In high school, I performed in a play called “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” about children who lived in a concentration camp called Terezin during the Holocaust, also known by the German name Theresienstadt. Terezin was a mere 38 miles northwest of Prague and served largely as a collection camp for deportations to the killing centers of Eastern Europe. Rife with disease and starvation, some 35,000 prisoners perished there, and most were taken to Auschwitz, that included artists, musicians, composers and intellectuals. Despite the horrific conditions, the inmates led performances, concerts and a children’s opera and the Nazis used it as a model camp to demonstrate to the world many falsehoods, creating propaganda to support their work.
Performing in the play was a moving experience. It centered on the children’s painful experiences there, while retaining a world filled with butterflies and flowers. I played one of the children in the camp, and to this day, I can recite the words of the poem by heart. The experience of being in that play, of learning the story of the children in Terezin, never left my mind.
I have also been to Terezin. I went more than 20 years ago while backpacking around Europe on my own. I remember the experience being very moving, very haunted. The town still has a weepy, depressing feeling. I could not understand how the people living in the town lived were near the institution, where terrible events were unfolding daily right under their nose. None of it made sense. When I was in Prague recently, I was reminded of these children, whose pictures and drawings are hanging throughout landmarks in the Jewish Quarter.
So clearly I had an invested interest in the new play, “Terezin” by Nicholas Tolkien, the great grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings” and The Hobbit,” now playing inside the Playwrights Horizons Theater. Presented by The Steinberg Theater Group, it tells the story of two Jewish girls – Alexi, a brilliant violin player, and her friend Violet – living in Terezin. As soon as they arrive in what is coined as “paradise” by the Nazis, they realize the place is something very different. The lives of Violet’s parents have already been taken before her eyes, and Alexi’s beloved mother’s life is also cut short shortly after arriving. The two girls are virtually left alone to fend for themselves while Alexi’s father is put in charge of a propaganda film the Nazis want made to show the world to prove that Jews inside Terezin are being treated well.
The play is based very much based on reality. The film that the play focuses much of the first act on was shot in early 1944, when the horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution finally trickled out to the West, as part of an effort to fool a visiting International Red Cross delegation to show that all was productive work and wholesome recreation in Terezin, and by extension in other concentration camps. Jews continued to wear yellow stars on their clothing in the video but were called “residents” instead of inmates. They were told to smile and act like they were being treated well.
As seen in the play, the horrors that went on in Terezin were very real. Children were treated like animals and forced to teach Nazis some of their skills, like Alexi teaching a Nazi commander how to play the violin. One of the most painful scenes in the play is of three girls told to strip down naked and go for a swim by the Nazis, while on camera filming the documentary, and their tears and agony going through the motions.In the video, the children wore yellow stars on their civilian clothing. They look well-dressed and well-fed and keep smiling. No SS guards or other armed Germans were shown. In between takes, they would torture the inmates, making their lives a living hell.
The playwright takes the plot outside the confines of Terezin. He created a plot twist where the Nazi commander not only had a child with a Jewish woman, but his child is a now grown man and architect who married a Jewish woman. He hires him to expand the camp. The architect eventually can no longer do the work as what is going on at the camp sickens him, and he starts to slowly remove children, hiding them in a treehouse. As expected, the end is not a happy one, though the playwright brought a butterfly into the moment perhaps to shed light and create hope just as the original poem tried so hard to do.
Tolkien incorporates music and dance in the play, and the actors are all passionate and expressive. The cast includes Sasha K. Gordon, Natasa Petrovic, Skyler Gallun, Michael Leigh Cook, Sam Gibbs, Sophie Davey, Charlie Manoukian, Ashley Siflinger, Blake Lewis, Isabel Lodge, Peter Angelinas, Alex Escher, and Morgan Ashley Reichberg. The set, costumes and lighting are bare and stripped down to tell this haunting, true story.
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary tickets to facilitate this review and others, but all opinions are my own.