TRYING TO UNDERSTAND GENOCIDE - The Explorer: Import

TRYING TO UNDERSTAND GENOCIDE

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Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2002 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

The challenge, it would seem, is immense. The drama students at Mountain View High School, some bubbling with suburban teen-age excitement over the upcoming "Pop Sucks" music tour and others sneaking cell phone calls to friends backstage after rehearsal, will soon be mounting a production of Celeste Raspanti's Holocaust play "I Never Saw Another Butterfly."

The play is set in the waning days of the second world war in the Terezin concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. An estimated 140,000 people, including 15,000 Jewish children, passed through the camp before the trains carried them to the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only slightly more than a hundred of the children survived. More often seen on community and college stages than in high school auditoriums, the play is based on the true story of Raja Englanderova who survived to tell her story of Terezin.

Adapted from the book of the same name that recorded Englan-derova's childhood memory of the camp, both the book and the play are further inspired by the journals, poetry and artwork of the children who perished, and whose art is now preserved in the Prague Museum.

The student actors at Mountain View, none of whom are Jewish, and all of whom live in a world that is culturally light years distant from the ghettos and death camps that once dotted Central Europe, are required to recite lines and create images that cannot be taken blithely.

"Each week another decree shrank our ghetto … and our lives," recites Rachael Muske, who as the character Raja, performed in a shabby dress during a rehearsal last week on the school's small stage.

"Our friends lined the streets and watched us leave -- 5,000 Jews."

Although the play is permeated with the higher ideals of hope, faith and love, it is the horrific backdrop of the play -- Nazism, barbed wire and the train whistles heralding the transports -- that the Marana students seek to comprehend in order to lend sufficient gravity to the play.

"None of them, none of us, can really place ourselves there," said teacher Shannon Mercer. "But they have worked hard to try and understand it, and to a degree, I think they have accomplished that."

In working toward that glimpse of understanding, the students had a guide in the form of Fred Bremer, a Holocaust survivor who lives a few miles from the school.

Bremer, a Jew, fled to the countryside when the Panzers stormed across his native Holland in 1940 and avoided capture with the help of the Dutch resistance.

He left his family for the countryside when he was 17, the same age as most of the student actors he addressed at Mountain View. Bremer and his brother survived the war, but their parents were lost to the death camps.

"I was invited by the teacher to come and talk and to give the Mountain View kids an idea of what life was like during the Nazi regime. I told them there were very few Holocaust survivors, but there were various kinds. The rarest survivor were those that were liberated from the camps," Bremer said. "I spent a good two or three hours with them and they were very receptive. Absolutely they have an understanding."

Bremer, who speaks often to students in Tucson schools about his experiences during the war, said he always tries to make them understand the enormity of the genocide.

"They must understand that it involved millions, not thousands of the victims," he said.

Using that context, the students created written sketches of the characters they were to play, expanding the slim profiles presented in the play to include intricate details of what the students imagined their characters would have experienced in Prague, and later Terezin. Mercer also contacted the Tucson Jewish Community Center, which provided a rabbi to advise the students on the Sabbath and wedding ceremonies that occur in the play.

Authenticity is strived for by the students and demanded by their teacher. During a recent rehearsal, Mercer halted a scene to remind one actor to look at the inside of her arm rather than the outside for the tattooed number her character despairs over.

The student actors say they understand the responsibility they have in presenting the play with the dignity the subject matter demands, and have thrown themselves into their research. Several said the studious attention to detail in preparing for the play has led them to a greater understanding of the Holocaust.

Rebecca Sweet said she had studied the period in school, had watched documentaries and read widely on the subject long before being chosen for the part of Irena Synkova, one of the children's teachers at Terezin. But the play, she said, gave her an "understanding that reached another level."

"My character devotes her time to the children, helping them get their lives back and helping them find ways to struggle through the hardship," Rebecca said "It was emotionally exhausting. I found myself having a Holocaust dream a couple of nights ago that was really scary and disturbing. I can feel it that much. The dream was that I was in the concentration camp, but it wasn't in the sense of being in the play. It was like it was really happening."

Mercer is also working to have the play, which is scheduled to be performed at Mountain View High School Nov. 6 through Nov. 8, performed at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

During the performances, she plans to display a number of collages in the high school theater's lobby that were created by her student actors.

Clipped by the teen-agers from the glossy magazines that so relentlessly target their generation, the words have been rearranged to express the student's understanding of their characters and the inhumanity that haunts the period the students have imm-ersed themselves in.

Surrounded by a glaring skull and intentionally abbreviated headlines that shout "kidnapped" "starvation" and "my whole family," the advertising pitch "Miss Milk?"placed on one collage takes on a whole new meaning.

"They can't relive what was experienced in Terezin," Mercer said of her students. "But they have achieved an enormous amount of empathy that I don't think they would normally have achieved."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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