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Young Actors Meet Survivor Who Inspired Their Holocaust Project
Prague — As the sun set over the golden spires of Prague on Tuesday evening, a group of young actors from Philadelphia arrived at a Baroque palace overlooking the Czech capital to partake in the second seder.
But this seder was to be different from all others: Their guest of honor was 85-year-old Raja Engländerová, a Holocaust survivor whose story inspired the play I Never Saw Another Butterfly. The actors from Philadelphia’s Wolf Performing Arts Center have been staging this production in the Delaware Valley over the past two years, giving more than 50 performances at synagogues, churches, senior centers and even the National American Museum of Jewish History.
The play is based on poetry written by child inmates of the Terezín concentration camp, which was set up by the Nazis in 1941 in a town some 40 miles northwest of Prague. Also known by its German name Theresienstadt, the camp was heralded by Nazi propaganda as a “model ghetto.”
More than 150,000 Jews from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and surrounding European countries were held captive within the walls of Terezín and some 88,000 of them were sent to their deaths at extermination camps further east. Only about 10 percent of the estimated 15,000 children who lived in the camp survived the war, with Engländerová among them.
After months of preparation, the Wolf PAC’s cast of Jewish and non-Jewish actors are bringing the poetry back to where it came from. On Friday, they will perform I Never Saw Another Butterfly at Terezín.
Meeting Engländerová, a vivacious woman who survived three and half years in the Terezín camp, has been one of the highlights of the actors’ Czech visit so far.
“She is incredible," said 19-year-old Emma Franzel, who is one of the actors portraying Engländerová. "She’s so sassy."
"She is now a real person to us, which is really cool," Franzel continued, noting that the survivor had also told them "little tidbits about her life" that they didn't know before.
On Tuesday night, the actors had many questions for Engländerová, from her views on Holocaust denial to her life in Prague after the war.
“I was surprised by how much these young people knew about the Holocaust,” Engländerová said. “They were asking me very informed questions for about an hour or even longer, and they were very knowledgeable.”
One girl wanted to know if Engländerová still remembered the children whose names are mentioned in the play.
“Some of them I do. But children were coming and going so fast it was difficult to keep track,” she answered.
The play follows Engländerová’s arrival in Terezín, which was followed by a brief romance with a boy named Honza and her participation in secret education classes given to children at the camp. The Nazis allowed them to play, sing and draw, but all learning activities were strictly prohibited and only took place in utmost secrecy.
Another actor wondered how it was possible for the young children to keep silent about these classes.
“Well, they knew that if they didn’t, it would have terrible consequences for everyone," Engländerová explained. "The children were young but they weren’t really children anymore. They knew more about life than many adults."
Being involved in such a powerful, heavy play has also made the young actors from Philadelphia grow wise beyond their years, according to director Tim Popp. Before departing for Prague, the actors carefully prepared for the possibility that performing at the very place where the horrors once occurred could be even more emotional.
“We shared videos, lectures and readings. We sat down and did all kinds of exercises to get the children to share their feelings and emotions,” said Bobbi Wolf, the founder and director of the Wolf Performing Arts Center. “But when we got here, there was lots of emotions and anticipation, and some children even had a hard time sleeping. So this morning, as a group, we did some exercises again on stage.”
The group is rehearsing at the International School of Prague, an elite learning facility on the outskirts of the city. Raja Engländerová will preview their rendition of her story today, a day before their performance in Terezín.
“Two and a half years of work went into that moment, to perform for Raja about her," said Dotan Yarden, a 15-year-old actor portraying Honza in the play. "I’m really nervous to see if she’s going to like it. Who knows? It’s a lot of pressure portraying someone who is real.”