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 Nazi 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.”
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 northwest of Prague, the Czech 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 they even gave concerts. Children drew and painted; they wrote stories and poems. But all learning activities were strictly prohibited and took place only in utmost secrecy. Only about 10 percent of the estimated 15,000 children who lived there survived.
The actors staged their production in the Attic Theater under the roof of the Magdeburg Barracks, one of the ghetto’s largest buildings. About 30 people attended, mostly parents and friends of the group. Wolf invited media and institutions, but none expressed interest.
About 60 percent of the cast members were Jewish. The Holocaust affected the family of at least one actor, Maya Schmeidler, whose grandfather perished in Auschwitz.
Raja Engländerová, a vivacious 85-year-old who survived 31⁄2 years in the Terezín camp, is the play’s protagonist. The young actors got to meet with her.
“She is now a real person to us, which is really cool,” said 19-year-old Emma Franzel, who portrayed Engländerová.
Engländerová had seen the play before and even attended its U.S. premiere in in 1967. But it was the first time her granddaughter Magdalena Kudláková 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,” Kudláková said. “It was very strong and it made me cry.”