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Article: Terezin - Learning from History

Terezin, Children of the Holocaust

December 12, 2010

Anna Smulowitz, a daughter of survivors of Terezin who emigrated to the United States, wrote "Terezin, Children of the Holocaust" and performed the play with young Americans. The theater group at the Odenwald School presented the play in German in Berlin, Heidelberg and Weimar. Young American and German actors also presented the play at an International Peace Meeting in Auschwitz. A film documents the project.

BACKGROUND

Anna Smulowitz, author of the play "Terezín, Children of the Holocaust," was the daughter of Buchenwald and Auschwitz survivors. She was born in a displaced persons camp, and as a young child, emigrated to the United States with her parents. She was always told to never set foot in Germany.

However, an experience in the United States with the children of victims and perpetrators, inspired her to travel to Germany with the group "Face-to-Face" (today known as "One-by-One"). Through personal connections, she visited the Odenwald School in Ober-Hambach near Frankfurt in February 1993. This led to cordial relations with students and teachers, which deepened during a trip to Buchenwald. At the end of her visit, Anna Smulowitz stated that she wanted her play translated into German to be.premiered at the Odenwald School, which had a long theater tradition. During summer vacation, a student and a teacher worked on the translation of the English text, which provided the basis for the production.

THE PLAY

The play depicts two days in the lives of six children who happened to share a cell in Theresienstadt. The drama of being arrested is linked to the experiences of Anna Smulowitz's parents and to the International Red Cross inspection of Theresienstadt on June 23, 1944. The play is an impassioned work remembering the more than one million children who became victims of the Nazis.

THE PROJECT

Anna Smulowitz came to Ober-Hambach at the beginning of the 1993-1994 school year to begin rehearsals. The students were very interested in performing the play. Some were interested for reasons of friendship with the author as well as confronting the Nazi past and combating current right-wing radicalism.

"The subject interested me, because I find it incredibly important not only to speak about the past, but also to do something against right-wing radicalism and against passivity. In this respect, I also think that personal stories are good." (Cordula in "OSO-Nachrichten," Nr.51, p. 45)

For others, passionate involvement in the theater provided the motivation for an intensive encounter with the Holocaust. According to another:

"I began with the desire to act again in the theater. A classmate told me about an announcement for this play. It sounded rather interesting, but I couldn't really connect the subject of the Holocaust with a theater play." (Katrin in "OSO-Nachrichten," Nr. 51, p. 62)

Because of the large student interest, director Stephen Forstat assigned two children to play each of the older children's roles. There were thus two different interpretations for each part. Anna Smulowitz first saw two different versions in Berlin, and although our interpretation differed from her own, she found certain details worth copying. It was clear how our points of view differed during the course of the project. We had the chance to see two American and two German interpretations side by side.

The play was performed three times through the participation of the Odenwald school community in November 1993, and a fourth time in Heppenheim in January 1994. In order to make the project accessible to a larger audience, we decided to take the play to Berlin from February 15-21, 1995 where we performed four times. The first performance took place in the newly reopened Jewish Gymnasium in the former Scheunenviertel [the Berlin district that housed many East European Jews during the 1920s and 1930s]. The second performance was in the Carl-Zeiss-Oberschule , a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) school, the third was in the "House of Churches," and the fourth in one of the Protestant schools in Berlin. We had also hoped to perform the play in the Berlin juvenile prison but the administration refused permission, on the grounds that it was impossible to predict the inmates' reactions, and they did not want us to do anything risky.

The Berlin trip was seen as the end of the theater project. One student returned from the United States, where she participated in Anna Smulowitz's theater workshop. When she reported that there would be a performance in Auschwitz on the occasion of the "International Peace Meeting: 'Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life 1995' from Auschwitz to Hiroshima," we asked Anna Smulowitz if she could also arrange an invitation for our performance. This began an unusual project involving fifty people (actors, directors, technicians, as well as American parent chaperones and siblings ages eight to fifty), plus a three-member video team, which had already filmed us in Berlin.

The moving personal interactions and developments were so complex during the five-day trip that it is difficult to describe. We will not forget how we performed at Auschwitz on December 6, 1994. It was performed one more time in its American version at the Odenwald School. The last two performances were in Heidelberg during an educators conference in February 1995, and again in Weimar at the invitation of the Ettersberg board of curators. We were thus able to close the circle that had begun with our trip to Buchenwald.

RESPONSE

Although the play was performed before very different audiences, feelings of intense emotion could be seen in all the groups. Applause seemed out of place, and in the discussions of the performance held after a short intermission, audience members emphasized the authenticity of the atmosphere, the believability of the characters, and the tightness of the plot. People who had lived through a similar situation were especially moved. During the discussion in Auschwitz, our courage in performing the play there, as Germans, was given high marks more than once.

The play was also well received by the media. In February 1994, Saarland radio carried a feature story, "School Theater Against the Right," which was repeated on five other radio stations. In 1995, the first one-hour version of the video "Enkelkinder" [Grandchildren] was completed. In December 1997, the video was condensed to forty-three minutes for technical and financial reasons, and an American version "A Generation Twice Removed" was simultaneously released [see Audio/Video].

CONCLUSION

The deep impact that the play had on the cast is revealed by the following quotations:

"In the attempt to imitate history, we discovered that we were personally affected more by the play than through classroom learning." (Jan in "OSO-Nachrichten," Nr. 51, p. 50)

"I felt that after the play, we shouldn't go back on stage again. My suggestion for this change was confirmed by others. The actors are gone, but they aren't only actors. Many people felt this way. It was a piece of personal history and therefore one couldn't go back on stage in a new part and be applauded for one's talent." (Cordula in "OSO-Nachrichten," Nr. 51, p. 50)

"It was marvelous to be able to participate in this play, but it took a lot of energy and time. The dreams that I sometimes had were the worst aspect for me... Now, I know that I have really dealt with this subject and that I have done something to reveal how horrible it was for the people incarcerated in concentration camps. I hope that I caused some people to reflect and that such things will never happen again." (Katrin in "OSO-Nachrichten," Nr. 51, p. 63)

Learning From History

  Anna Smulowitz

Link to first page of Terezin pamphlet

 
 
 

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