I have just finished up my first theatrical production in college and it has been a unique and beautiful experience that I will never be able to recreate but that I cannot help but try to share. Even if it is only in this little corner of the internet, I have to tell it to someone. Please note: this post comes with a long-windedness guarantee.
The show that we produced is called I Never Saw Another Butterfly. It is about Terezin, a beautiful historical fortress turned into a horrific Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust. It follows the story of a real young woman named Raja Englanderova who passed through the camp and was among the one percent of children who survived. There were over 15,000 children alone and a little over 100 made it out alive. Raja was a Czech Jew who had the unique opportunity to have a form of school in the ghetto. A woman named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (Irena Synkova in the show) took it on herself to educate the children who could speak Czech as best she could and teach them to draw and write and create. It’s an incredibly moving story and if you ever get the chance to see it, I would highly recommend going.
We stepped into the first practice not really knowing what to expect. Obviously, a show like this was never going to be a happy one. I had never done anything that was not at least a little bit vaguely comedic or had some form of comedic relief. There was one laugh line in Butterfly. To be honest, the thought of trying to do this show justice was terrifying. That first night, we sat down and watched some video testimonies of the survivors of various camps and the entire time I was split between empathy and a sense of unworthiness. As another cast member articulated, how dare I wear that star on a costume when they had to experience that in their very real lives?
Despite the difficulty we knew we were getting ourselves into, we began our task. This show, more than any other I have ever done was a responsibility. Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun responsibility. It was an incredibly heavy topic, but during rehearsals we still had tons of fun and bonded more than the ordinary cast.
Before every rehearsal, we all “checked in” with one another. We simply told the cast our names, how we were feeling, and that we were in. Everyone would then honor each person to let them know we were listening. We heard. As the show continued, it began to mean so much more that we got to proudly say our names and other people were listening. Other people cared. Many of our characters had no names. Many of the children of Terezin do not have names anymore either. They have been forgotten. Which is why we were making the effort to remember.
As the show began to come together, the stage did too. “The stage?” You ask, “Why does that matter?” The stage brought a whole new dynamic to the entire production. We performed in the round, which means that the audience sat on all four sides of us. We built platforms up on the stage so that they could be right there with us. There were even times during the show that I stood about a foot and a half away from them, right in their faces. Our director wanted this for the sake of making it an intimate performance, which it accomplished eerily well. The audience could look across the stage and the story into each other’s faces and I think that held an indescribable amount of significance.
The truly incredible part of the stage though was the floor. If you have audience on all four sides, a backdrop is impossible so the floor becomes your outlet for scenery. Over several weeks, an incredibly talented artist gave our stage an entirely new shape and meaning. In one corner, she painted thick, beautiful wooden flooring where Raja’s family home would be. In the corner opposite that one, there were old, weathered boards with a few haphazard boxes on top of them. This was the school of Terezin.
Between those two very different rooms was a patch of gravelly ground on top of which lay a railroad. Stretching from the audience’s entrance to the corner opposite where a light would shine as characters were deported “east” into the unknown along the tracks. The message was unmistakable.
What’s more, the entrance to the railroad tracks, and the door through which the audience walked to enter the play was an archway. It was painted yellow and had a stucco-like texture. Just like the entrance to the real Terezin. And, just like Terezin, three words stretched across the top.
Arbeit macht frei
Work makes you free.
Every single person who went to the show had to walk through that gate, which added an extra touch of reality to the whole scene.
As practices continued, we became more and more invested in the show. It was no longer a performance, it was a tribute. Something that desperately needed to be shared. These were not just characters, they had been real people and they deserved a chance to be remembered.
Something clicked. Every time we walked on stage, there was the thought in the back of our heads: This could have been me. It could have been my family. My friends. This could have been me.
Before our final dress rehearsal we did the usual warp-ups to pump ourselves up, but we also did an exercise to focus ourselves and bring the cast together. Get on the same brainwave and all that. We played that game where everyone spreads out and closes their eyes and you try to count as high as you can without anyone saying a number at the same time. That game is really hard. You have to be able to subconsciously pay attention to the cues and speak carefully but boldly.
We began by attempting to count to fifteen. The twenty-odd cast members spread ourselves around the room and closed our eyes. One. A lengthy pause. TwoThree. Four. Another pause. Five. And on until fourteenfourteen. The fact that we made it that far the first time around is a testament to what this play was doing to us as a cast. It was making us aware of so much more than ourselves.
Everyone groaned that we were so close and we all closed our eyes again. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. All the way to fifteen. On the second try, we counted as a group to fifteen. If you have never played that game before, the magnitude of such a success might be lost on you, but trust me when I say that it is enormous.
We closed our eyes again, heading for twenty this time. In one try, we made it all the way there. Obviously, this performance was so much more than a performance. God had already been using the words and the setting and the reality of this show to work miracles of a sort in us.
Something clicked. We had a whole lot of power with that connection. The full force of that power was about to be released on stage to a hundred people six times over. God was not using us just to transform us. He was using us as an instrument to work together to transform others.
At the end of that rehearsal, we sat on one side of the stage, a weary bundle of students. Half of us were still in our costumes but the other half had changed. Bedraggled Jews amidst bedraggled college students. The reality of the moment, both as a breezy November night with a load of homework waiting for us and as a typical day of Jews managing to dance and paint even beneath the crushing oppression.
As notes began, Joe was his usual boisterous, energetic self. He would say the simplest detail with a twinge of humor. And oh how we laughed. Despite the exhaustion and the weightiness of what we were doing, we laughed in defiance of despair. We laughed together, feeding off of each other’s joy. We laughed like children.
Something clicked. We did not laugh because we could, but because we must. In order to survive and to live we had no choice but to laugh. And while the mere existence of joy in a place so terrible as the concentration camps seems nearly unfathomable, the very fact that anyone survived is a testament to the fact that, implausible as it was, joy was there. In some way, somehow, there was joy.
Inge Auerbacher was a child of Terezin. From age seven to age ten she lived inside of the walls of that fortress turned prison. She was one of the one percent of children that survived that wretched place. At eighty years young, she was eager to share her story and her presence with us. Inge arrived the afternoon of our first performance. She is a wonderful woman, spunky and wise. Though she has many many stories of sadness, she is full of light and joy and a fair measure of sass. And she could not wait to see our show.
The lights went down and the music came up and Raja stepped through the yellow gate out onto the stage. In every show, an audience inexplicably changes the show so very much that it almost feels like and entirely new creation. Inge’s energy and presence was almost a tangible thing woven into the story we told. We went through the entire show, feeling it more deeply perhaps than we ever had before.
At the end, the entire cast gathered around Raja to tell her a story of hope and of new beginnings. That this was not the end and that the lives she lost were not insignificant and neither is hers. We, the unnamed children ran joyfully onto the stage, bundles of colorful paper in our arms.
They were butterflies.
Long strings of butterflies that we hooked to strings and pulled up above the audience. As the butterflies raised to spangle the stage with color, we raised our arms and our heads to watch them go. The lights faded, but the story was not over. It wasn’t like most other plays where you step off stage and leave the story. We had the story sitting right there with us in the audience.
Afterward, she told us profusely that although she had seen this show many many times, we were by far her favorite. And she made sure that “I’m from New York, and we don’t give compliments unless we mean them.”
Something clicked. We were doing this not to put on a show, but to tell the truth. Inge saw that and she could not tell us enough how much she appreciated it. Even after Inge left, we continued to have sold out shows at every performance. Why? Because he people who came left changed. And that is an enormous duty but also a tremendous accomplishment.
Of course, we could not have a survivor there without giving her the chance to tell her story, especially one who loves to talk as much as Inge does. She sat and told stories and facts and feelings and all manner of things that only added to our experience and how we viewed this massive undertaking of ours.
She showed us her star. The instant she pulled it out of her file, the entire cast looked down at the stars adorning our clothes. Over our hearts sat six-pointed stars that nearly exactly matched hers. “I ripped this from my clothes on May 8th, 1945” Inge said, her voice full of mixed emotions. After all these years, she still kept it. She had turned it into a symbol that she was special. She was a star.
One of my favorite stories she told was of her best friend in the camp. Her name was Ruth Nelly Abraham. Ruth was exactly two months older than Inge and their families lived together, crammed into the same tiny bunk. They were both only children, both German, and both had identical dolls that for some reason they had both been allowed to keep.
Ruth was deported to the east just before her tenth birthday. Perhaps Auschwitz, perhaps somewhere similar. Wherever she ended up, she did not survive.
Inge remembers being terribly jealous of her. Ruth got to leave the place that Inge bitterly called a “hell hole” on a train and go off somewhere else. Maybe somewhere better. She had no idea.
For over thirty years after the liberation and after Inge moved on with her life, she searched for even a trace of her best friend. A photo or a family member. On the verge of giving up, Inge sent in a last ditch plea for information to a German newspaper online. Within a week, she was corresponding with a genealogist who was researching Ruth’s family. Now Inge is friends with all of the family and she has a photograph. The only picture left of Ruth Nelly Abraham. It is damaged, but it shows her at age three, a beautiful little girl. And Inge clutched it with a certain measure of pride and memory for her dear friend.
After Inge told that story, our director made the decision to add Ruth’s name to the show.
There are two places where a cast member walked out on stage and recited very real names of very real people and their ages when they perished as victims of the Nazis. When he got to the end of his list, he took a few steps and solemnly added
Ruth Nelly Abraham. Nine years old.
Something clicked. I hadn’t cried up until that point. That isn’t to say that I hadn’t come close, but for some reason I had not yet cried. I watched through the haze curtain as her name was spoken and I felt it in my gut. This was real. And a tear escaped my eye for dear Ruth. A girl I would never have met, yet one I already felt like I could love. There were so many Ruth’s out there. Even today, there are so many Ruth’s.
Inge thanked us over and over again. “Now she has a name. Now she will be remembered.” Those words were precious. Ruth will live in memory at least as long as I do, because I can guarantee that I will not be forgetting her anytime soon.
Friday night, we circled up and joined hands for our typical pre-show prayer. Friday November 13, 2015. Inge was gone, but we had a different event to propel our story that night. We prayed for Paris before our show began. And the entire time, it was no longer that could have been us, instead, it became that could be us right now.
Something clicked. Our problems are not solved. It is not a matter of simply remembering the past. In doing so, we must also fight the hatred happening right now in our world. This story matters for the past, but it is not over.
Every performance we brought everything we had learned from the performances before it so that by the time we got to the end, it was an experience that no one outside of the cast could possibly begin to understand. I don’t understand it. But I know that this show is the most significant thing I have ever put on a stage and I’m not likely to do anything this impactful again in my life.
After our last performance, as I sat watching my butterflies raise into the air, I heard our Raja take a deep breath. She left the stage far more quickly than usual and when we all met her backstage, we found tears pouring down her face. And suddenly we were all crying.
We met across the hall in the dusty scene shop, looking around at the remains of shows from the past thirty years. The gate that bore the terrible slogan Arbeit macht frei would join them in a manner of hours.
We stood in a circle and we checked out. Instead of checking in, we were leaving it behind on the stage. If there were tears before, there were plenty now. We had put so much into the show that it was almost unthinkable to be done. But it was a good run. We could not do it forever because nothing lasts forever, but we could carry it with us for our entire lives. And we would.
I have nothing else to give you but this Irena told Raja, the fields, the flowers, and all the butterflies.