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Forest Moon Theater opened its third production of the 2018-19 season with Celeste Raspanti's I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a heartbreaking yet somehow uplifting depiction of the children who spent time in the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, Czechoslovakia (1941-45). Thousands of children passed through Terezin, a waystation on the way to Auschwitz, an extermination camp. Jewish children arrived here by the thousands and were crammed into quarters meant to hold far fewer residents than the Nazis intended. Terezin had two purposes: the first was to break the spirits of those who were deposited there; the other was as a false front, a "retirement community," for prominent Jews, a ruse to fool the populace about the Final Solution. Nearly everyone who passed through Terezin went on to execution camps by trains that arrived almost daily.
One particular child, who spent years at Terezin, was named Raja (in Czech, pron. Riyah) Englanderova. This child was twelve when she arrived at Terezin; unlike others her age, she would spend four years there, learning from the only adult she would meet there, Irena Synkova. Like Raja, Irena was from Prague. She and Raja did their best to try and make the children happy while they spent time in this place. Eventually, and very near the end of the war, Irena, too, would be sent to Auschwitz. Raja, by now aged far beyond her years, would continue to teach children until the war ended, shortly after Irena's departure. Raja was perhaps the only one in Terezin to escape; her words make up the bulk of the text of the play.
Raspanti has written a work that centers on the children. Of the twenty cast members who make up the production, fifteen of them are under eighteen. Raja herself (Amanda Smith) arrives in Terezin after being separated from the rest of her family: Father (Bill Segreve), Mother (Gayle Snyder), older brother Pavel (Micah Jones), and Aunt Vera (Louise Farmer). Father has prepared his family for what is to come; even in the face of this, Pavel and his fiancée, Erika (Talia Barbieri), are joined in marriage by the first Rabbi they can find. This is the last ritual together as a family before they are separated and sent to various work camps. Thus Raja arrives at Terezin.
Irena Synkova (Bonnie Webster) was herself a teacher in Prague. She does her best to teach the children who come here, using art, music, and poetry to try to lift the spirits of these condemned children. It is through these teachings that Raja is able to be drawn out of herself, where she has retreated. When she arrives, she cannot speak. It takes weeks before she begins to draw, sing, and write.
Judy M. Dove directs I Never Saw Another Butterfly. She tells us that Irena is modeled after the real teacher at Terezin, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who preserved the artwork and poetry of these children and gave it all to Raja. These works have been published under the same title, and they are used as a slideshow at the beginning of the production, to show the depths of the souls who painted or wrote them. Dove explains that all the children in the play are based on real people. This work, she tells us, is a way to restore, to a degree, the voices and the hopes of these desperate children.
An adviser to the cast, himself the eldest child of two Holocaust survivors, is Sheldon "Shelly" Bleiweiss, also of Wake Forest. Bleiweiss has been teaching about the Holocaust since 2000. His parents fled Poland using false documents as non-Jews. It was the only thing that got them out. Shelly is on the NC Council on the Holocaust; he teaches at the Temple Beth Or in Raleigh and teaches Holocaust courses for the Osher Lifelong Learning programs at Duke and NC State Universities. Shelly will conduct two "talk-back" sessions, after the performances on Sunday, Feb. 10, and Saturday, Feb. 16.
The only adornment of any kind on stage is a jumble of crates left on the train station platform. The Terezin we come to know is through the children's description of it: a dark, squalid, over-crowded, and disease-ridden slum. They all want to leave this place, but they all want to go "home." Home to each of these children is the place they lived with their families, before this horror was perpetrated on them by the Nazis overrunning Europe.
All of these children did outstanding jobs as an ensemble, led by Amanda Smith. Smith's Raja is the single individual we know to have survived her ordeal in Terezin. We understand that the compilation of characters, including Raja, is fictionalized in I Never Saw Another Butterfly. I shudder to think what we would see if it were not.
It is fitting that I Never Saw Another Butterfly is presented at this time in our history. Despite the truths that have emerged about the Nazis and their numerous "schemes" to "purify the race," there are still, all across many countries, including the United States, cells of people that still paint the Swastika on their walls, and that still want to eradicate the "unpure" among them. So it is vital that this understanding of what the Nazis actually did to people be kept alive; it is imperative that we never forget, and never allow to recur, the events that were a part of the War in Europe under the Nazis.
I Never Saw Another Butterfly continues through Sunday, February 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.