When the Holocaust was put on stage


('Birkenau gate,' by Angelo Celedon a.ka. Lito Sheppard. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes, not to cry is to be inhuman.

Such was the case fourteen years ago, almost to the day, when I covered a theatrical production that had me weeping on the job for the first and only time.

I mention this because today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and the play in question was I Never Saw Another Butterfly, written by Dr. Celeste Raspanti and performed by Grenville Christian College drama students.

I am not blind to the many issues surrounding the closure of GCC in 2007, but, as I wrote then, there are achievements for which that school was worthy of praise, and the staging of Butterfly was one of them.

The production did not close with a curtain call, but a slow succession of slides: drawings by children who later perished at Auschwitz, projected against the background to the mournful tones of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

I lost it then, as did many others. At moments like that, as you watch naive images of bombers flying over fields scrawled by frightened little hands, if you do not feel at least the urge to cry, there is something wrong with you.

The play tells the story of Raja (pronounced “Raya”), a Jewish girl from Prague who was taken to Terezin, a concentration camp outside Nazi-occupied Prague.

Located in an old walled town, Terezin was the home of inmates who would eventually board the terrible transports to Auschwitz. Raja was one of fewer than 100 who survived.

Not to leave it at that, GCC concluded the evening with a talk to the kids by two local Holocaust survivors, Charles and Ann Steiner.

The pair had lost much of their families on the Terezin-Auschwitz line, and on that night they told their story to kids sitting at their feet wearing yellow stars fresh off the stage.

Charles has since passed on, having been fortunate enough to escape the Holocaust and die an old man.

Today, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we remember those who were robbed of the chance for old age.

It is also an occasion to remember that anti-Semitism, far from being expunged from the Earth, appears to be on an upswing.

That is something we can fight, each in our own way.

As a local community, perhaps one way to do this is to recapture the cultural spirit that was present at GCC that night and foster an environment in which plays like Butterfly, plays that challenge one to cry intensely, and move on from those tears to say “Never Again,” can be staged more often.