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MAR 29, 2017

High school pupils enact scenes from survivor stories

By Eitan Arom, Jewish Journal

Santa Monica High School students act out a scene from Erika Fabian’s story on March 22. Photo by Eitan Arom.

 

“David Lenga?”

Gavin Graham, 17, stood up.

“I am David,” he said.

The other student, playing a Nazi trooper — a tall, bespectacled girl in an overcoat with a felt swastika band around the upper arm — looked him over.

“Run,” she said. “Just run and don’t come back.”

It would have been a tense scene to act out in any theater — perhaps the most fraught moment in the Holocaust story of a man who never saw his younger brother again after being sent away, mysteriously, miraculously, from the deportation center where they were being held.

But the scene was made all the more nerve-racking for the teenagers bringing it to life due to the fact that there, in the second row, among the almost 150 who gathered in the theater of the Santa Monica High School (Samohi) Humanities Center to watch the show, sat David Lenga, in the flesh.

“It was definitely a ton of pressure,” Graham said after the show.

The “Voices of Survivors” performance on March 22, the first of its kind in Los Angeles, was the culmination of an eight-week collaboration between Samohi’s theater department and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH). The project paired four Holocaust survivors with groups of students who acted out scenes from their harrowing stories of survival.

“It was heart-wrenching,” said Lenga, a spry 89, of watching his story performed. “When I saw it depicted here, it really all came back.”

But he said it was worth it, for the sake of teaching the students to be vigilant against the creeping signs of dictatorship and tyranny even in the modern age. And in the end, despite the minimal props and stage elements and the students’ lack of acting experience, he felt they did well.

“I had my doubts they could carry it out, because it’s so difficult and so wrenching,” he said, holding a bouquet of flowers they presented to him after taking their final bow. “But they really did a good job. They really did.”

Preparation began eight weeks earlier when the 35 students in Samohi’s introductory acting class, most of whom are  not Jewish, visited the museum to learn about the Holocaust and how to interview survivors. The following week, over three days, they met with the four survivors — Lenga, Avraham Perlmutter, Edith Frankie and Erika Fabian — to hear  their accounts.

“As a high school teacher, I very rarely see that kind of silence from students,” Samohi theater director Kate Barraza said of the encounter.

LAMOTH furnished educational material while a mentor from Writer’s Room  Productions, a writing education organization, assisted each of the four groups in scripting their scenes. Students wrote, directed and eventually performed each story, handling the details down to lighting
and sound.

“It really came entirely from the students’ hearts,” LAMOTH creative programs director Rachel Fidler, who headed up the museum’s participation, said at the event.

The performances drew on some of the more tense scenes from each survivor’s account, such as Fabian unsuccessfully trying to cross the border from communist  Czechoslovakia into Austria after World War II with her mother and sister, and Perlmutter jumping from a moving van to escape Nazi captivity.

The program was meant to have students not just hear from survivors but also engage with their stories.

“You can see the numbers and the pictures, but to have the guy in front of you that it happened to — that’s really an experience,” Graham said.

Frankie, 85, is so used to telling her tale to students and other groups, that it didn’t faze her to see it performed.

“It was pretty true to my story,” she said of the performance.

Clutching the bouquet the student performers had presented to her, she sat outside the theater with LAMOTH special projects coordinator Michael Morgenstern dutifully manning her wheelchair as she waited for her son to drive her home.

“I always say, ‘If I touched only one student with my story, then I did my  purpose.’”

http://jewishjournal.com/culture/217258/high-school-pupils-enact-scenes-survivor-stories/