Russell Kaback’s grandfather never quite approved of him becoming a musician.

Szyjek Magier thought it was crucial for a man to learn a trade and provide for his family. Magier’s trade was installing floor tiles, something he learned as a teenager during the four years he spent in Nazi labor and concentration camps during the Holocaust. He helped build the camps, making himself useful and likely prolonging his life, his grandson said.

“It was literally a matter of life and death for him. If you didn’t know how to do something if you didn’t have a trade that was useful to (the Nazis), you could be killed,” said Kaback, 49, of South Portland.

Identification photo of Szyjek Magier, age 16. Photo courtesy of Russell Kaback

Now, Kaback is using his skills as a musician to keep his grandfather’s story – and the story of the Holocaust – alive. He’s created a 45-minute solo musical show called “25044” – his grandfather’s prisoner number at one of the camps – that comprises dramatic storytelling and songs. The show follows his grandfather from his youth in the Polish town of Bendzin (rhymes with engine) to a work camp and then to Nazi concentration camps, where he witnessed cruelty and death daily. Kaback will present it Tuesday at the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine in Portland.

Kaback performs the show by singing and strumming a guitar – often electric, sometimes acoustic. He tells the story, portraying his grandfather and incorporating dialogue with people he meets along the way. The tone ranges from light when his grandfather is young and playing with his brothers, to somber and horrific, like when his grandfather describes how he and others were ordered to bury Russian prisoners alive. The songs are short, mostly lively, some with hint of rock ‘n’ roll. Others are more somber, but hopeful. In the song “Holding On,” Magier writes letters home after being sent to a labor camp. At that point, his own grandfather had been burned alive in a synagogue and one of his brothers had run away to fight with the Russians. He had been told he’d only be at the work camp temporarily. As his grandfather, Kaback sings:

“And so I keep on holding on/For your love/Low eyes on/The skies above/Now mother/This I pray to you/That somehow you can get to me/Rescue me/While there’s something left of me/Now mother/I can see it now.”


He’s also performed the show, or shorter versions of it, at Maine schools and at the PortFringe Theater Festival in Portland.


Both of Magier’s parents died in Nazi gas chambers. Two of his brothers survived, but one was never heard from after the end of World War II.

Magier was among the prisoners liberated by Allied troops at the end of the war. In the show, Kaback – as Magier – talks of being so emaciated that, when he ate canned meat given to him by American soldiers, he got sick and spent weeks in the hospital.

Magier was 20 when he was liberated and spent most of the rest of his life in Montreal, running a floor tile business. He died in 2013 at the age of 88.

Kaback gives music lessons, writes and performs original music and has worked as a music and theater teacher in schools. He also performs at venues around Portland, including Portland Lobster Co. on Commercial Street.


He grew up in Albany, New York, and, over the years, became close with his grandfather. He accompanied Magier on a trip to Poland in 2009. They visited Holocaust sites as part of March of the Living, an international program that brings students from around the world to Poland to visit former concentration and death camps.

After that trip, Kaback was teaching music in Philadelphia schools and began thinking about writing songs to tell his grandfather’s story and the stories of so many who could not tell it themselves.

“At some point, I said, ‘I have to do this. Being creative, I’m the right person to do this.’ If anyone in my family was going to do this, it was going to be me,” said Kaback. “I have to use my music to do this.”

After the trip, Kaback sat down with his grandfather to document his experiences. In putting together the show, he also watched video interviews that his grandfather gave over the years to other groups documenting the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

Holocaust survivor Szyjek Magier and his grandson, Russell Kaback of South Portland, on a trip to Majdanek death camp in Poland in 2009. Photo courtesy of Russell Kaback

When his grandfather died in 2013, “something clicked,” Kaback said, and he knew he had to start working on the songs and the story in earnest. But having no experience in musical theater, he decided he needed to study it. So he began teaching himself how to tell stories with and between songs, how to use his voice and his body.

He and his wife, a midwife originally from Maine, moved to her home state in 2015. Kaback began getting involved with theater, including with Stages Youth Theater in Portland and as an assistant drama director – and later drama director – at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland.


At the school, he met English teacher Maureen Tevanian, who invited him to try out his songs and stories for her eighth-grade students.

“It was a very emotional experience for everyone. He took something so difficult and traumatic and transformed it into a beautiful work of art,” said Tevanian, who now teaches for the online Maine Connections Academy.

Kaback’s grandfather, Szyjek “Steve” Magier around 2010. Photo courtesy of Russell Kaback

By around 2018, he had written nine or so songs and started to ad lib stories in between. As he worked on the show, he performed versions of it at PortFringe theater festival. He’s also performed as a teaching artist for students at Leavitt Area High School and Tripp Middle School, both in Turner. The finished version of the show debuted in Turner in March of 2023.

“There’s such a range of emotion. You’re crying, but then you’re giggling with some songs,” said Iva Damon, a visual arts teacher at Leavitt Area High School, who invited Kaback to perform during the school district’s Arts Gala. “The show is perfect for connecting with younger generations because of the wide range of music genres, whether it’s a ballads or acoustic music or a rap.”

Kaback will also be performing the show next year in schools around Maine as part of Portland Ovations’ School-Time Performances Series. He’ll be the third Maine artist to perform in the series, following singer and storyteller Samuel James this year and storyteller and mime Antonio Rocha before that.

“I really love the fact that it’s a story from his own family, his grandfather. We don’t often get that sort of personal connection when we talk about the Holocaust,” said Liz Schildkret, director of school and family programs for Portland Ovations, a nonprofit arts presenter. “Because of the way Russell has written it, the show feels accessible to young people.”


Rocha, whom Kaback met through a neighbor, helped him polish the storytelling aspects of the show. At one point, when Kaback is telling the story as his grandfather, he turns the narration over to “my grandson,” and Kaback tells a little of his grandfather’s life story as himself. That was just one of many suggestions Rocha made to help with the drama of the performance.

Russell Kaback performing his show “25044” at Maine Studio Works during the PortFringe Festival in June of 2023. Photo by Nick Pierce

There were plenty of dramatic moments in Magier’s time in the camps, of course, and many are related by Kaback in his show. At one point, Magier is about to be whipped for stealing bread when a capo – a prisoner in charge of other prisoners – stops the whipping because he knew Magier’s father. Later, after he’s out of the camps, Magier meets and falls in love with the daughter of a man who had befriended him in one of the camps. That woman became his wife and Kaback’s grandmother.

Kaback said he wrote “25044” as a one-man, one-act show, so he could get it up and in front of audiences. He says he’d love the opportunity to make it something bigger at some point, with an orchestra or a soundtrack playing as he tells stories.

But the biggest thing for Kaback is that he’s telling his grandfather’s story, using his skill and trade as a musician to do something important.

“There’s a large element of me proving myself to him by doing this,” said Kaback.

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