Sunday, February 17, 2013

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

Last night I went with some fellow choir members and R to Laguna Playhouse to see a youth theater production that also featured my friend from choir, Steve Hirsch,  the Holocaust drama, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly."
The original book featured poems and paintings done by inmates of the Terezin Concentration Camp, most of whom subsequently were transported to Auschwitz, where they died. Only about 100 were left of the thousands who had gone through that camp. Most were all alone by the end of the war.
Then in the 1950s, a nun, Hana Volavkova, who saw the poems and paintings in a bookshop in Prague, turned it into a short novel including the poems. By all accounts, it was hard to get Jews to talk to a nun so soon after the Holocaust. Some of the people she spoke too probably had bad experiences with the Church, which often was indifferent to their sufferings. But she did persevere, and wrote a lovely play making use of this material.
There were many children in the audience, and the cast was largely composed of children as well, some quite young, as young as 7 or 8, I would say.
It might seem shocking that a work like this, as frank and dark as it was, would be presented for children, but Jews have customarily taught quite young children about the Holocaust, and presented them with books and dramatizations without too much ill effect. It is all in the way it is done. I certainly know of people from my childhood whose parents were in the camp who terrified their children with stories of the camps, but told this way, it doesn't seem to have that effect. I know that though I was unusually sensitive as a child to horror films and frightening tales, it didn't trouble me that much, though of course it made me sad and raised a lot of questions.
But the play was very well done. I was so impressed by the professional performances by the children, in particular. The lead in the play, a young Asian actress, expressed the enormous range of emotions the part demanded like a pro. At the start of the play, the character, Rya Englanderova, was totally traumatized by witnessing the death of her father at Auschwitz. The actress convincingly portrayed this, as well as the slow emerging from trauma with a child's resilience, to become part of the community of bereft children at the camp, then a young woman feeling first love. The other children also did a wonderful job with everything, from singing the snippets of the camp opera telling in story the tale of the imprisoned children to playing the roles of children later murdered in other camps.
Steve, as Rabbi, expressed the gentle intelligence and cultivation of a lost civilization.
The play was engrossing and well done. I think its run is now over, which is unfortunately, as I'd love to recommend it to you.
After the play, a wonderful real-life character, an 86 year old concentration camp survivor from Berlin, spoke for a long time about his experience. Before he spoke, he showed a short documentary film made by his grandson about his experience in the Holocaust. His story was very moving because after his father deserted the family, when his mother was quite young and he was just a baby, she remarried to a non-Jewish German, who converted to Judaism just to marry her. She subsequently had three more children, who passed for non-Jews, as did she, somehow. And she cast out her 15 year old son to fend for himself because he would make it impossible to pretend that she and her young children were not Jewish.
He was a young rebel who in the place of the yellow star sewed to his clothing, wore a dime-store star of a deputy he could take off whenever he wanted to, hiding out in department stores and using his quick wits to make escapes from the Nazis until that became impossible.
That was the sort of spirit that helped him to survive, to cover over his tatooed numbers from Buchenwald with the tatoo of roses (tatoos are forbidden to Jews, but he clearly never let any orthodoxies stand in his way of living). And at 85, for his birthday, he went sky-diving with his grandson. He says he'll do it again at 90 if he's feeling good. I fully believe he will. I felt privileged to feel his zest and appreciation for life and to be among the last to hear from the mouth of a survivor himself about his experience in the camps.

4 comments:

marly youmans said...

"Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious — and what is too often overlooked — is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things." -Maurice Sendak, from his Caldecott acceptance speech for "Where the Wild Things Are"

Robbi N. said...

I totally agree with him and remember the stink people made over his book. They needn't have bothered. Look at fairy tales, which are dark enough to make Wild Things look tame.

marly youmans said...

Children don't get fairy tales so much any more. One of my students from my visiting writer stint at Hollins told me that her students didn't recognize titles that we would regard and the most basic and well-known of tales.

Robbi N. said...

Sad. Perhaps parents aren't reading them to kids anymore. In favor of what, I wonder?