A local theater group's production of the Holocaust-themed play I Never Saw Another Butterfly is having unintended consequences for some of the children in its cast.
Written by Celeste Raspanti, Butterfly is based on the book compiled by Raja Engländerová, who survived Terezín, the Czechoslovakian concentration camp also known by its German name, Theresienstadt. More than 15,000 children passed through the camp. Fewer than 100 survived. Engländerová is one of them. While the book is a compilation of drawings and poems created by children when they were at Terezín, the play chronicles Engländerová's life at the camp.
First performed in 1967, the play is now being produced by Wolf Performing Arts Center, based in Wynnewood. Butterfly premieres April 19, which is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, at the National Museum of American Jewish History and will have four performances there on May 10 and 16.
The 26 children involved — two casts of 13 each — range in age from 10 to 17. One-third of them are Jewish. In the course of the one-act play, they speak about the circumstances at Terezín, including beatings by guards and the possibility of being sent to Auschwitz and being killed in the gas chambers. Near the play's end, the children's fears are realized. As their names are called, they board an imaginary train headed to Auschwitz and their deaths. Butterfly ends with the children returning, as ghosts, to speak to Engländerová, the sole survivor.
Following a recent rehearsal of Butterfly, several children were asked how they have prepared for their roles and if dealing with the material has been difficult. Some of their answers surprised even the young actors' parents.
"Yes, the play begins and ends with death, but there are also messages of hope and survival," said Gil Dreyfuss, 14, of Wynnewood. "Of course, I've been sad. I mean, all of these kids — kids just like us — died. But it's actually not rehearsing the play that makes me sad. It's when I'm alone and thinking about it. There have been tears. There have been bad dreams."
Dotan Yarden, 13, of Wynnewood, said: "Sometimes when I'm alone in my room, my heart gets filled with this heavy sadness and I can't stop thinking about it. Sometimes I sit in class, at school, and daydream. What if they came for me? What would my friends do? What did the non-Jewish kids think when their friends were taken? I get this feeling of such sadness that I have to leave class and go to the bathroom and splash water on my face and just be by myself for a while. It's happened several times."
Simon Williams, 12, of Wynnewood, said he is not having adverse reactions to the play's material, but knows that some of his cast mates are. "During rehearsals, some of the girls start crying when it isn't part of the script. Some of them have just lost it." When that happens, he said, one of the play's two directors calms them down.
One 10-year-old said that she has been having nightmares since rehearsals began in January. "There's a truck and the Nazis are loading kids on to it to take them to Auschwitz and next they are coming for me," said the child, whose parents asked that her name not be used. "That's when I wake up."
None of the actors interviewed initially told their parents about their feelings. Why not? "It's my duty as a Jew to tell the story of the Holocaust," Yarden said. "And this is going to make me a better actor."
"The Terezín kids actually died," the 10-year old said. "So what if I'm having nightmares? I can handle it."
When contacted by the Exponent and told of their children's statements, parents were surprised and saddened.
"We were asking him questions and having conversations with him," said Na'ama Yarden, Dotan's mother. "We have talked about the Holocaust in our home for a long time. I really thought he was prepared for this."
Bobbi Wolf, executive director of Wolf PAC and co-director of Butterfly, said she spent time preparing the children for their roles. Wolf was a teacher at Bala Cynwyd Middle School for 20 years. She taught gifted enrichment courses, including "Facing History and Ourselves," a Holocaust education program. She formed Wolf PAC seven years ago and has led several productions.
Wolf said that before auditions for Butterfly, she had an informational meeting for parents and children. Once rehearsals began, she and her co-director, Tim Popp, led the kids through educational and creative exercises. Wolf took some of the cast — sixth graders and older — to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
But Josey Fisher, one of the leaders of the Consortium of Holocaust Educators of Greater Philadelphia, said that nothing would have prepared the youngest cast members for the experience of Butterfly. "It's not a matter of preparation," said Fisher, a professor in Holocaust education at Gratz College and the director of its Holocaust Oral History Archive. "It's a matter of child development and age-appropriate material.
"I would not have a 10-year-old child involved in a play with Holocaust material," Fisher said. "With three months of rehearsals, it's an intense immersion, so I am saddened but not surprised that some children are having negative reactions."
All of the parents who were contacted said their children would continue in the play. "We will help our daughter with any problems she has," said Ephraim Schmeidler, father of 10-year-old Maya. "I think this experience is great for the children's development as human beings, Jews and actors, and it would be a shame if the play were stopped."
Fisher doesn't believe the play should be stopped. But she expressed concern about the description of the scene in which the children are leaving for Auschwitz. In Holocaust education, that is referred to as a "simulation," Fisher said.
For years, educators have tried to stop the use of simulations. Fisher explained such simulations may impart the fear of the Holocaust, but little else. They date from an earlier era in Holocaust education, she said.
Wolf said that Fisher contacted her directly to express concern about the play's content and the effect it was having on the children. She said that suggested group discussions be held at rehearsals so that children could process their experiences.
But Wolf said she has been having those discussions since rehearsals began. "Nothing was said in those discussions that made me think I should do anything different than I was doing," Wolf said. "None of the kids were displaying problems."
Wolf said that she will continue to have group discussions with the actors. She is also actively involved in raising funds to perform Butterfly in area schools and community centers.
She said she disagrees with Fisher's classification of the deportation scene. "There is a fine line between simulation and acting," Wolf said. "This isn't simulation. It's theater. The kids understand that."