It was something of a miracle.
Frances Fabri, born Sárika Frances Ladányi in Hungary, was only 14 when she was deported to Auschwitz with her parents. Her father perished, but she and her mother survived the notorious camp and four others. At 15, she was the youngest of 400 slave laborers at Altenberg. They were on a Nazi death march when they were liberated by American forces.
The unanswerable questions — about who lives, who dies, how and why — consumed Fabri for the rest of her life. A quiet, studious person who briefly married and never had children, she helped to found the Holocaust Center in San Francisco, where she had come to live in the 1970s. She devised a method for collecting survivor testimonies and recorded some 50 local interviews, including her own.
When Fabri died in 2006 in San Francisco, her close friends discovered a manuscript she had quietly worked on throughout her adult years. They published the collection of related stories, part memory and part fiction, as “Crickets Would Sing.”
It is also a kind of miracle, on a smaller scale, that several years later a Bay Area filmmaker would discover that little-known book. And that he would find a few well-placed people who saw in Fabri’s work a vehicle to address the rising tide of hate and anti-Semitism around the world.
They are now collaborating to bring “Crickets Would Sing” to a wide audience as a stop-motion animated film, produced in the Bay Area.
Fabri’s book offers a view of Holocaust survival from her perspective as a teenager, deepened by adult insights about what she witnessed and lived through. Vividly described and psychologically perceptive, the stories relate the incredulity of deportees as they were thrust into the dark reality of the camps, their struggles to survive, and the human spectrum of good and evil.
Her stories are also profound works of imagination. In attempting to enter into the minds of others who played parts in the tragedy — how the patient of a beloved Jewish doctor might have felt when the Gestapo took him away, or how a Nazi camp commander dealt with his own conscience in compiling his death lists — she tried to penetrate the inner worlds of both victims and perpetrators.
These are stories that can nurture the seeds of awareness and empathy in today’s younger generation, says Rick Hirschhaut, a former director of the Anti-Defamation League’s San Francisco office and now senior adviser on the nonprofit film project that aims to screen “Crickets” for millions of youth across North America and beyond.
“The power of a single act of humanity, a simple gesture of decency, is never lost upon her,” Hirschhaut writes in describing the film.
The story of how Bay Area animation and visual effects artist Mauricio Baiocchi came to spearhead this project testifies to the power of Fabri’s writing.
It was happenstance how he ended up in that role. Growing up in a middle-class American family, he was practically a stranger to Judaism and the Holocaust. Then, as an adult, he experienced a personal tragedy, which led him to Fabri’s therapist, who gave Baiocchi a copy of “Crickets Would Sing.”
One day he pulled the book out of his backpack to read on the train.
“I got through the first story and my universe kind of collapsed on itself, it was so powerful,” Baiocchi recounted in an interview. “My rational mind couldn’t grasp it. What she described… I had a strong feeling of ‘Not on my watch. I can’t be a part of a world where this is allowed to happen.’”
He got off the train in tears, determined to “make something beautiful.”
He left his job in advertising and devoted himself to the creation of a stop-motion animated short, “Cicada Princess,” released in 2013.
As an award-winning veteran of Lucasfilm in San Francisco, Baiocchi had prior experience with the technique, in which three-dimensional figures are created for the characters, then photographed on real sets to simulate movement.
“It’s a whole different way of reaching you before you even realize you’ve been reached,” he said.
When the Berkeley Art Museum invited him to show the film to school groups, he found that children were very responsive and open to the questions it raised. Baiocchi became convinced that the technique could convey the experiences of Fabri’s characters amid the horrors of the Holocaust without making viewers turn away.
Even though he was not a screenwriter, he decided to embrace the challenge of adapting the book for film. It took him nine months to complete the script, during which he biked every Saturday to the Jewish section of the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.
“It was the only place I felt safe writing it,” he said. “I would settle down somewhere between the gravestones and say, OK, you guys have to help me.”
He focused on two of the stories, while borrowing characters from the others to construct a narrative. “The film is not so much a biography of Frances as her witnessing of the human spirit in the camps,” Baiocchi explained. “That is the theme that flows through her stories and what I consider to be the message that she left for us.”
Baiocchi brought his script to L.A.-based producer Vince Beggs, who had produced educational media for the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois. Beggs signed on as executive producer and brought in Hirschhaut, founding executive director of that museum, as an adviser.
Hirschhaut said Fabri’s story “speaks to the individual choices that we make and the consequences that can come from those decisions. It is universal and very contemporary.”
Stop-motion animation is expensive; the budget for the 24-minute film plus an accompanying educational package is $4 million. The producers’ intention is to distribute the film for free so that “we can tell this story, change lives, influence people’s behavior and start healing our country,” Beggs said.
The film’s creative team has already designed the prototypes of eight principal characters, including that of the young Frances. Dark-haired and thin-armed, she is “all eyes,” Baiocchi said, and it’s hard not to fall in love with her. It is an emotional connection that will help reach “that empathic place” in the hearts and minds of the audience.
“Frances was a magnificent, talented writer, and the world needs to know her, now more than ever,” Hirschhaut said. “We believe this film is a gift to the entire Bay Area community and a special opportunity to claim her legacy and celebrate the tremendous contribution she made to the preservation of memory. It’s a bashert project. It was meant to be.”
For more information or to make a contribution toward the film, visit cricketswouldsing.com