As the Holocaust fades into history, so too do the lessons we should have learned. It seems that many are looking at the rise of fascism not as a cautionary tale but as an instruction manual. Incidents of antisemitism and other forms of bigotry are on the rise. According to the ADL, from Oct. 7-Dec. 7, 2023, there were 2,031 reported incidents of antisemitic violence and vandalism in the USA. The current war with Hamas is only partly to blame. Synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Poway, Ca., both experienced mass shootings in 2019, and none of us can forget the 2018 “Unite the Right” marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”
It’s awful, but what can you do?
Put on a show.
That’s not an answer that would occur to most people. However, for an actor, that’s just what you do. The junior high students at The School for Creative and Performing Arts were learning about the Holocaust, and they wanted to connect with the people of that place and time on a deeper, more personal level.
That’s when director Keith Cassidy (whose wife is Jewish) found the play “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank” by James Still. It’s a multimedia production combining interviews with two Shoah survivors, both of whom knew Anne Frank before she went into hiding, and actors portraying their younger selves. It was an emotional journey for all involved. Eva, one of the survivors, recounted a harrowing moment and remarked, “When I talk to you about it now, I feel it as if it’s still happening.”
The story begins with a German girl who belongs to the Hitler Youth, of which she is a devoted member. At first, it’s easy to find her bright-eyed optimism very likable until she punctuates each sentence with a one-armed salute and stentorian “Heil Hitler!”
I attended a production and chatted with the director afterward. (Our conversation has been edited for brevity.)
EGT: So tell me about this play. Why now?
KC: I hate to use the word “fortuitous,” but the horrors that are going on right now [with the rise in antisemitism] make the message of this play more powerful than ever and more needed now than ever…
As actors, we try to personalize everything. I don’t think I taught these kids anything factually that they didn’t already know. But as actors, having to approach this, the understanding was nowhere near as deep. I go backstage and they’re crying after every show. And then I cry, and I’ve seen it a hundred times at this point. When the mother gets ripped apart in the interrogation scene, and she cries for her daughter, that gets me. Eva survived, but then Anne comes out and says, “I did not have children. I did not have grandchildren. I had a diary.” That’s the emotional gut punch, what was lost in the Holocaust. This play details the horrors of the Holocaust, whereas Anne Frank does not.
We get to know these people and love these people. I told them, they’re wonderful, but they’re not perfect people. I like the fact that when Evie gets mad, she throws a hissy fit and throws her sweater on the floor because she’s a girl being told to wear something that she doesn’t want to wear. She doesn’t want to be singled out [because of the yellow star that all Jews were compelled to wear, the better to target them for persecution.]
We also have two kids playing Hitler Youth and they have to say some pretty horrible things, but if we want to tell the story accurately, they have to be there.
EGT: And I’m glad you had them because this bright-eyed young lady thought she was the future of her country. And she thought she was doing the right thing until the weight and the ugliness of what she had to do really manifested.
KC: I’ve always said, I don’t think I’ve done my job right if people leave hating that character. She’s a child. I told my cast, an image from my childhood that has stayed with me forever is a picture of the 1920s South showing the lynching of a Black man. Under him are all of these proud White faces. And there are all of these kids looking just like their parents. I don’t hate those children. I have nothing in my heart but pity for those children. I hate what was done to them. They’re victims, not as much as the people abused, but they’re victims and deserving of our pity. This is a child. They don’t have full understanding. They’re just parroting what their parents and their teachers tell them.
So, did it work? Did the lessons about tolerance and the dangers of fascism this play teaches really sink in?
One of the props was a diary, like Anne Frank’s. Cassidy asked the kids to write what doing this play meant to them. Here is what they had to say:
Kelsey Perry: I knew some things about the Holocaust, but through doing this play, I learned that the Nazis were targeting young Jewish people so that there would be no new generations.
Parker Flautt: Studying the events of the Holocaust really put myself in Young Ed’s mind. Being born in 2008, it’s easy to be detached. But as an actor, living through it was an eye-opening experience for me.
Billy Thomas III: This show will probably be the best experience of my life. This show taught me a lot. I will never forget this show.
It seems the kids involved really get it, and working on this show has made a lasting impression on them. I only wish that more people had seen this production so that the hard lessons we all need to learn would be learned. The current rise in bigotry shows us that we need to do better.