Friday, November 18, 2011

HOLOCAUST HEARTBREAK: West Jr. students explore child's view of history's darkest hour

Play re-creates life in Hitler's most unusual -- and deceptive -- concentration camp 

COLUMBIA, 11/18/11 (Beat Byte) -- The ironic words of doom above Auschwitz -- "Arbeit Macht Frei," or Work Makes Free -- blare from a hand-painted set piece for a play students at Columbia's West Junior High School are performing this weekend. Fifteen hundred hand-made paper butterflies symbolize children killed during the Nazi terror.  

I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Celeste Raspanti is set during the Holocaust, in an unusual concentration camp in the Czech Republic called "Terezin" or Theresienstadt, a gussied-up stopover on the road to Auschwitz I learned about researching a book. Directed by West theater teacher Sarah Gerling, the play "speaks from a child's perspective of life in Terezin," Columbia Public Schools music teacher Pam Sisson told me.

Students will perform it Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 2 pm -- Nov. 19 and 20 -- in the West Jr. High auditorium.

German dictator Adolf Hitler's years-long siege against Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and anyone else who didn't fit the so-called "Aryan" mold of perfect humanity, the Holocaust was arguably the most heartbreaking tragedy in history. But as an opportunity to learn -- and never forget -- it can have a powerful impact on young minds and hearts.

"I spoke with a former Grant Elementary student who did not love school in his elementary years," Sisson explained. "At West Jr. High, he took a field trip to the Holocaust Museum in St. Louis. He talked non-stop for 15 minutes about everything he had learned in the greatest detail."  

To learn more about Terezin, read the following excerpt from the book I mentioned previously. 

In it, a train of refugees from Warsaw is entering a fictional concentration camp loosely based on Terezin just outside the fictional Polish village of Melinka, nestled in the real-life Koscieliska Valley, one of the world's most beautiful places.  The second in command, a German major named Petersdorf, has given both camp and village a false, happy front like the one Terezin put forth to the world. 

"The train slowed and the people aboard looked through dirty, scratched windows. They saw delicate Melinka, nestled in the valley Scott Fitzgerald made famous with boozy letters to his editor and a few movie producers (some even visited and photographed the Koscieliska to scout locations). 

The unmolested village idyll provided soldiers at the camp a nearby place for rest and recreation. On those rare visits from spouses and girlfriends, they were able to treat their girls to the wonderful surroundings, rather than the woeful center, of their daily awful lives. 

[Hitler's security chief Heinrich] Himmler had ordered Organisation Todt to place a “resettlement camp” near Melinka in a nod to the success of Theresienstadt, an SS-run Czech ghetto with a happy face – well-stocked dummy stores, cafes, schools, gardens, even healthy-looking people – designed to deceive
Red Cross ambassadors and newspaper reporters.   

After all, look what the British press had stirred up in Parliament about Britain’s dreadful neglect of the Poles in Warsaw. Bad press, Hitler knew, could force otherwise circumspect leaders to act. The Führer also knew that one front alone does not win a war. The propaganda front had always been a fundamental component of the Nazi strategy and to that end Hitler waged a public relations blitzkrieg 

"During the so-called Great Terezin Embellishment, Theresienstadt “guests” enjoyed a children’s opera, Brundibar, while the SS filmed The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews, a propaganda pastiche that showed ghetto Jews living well under Hitler’s benevolent protection. 

The film’s director, Kurt Gerron, was a cabaret performer and actor who appeared with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel.

After filming wrapped and the ruse ran its course, the Nazis sent cast and crew to Auschwitz, where they executed Gerron and his wife on October 28, 1944. The film was posthumously edited into short propaganda “bites.

To maintain the Melinka ruse, Himmler ordered a “don’t sh-- where you work” strategy that was more pragmatism than propaganda. Heinrich Petersdorf had been brilliant in its implementation, helping make camp Melinka a model of death by design. 

To make the village more accommodating, Petersdorf immediately squelched or assuaged any outbursts there by his staff. He sometimes attended Fr. Waleska’s Catholic mass, especially on holidays. He ordered community involvement. Guards and kapos helped villagers fight fires or dig drainage canals after spring floods."  

-- From Ch. 86, The Firecrackers of Lilliput, © 2012, Michael J. Martin 


RELATED:

The Fuhrer Gives a Village to the Jews (filmed at and about Terezin)

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