When the curtain goes up on The Butterfly Project at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater on April 8, the production will have come full circle.
The program, which begins with the one-act play I Never Saw Another Butterfly, by Celeste Raspanti, premiered on Holocaust Remembrance Day last year. The next-to-last scheduled performance, a production of the Wynnewood-based Wolf Performing Arts Center, will once again take place on Yom Hashoah.
By the time the curtain comes down on their final performance — being staged as part of Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts —the group’s four casts, comprised of 39 mostly child actors, will have staged the play 40 times. They have performed before audiences large and small —from a few dozen people to over 1,000 attendees in schools, synagogues, churches, retirement communities and cultural centers across the Delaware Valley.
The Butterfly Project encompasses a full educational program that includes I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which is based on a book of the same name. The book was compiled by Raja Engländerova, who survived Terezin, the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The camp, also known by its German name of Theresienstadt, was a way station for more than 100,000 Jews before being sent on to other camps and, for more than 90,000 of them, to their deaths. Included in these numbers were 15,000 children, just over 100 of whom survived.
Engländerova’s book is a trove of drawings, stories and poems that survived the camp, even though the overwhelming majority of their authors did not. She was entrusted with two valises filled with thousands of children’s works by the camp’s unofficial art instructor, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who came to Terezin in 1942 and who died in Birkenau in 1944.
The production was the brainchild of Bobbi Wolf, the who taught at Bala Cynwyd Middle School for 20 years before retiring to found and direct her company, Wolf PAC, in 2005. The motivation for The Butterfly Project is summed up, she said, by the twin exhortations she and her performers received from both Raspanti, a nun who resides in Minnesota, and Engländerova, who lives in Prague.
“They told us, ‘Make sure these children remind us to never forget,’ ” Wolf recalled.
To convey that message in the simplest, starkest way, Wolf’s actors, ranging from fifth-graders to high school seniors, portray Raspanti’s vision of what life must have been like for the youngest residents of the camp, on a stage that is adorned with nothing more than empty wooden crates.
“I Am a Jew,” by Frantisek Bass, 1930-1944
I am a Jew and will be a Jew forever.
Even if I should die from hunger, never will I submit.
I will always fight for my people, on my honor.
I will never be ashamed of them; I give my word.
I am proud of my people, how dignified they are.
Even though I am oppressed, I will always come back to life.
The Butterfly Project,
The Perelman Theater at Kimmel Center, 7:30 p.m., April 8 and 9
Judging by the stillness of the audiences at two recent performances — one at the South Camden Theatre Company for the roughly 60 students of the city’s Sacred Heart School, the other at Bala Cynwyd Middle School’s auditorium for both Bala Cynwyd and Welsh Valley eighth-graders — nothing more is needed.
Even though both programs ran well over two hours, the only times the students moved perceptibly or talked was during the question-and-answer sessions with the cast and with the Holocaust survivors who came onstage to tell their stories after the performances.
Cyani Scott’s reaction was emblematic of the students interviewed at both performances. The seventh-grader from Sacred Heart said the play “made me understand that this wasn’t just a little event that occurred — this was an event that changed millions of lives. It changed a lot of things for me. As I watched the play, I began to understand and feel the pain that people experienced during those traumatic times.”
Several students also said that having a Holocaust survivor speak to them of their own real-life experiences during the war, immediately after watching the dramatization onstage, helped them to understand the enormity of what happened during the Holocaust, and why it was so important to not only study it, but to learn from it.
As Chuck Feldman, president of the Philadelphia-based Holocaust Awareness Museum, explained, “The programs help the students to understand that this happened to Jewish people and others, but it continues to happen. It’s not enough to just not participate in hateful behavior; you have to stand up.”
Feldman, whose organization brings in the Holocaust survivors who speak after the performances, said the children are also told of the importance of bearing witness, especially since they are the last generation who will be able to hear from survivors firsthand. “When the survivors are no longer there, it is their responsibility to educate their children and grandchildren about the impact of hatred and bigotry,” he said.
Although The Butterfly Project was conceived of as a finite series, the overwhelmingly positive response from audiences and educators has given Wolf pause.
“We may not end it,” she hedged. “The interest is definitely out there, but we need to evaluate it. Because we took the show everywhere free of charge” thanks to donors that included the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, one of the sponsors of the program, it would require a sizable commitment to fundraising in order to continue doing it for free.
The Kimmel Center performances are unique in that there will be a $10 charge to see the play, which is part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. The subject was a perfect match for the theme of this year’s festival, “If You Had a Time Machine …”
That’s not the only difference: For the final show, the 39 actors will be joined onstage by dozens of students from different schools where the play was performed. Together, the group will recite the poem, “I Am a Jew,” written by Frantisek “Franta” Bass, who arrived at Terezin in 1941 and died at Auschwitz in 1944, at the age of 14.
It is sure to be a powerful, moving moment for the audience, and for the performers as well. Dotan Yarden, an eighth-grader at Bala Cynwyd Middle School who has been performing in the play since the beginning, perhaps has a deeper understanding of the material’s impact than most.
He traveled with his father to the Czech Republic in 2012, his Bar Mitzvah year, to meet with Engländerova. He said that if there are people who don’t seem to be affected by what they see onstage, “I think it’s just because they don’t understand it.
“It’s our job to help them understand it so that they can tell other people about it.”