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Show kicks off events marking the Holocaust

“Completely burnt” is what the word holocaust means literally.

And, although it is mainly associated with the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, genocide remains a reality in many parts of the world today.

Despite the horror and despair of genocide, theater director Lani Brockman of Studio East in Kirkland and producer Barbara Walker are preparing to present a play they’re sure will provide audiences with a ray of hope.

“I Never Saw Another Butterfly” is set to open at Whidbey Children’s Theater on Friday, May 25, and will run through June 9.

The play, written by Celeste Raspanti, is the story of one of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin, a military garrison set up as a ghetto during World War II.

Terezin was a Czechoslovakian stopping-off place on the way to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Poland.

Using a collection of poems and drawings by the children who lived in Terezin between 1942 and 1945, the play focuses on the story of Holocaust survivor Raja Englanderova and a teacher — based on an amalgam of prisoners — who encouraged the children to write poems and stories and to draw and paint what they felt. Raspanti created the story from the many documented materials on Englanderova’s life, which include diaries, letters and journals. Many of the documents came from the Jewish Museum in Prague.

This will be the third time Brockman has directed the play.

She said her motivation for it comes from the need to tell a story that should never be forgotten.

“The scary part is that it is happening in other parts of the world and that is another reason I chose to do this play,” Brockman said.

And the teaching started with the actors themselves. Each member of the cast was required to do a project regarding the Holocaust of World War II or on holocausts that are currently taking place elsewhere in the world today.

Brockman is excited by the musical aspect of the show. Her Studio East writing partner, Susan Bardsley, has written music for five of the poems in the play after receiving permission from the Prague Museum and a survivor who still lives in Prague. Musical direction for the play is by Shelly Hartle.

“This is not a musical; it is a play with music,” Brockman added. “The songs are rich and haunting. They embody the feel of the play; both the hope and the despair.”

The teacher

At a recent rehearsal for “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” Amy Walker was wearing her costume — a drab brown-colored skirt and an oversized argyle vest that made her small frame look even thinner. Her vibrant red hair was covered with a brown “babushka” — a head scarf worn by married Jewish women of Eastern Europe during that period for religious reasons. On her wrist she had written a number: H10Z866.

Walker will play the part of the teacher, Irena Synkova, whom she said is based partially on Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist of the famous Bauhaus school, who was deported to Terezin in 1942 and subsequently became an art teacher to hundreds of children in the camp. Dicker-Brandeis later perished at Auschwitz in 1944.

Walker said that when Dicker-Brandeis was told she would be forced to go to the camp and could only bring 100 pounds of luggage, she packed art supplies and books. The items helped many of the prisoners live through Terezin and, for those who survived, their lives after the camp.

“What’s amazing to me is that you could be literally starving and still put out so much for so many other people,” Walker said.

Finding hunger

Walker is a serious actor and, in order to be able to feel what it was like to be truly hungry and have to ration food, she took a three-day train trip to Eugene, Ore. on which she brought one apple, one piece of bread, one egg and a tiny piece of chocolate.

She also had no place to stay and walked the streets the whole time, partly while it rained.

“I wanted to get a glimpse of the physical tax on the body and how that effected my mental and emotional state,” she said.

Walker said her body quickly changed to an economy of movement and that the hardest part was putting the rest of a piece of food away after eating an eighth of it. She said the exercise made her realize how difficult it would be to be creative while thinking about how hungry you are. Walker also realized she could make the empty space in her stomach feel smaller if she tightened the belt on her trench coat.

It was not only the chance to play a challenging role which prompted Walker to audition for the play, there were other reasons.

“It’s an inspiring play and alerts me to some the same things that are happening now and to what extent do I allow it to go on,” said Walker. “I think it’s important to make it fresh again and to think of the Holocaust on a personal level; not just in terms of the numbers. These poems and drawings give a human voice to those numbers.”

In her research on Dicker-Brandeis she found a quote that has put the role in perspective for her: “If we’re only given a day, we have to live it.”

Positivity

Ultimately, the play is about resistance and hope, Walker said.

Education was not allowed at the camp, so Dicker-Brandeis and the other talented artists and teachers there fought back by teaching under the veil of night and on Sundays. It was the ultimate rebellion and one fought with an indomitable spirit of survival.

Nicholas Schneider, 11, plays one of the children of Terezin and said the play makes him cry when he thinks about how the children were starved and beaten. But their poems and drawings leave behind evidence of their hope.

“The poems they wrote feel like they were trying to give other people hope and that life can be like it used to be,” he said.

“I Never Saw Another Butterfly” is recommended for ages 8 and older.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, May 25 through June 9, at WCT in Langley.

For ticket info call 221-2282 or visit wwwWCTonline.com.

Underwriters for the production are the Spektor Family Foundation and the Anastacy Family.

Speakers of hope

In connection with “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a speaker series addressing the Holocaust will be held in South Whidbey schools and is open to the public.

Visitors will need to check in at the office of each school before attending the events.

Susie Sherman was born in Czechoslovakia and lost many of her family members who perished in concentration camps during the occupation by the Nazis. Sherman will speak about her experiences at 9:10 a.m. on Monday, May 21 in the auditorium at South Whidbey High School and at 1 p.m. the same day at the Intermediate School Gym.

Island resident Leo Hymas landed in France as an American soldier in 1945 and his division was assigned to General Patton’s Third Army, which advanced into Germany and Czechoslovakia.

Hymas and several fellow soldiers used bangalore torpedoes to breach the barbed-wire fence to enter Buchenwald and overtake its SS guards. Hymas will speak about his experience at the prison camps and what it took for him to get over the haunting memories of it at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, May 31 in the auditorium at Langley Middle School.

Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or pduff@southwhidbey

record.com.

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