PRAGUE — When the applause faded, the 32 young actors remained on stage in silence. Some of them hugged. They looked at each other, their faces filled with amazement and disbelief — the circle was complete. The Philadelphia-based troupe had brought the words of Terezín’s children back to where they came from.
They had just given the first performance of I Never Saw Another Butterfly at the former concentration camp where the characters they portrayed had been held captive during the Holocaust.
“This is where the kids that we are commemorating performed. People were suddenly hit by the meaning of what was happening, and it resulted in an amazing breakdown,” 13-year-old actor Maya Schmeidler said after the April 18 show.
“I was watching people up there that I know, believing they were being exterminated,” said Gary Weissbrot, 64, whose nephew was in the cast. “I’m not a spiritual person, but I think they did the memory of these children proud so that they will live on.”
The cast of mostly teenage actors from Philadelphia’s Wolf Performing Arts Center spent the day in Terezín, an 18th-century garrison town of around 3,000 inhabitants located northwest of Prague, the Czech Republic’s capital.
In 1941, the Nazis turned the town into a ghetto-camp for Jews from occupied Czechoslovakia and other European countries. Around 150,000 Jews passed through the town’s gates during World War II; most were later killed in Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
“The first thing I felt when I stood there was an incredible heaviness and fear,” remarked Jessica Calderon, 15, after visiting the town’s Ghetto Museum. “There is a line in the play that says, ‘I have known fear,’ and now, I have truly known fear, too. Walking through that gate was unbelievable. I could imagine much more clearly what the children of Terezín felt.”
The play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, by Celeste Raspanti, is based on a collection of poems and drawings of the same name produced by the children who lived there during the war.
Also known by its German name Theresienstadt, the camp was heralded by Nazi propaganda as a “model settlement” in an effort to deceive the world into believing that Jews were being treated humanely. Inmates were encouraged to be creative and even gave concerts. Children drew and painted, wrote stories and poems. But all learning activities were strictly prohibited and only took place in utmost secrecy. Only about 10 percent of the estimated 15,000 children who lived there survived.
The Philadelphia actors staged their production in the Attic Theater under the roof of the Magdeburg Barracks, one of the ghetto’s largest buildings. It served as the seat of the Nazi-appointed self-government of the camp, and also included a venue for lectures, concerts and other cultural events. It was there where the children’s opera Brundibár premiered in September 1943.
“It’s hard to imagine that this was where all those things happened and we are here now. A lot of us here are Jewish, so it could have been us. It’s crazy,” said 16-year-old Julia Govberg.
About 60 percent of the cast members are Jewish. The Holocaust affected the family of at least one actor, Schmeidler, whose grandfather perished in Auschwitz. She said this family history might have given her a special insight into what the play was about — until the group chose to go on this trip.
“After Terezín, any advantage that I might have had acting-wise and knowledge-wise was gone because everybody was so keen learning everything there was to know,” the 13-year-old said.
“The Butterfly Project” began two- and-a-half years ago when Wolf Performing Arts Center founder and director Bobbi Wolf first thought of staging the play. The actors went on to give more than 50 performances of I Never Saw Another Butterfly at various venues around the Delaware Valley, including the city’s prestigious Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, before bringing the play to the Czech Republic.
But they first had to raise some $50,000 to pay for the trip. About half of the cast came on scholarships. Wolf said a local foundation donated a large amount but the majority came from individual donors who gave anywhere from $10 to $4,000. The children did their share, too.
“They pledged a certain amount of money and earned it, whether it was shoveling snow, which we had plenty of this year, or babysitting or dog-walking,” Wolf said. “Every child raised money towards the fund.”
They arrived in Prague on April 14, spending much of the week rehearsing and discovering the charms of the historic Czech capital.
A highlight was sharing a Passover seder with Raja Engländerová, a vivacious 85-year-old who survived three-and-a-half years in the Terezín camp and is the play’s protagonist.
“She is now a real person to us, which is really cool,” said 19-year-old Emma Franzel, one of the actors portraying Engländerová.
Franzel noted that the survivor also told them “little tidbits about her life” that they didn’t know before.
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.
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.
Another actor wondered how it was possible for the children to keep silent about their secret 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.”
A day before setting out for Terezín, the troop performed in Prague for Engländerová’s family and members of the Prague Youth Theatre, who had joined the Philadelphia actors for workshops earlier in the week.
“It was a tremendous performance by these children,” Engländerová said. “They never experienced the war or anything like that, and it must have been difficult for them to imagine what it was like. But they did a great job.”
Engländerová had seen the play before and was even able to attend its premiere in Milwaukee in 1967. But it was the first time her granddaughter Magdalena Kudláčková saw it.
“In our family, the story was just a kind of an abstract fairy tale with a happy ending. But now I suddenly saw my grandmother right there, all those years ago,” Kudláčková said. “It was very strong and it made me cry.”
About 30 people attended the Terezín performance, mostly parents and friends of the group. Wolf said they had invited local media and institutions, but none expressed interest.
Having a small, familiar audience, however, may have helped the young cast cope with their emotions while on the stage, said Tim Popp, the play’s director. Popp said the experience will make the children better actors.
“They learned they were capable of feeling more than they thought they could possibly do, so the next time they approach a play, whether it’s Butterfly or even a lighthearted and comedic musical, they learned that their range is bigger than they thought,” he said.
More importantly, learning about the Holocaust in this way could make the young actors stronger people, said Mariana Chilton, 46, whose 13-year-old daughter, Zora Gamberg, is in the cast.
“I think it will help her and the other children as they grow up and deal with the terrible abuses that are happening all around them.”