Holocaust Plays Break Down Fourth Wall to Build up Awareness

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Anne Frank’s story is still being told to the younger generations — and, hopefully, to those to follow, Jews and non-Jews alike.

A 15-year-old girl trapped in a world she can’t truly comprehend — but astute enough to know what she’s doing matters — scribbles something down in a notebook: “I want to go on living after my death.”
Now, more than 70 years since she wrote those words in her celebrated diary — describing what life was like for a couple of Jewish families hidden away in an attic for two years to escape Nazi persecution — her story is still being told.
Not so much by the ever-dwindling survivors of that horrific era to those old enough to have heard it before, but to the younger generations — and, hopefully, to those to follow, Jews and non-Jews alike — so that this one doomed Dutch girl’s message will endure.
Never forget.
That’s the goal of the Anne Frank Theater Project, sponsored by the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in the Northeast. They’re now scheduling performances of two powerful dramatic presentations strictly for school-aged children: an abridged version of The Diary of Anne Frank and Lida Stein and the Righteous Gentile.
“I’ve been doing the show six, seven years,” said Maryann Resnick, who plays the stuffy Petronella van Daan, whose son, Peter, Anne befriends in the attic. “I remember reading Diary when I was 13 and thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? I’d never be that brave.’
“I’m not Jewish, but the reason I keep doing it is so she will go on living — even if it’s just for this show.”
The actor playing the title character sees it as valuable education tool. “I’m Jewish, so I can’t remember not hearing about it,” said 18-year-old Erin Edelstein, a Cheltenham High senior, who’s been portraying Anne since she was in eighth grade — right around the same age Anne was when she went into hiding. “But there was nothing like this when I was younger. I really wish this was used by more schools, because it’s relatable, rather than watching some documentary.  Documentaries are great, but sometimes kids need that interaction.”
Author Lawrence Geller says it’s also important for people to realize not all Germans sympathized with Hitler — a point of fact that prompted him to write Lida Stein. “I had remembered reading about libraries being cut off to Jewish children,” said the 82-year-old Geller, who helped create the Anne Frank Theater Project in 1999. “That struck me, notwithstanding all the horrific things that happened — and also that there were some goodhearted groups who helped fund people who befriended Jews and hid them.”
The plays are short enough — the runtime for each clocks in under an hour — to maintain kids’ attention while still being thought-provoking.  At the conclusion of each show, producer Sharon Geller — no relation to Lawrence Geller — opens the floor to questions.
“We don’t just do the play,” explained Sharon Geller, an improv instructor and performer herself, whose credits include stints on Saturday Night Live and in the M. Night Shyamalan film, The Sixth Sense. “As producer, I go out in the audience afterwards and conduct a Q&A and discuss points. In Anne Frank, we talk about spending two years in an attic. What would you miss the most?  Why would someone risk their own life to help them? Would you risk your own?
Lida Stein leads to talking about bullying, because Lida gets bullied by her friend. It’s all improvised, but the kids are always riveted.”
The museum was originally started by a Holocaust survivor in the early 1960s. “A man named Yakov Riz from Poland lost 83 members of his family in the Holocaust,” said Geller, who’s been affiliated with the Anne Frank productions for nearly 15 years, first portraying Mrs. van Daan. “He heard the Nazis were coming and tried to warn his family to get them to leave. He escaped to the Russian Front, where they find out he’s Jewish and throw him in the gulag as a spy, He spends six years in the gulag and by the time he’s released he’s 50.
“He goes over to Israel, where he meets his wife, Sheila, who’s from New York. They eventually come to Philadelphia and have a life together. This man swore if he ever made it out of the Holocaust he’d do something so people would remember.”
Riz started off by creating a small memorial in his basement, which later expanded and moved to what is now KleinLife. He died in 1985, though his memory is sustained by the Yakov Riz Resource Center, a lending library for more than 1,000 Holocaust-related books and educational materials, along with some 200 films, including survivor testimonies.
“If it wasn’t for my father, this would not be happening in Philadelphia,” said daughter Iona Riz, the second of his three children, who lives in Fairmount. “For him, the whole thing was to teach young people so they would know — so that it shouldn’t happen again. As a little girl, I remember people would come over and he’d take them to the basement. He’d show them pictures and books and a bar of soap” —from a concentration camp — “and literature he’d collected.
“This has kept my father‘s memory alive.”
One fascinating sidelight to Riz’ story came shortly years after he arrived in Philly, when he learned that his older brother, Moshe, whom he thought died in Auschwitz — along with two sisters and another brother who were lost — was alive in Israel.  They reunited, and Iona remained close with her uncle until his death.
While not quite so personally touched by the experience, Sharon Geller is happy to be a part of the project. “Anything of Jewish education is important to me,” said Geller, who has multiple casts for both shows, though most of the actors are so familiar with each other it’s like “riding a bike” for them when they come onstage. “I was brought up in the kind of home where knowing your history and your roots were important. There are still so many deniers, people who say, ‘That’s in the past — we don’t need to revisit it.’ It’s really very clear to me this is an important mission. The Holocaust Awareness Museum is Philadelphia’s best-kept secret.”
The key is getting that secret out. The Anne Frank Theater Project will come out to any school, synagogue, senior center, even church in the area — usually needing minimal advance notice since there are multiple casts.
They’ll also occasionally go outside the area, such as when they visited Scranton a few years ago. “The Jewish Federation of Scranton paid for us to go up there,” recalled Dan Gudema, who plays a Nazi in Lida Stein and has been involved with the project from the beginning. “They bused in 300 kids and brought up 12 survivors and 12 liberators. They had 12 meeting rooms and put a bunch of kids in each room with a survivor and a liberator. It was amazing.”
“I think it does connect with kids,” said Eric Schwartz, a transplanted New Yorker who got hooked after seeing a production of The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway with Natalie Portman and Linda Lavin, and who now plays Anne’s father, Otto. “Everyone needs to hear the story, whether it’s 10-11 kids like we sometimes have, or a thousand. Whether we’re performing for kids in a Jewish school or in a private or parochial school, I think they connect, based on the questions we get.”
Because of that connection, because of the efforts of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and the Anne Frank Theatre Project, Anne Frank’s wish has come true.
Today, more than 70 years since her death, she’s more alive than ever.
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