted by Randyl Appel

1 comment:

  1. I know this story from my very close friend who lived it, and am incredibly moved in seeing it brought out again. Thank you Randyl.