The History of Butterflies
- By gentleguide
- On Fri 02 Feb 2018
Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre has never shied away from stories with hard truths. I Never Saw Another Butterfly (opening at the Stoner Theatre on February 9) is about one of the harshest events of human history, the World War II internment of German political and religious prisoners. In the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, thousands lost their lives and families were torn apart. And still hope persisted, thanks to... butterflies.
Terezin was a prison for all ages. Families were held there, together and separately. Sometimes children would volunteer to do various chores, only to come back at the end of the day to find their parents were gone, sent to their deaths by the German occupying force. It was a terrible place, full of despair and horror.
And yet, the human spirit is a resilient thing. Artist and teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was one of the people confined to Terezin, and used her abilities to try to bring some kind of hope, through art and creativity, to the children there.
I Never Saw Another Butterfly is about events that took place over seventy years ago, being portrayed by mostly young actors whose frame of reference for those horrible times isn’t all that clear. Knowing this, Director David VanCleave arranged for a cast-and-crew visit to the Jewish museum at the Caspe Heritage Gallery in Waukee. Artifacts and pictures from that era were on display for the group to observe and learn from, and David also encouraged personal research for everyone to find their own connection to this history.
Discovering the Past
“Although I am not Jewish, my heritage is Czechoslovakian,” explains Hrdina, “so I referred to a manuscript a relative wrote on our family history, to at least understand the country where the story took place. To my surprise, there was a chapter with information about my distant relatives who lived in Prague during the Holocaust, which made it real to me.”
“Outside my relatives’ apartment window in Prague, they could see the Nazi Gestapo (SS) headquarters. The Nazi’s quickly evicted their Jewish neighbors from the Josefov neighborhood (one of the oldest Jewish safe havens in central Europe) to the concentration camps. During the liberation of Prague, my relatives took refuge in the basement of their apartment building from the explosions and gunfire.”
Everyone was affected by the terrible events occurring there. It didn’t matter your age, your location, or your previous life. The German occupation was complete and devastating.
Hrdina tells of a letter she found in her research, addressed to a relative who was a teacher in Prague at the time. The director of the school told of his experience: “Both of our school, institute, both of the halls, Sokol’s hall, etc. were occupied by the [German] army. We had to leave both of the schools in less than two hours. We had to put the furniture and all the expensive school instructional… into barns, cellars – wherever there was room. Pupils brought some things into their homes.”
“There are 90 soldiers in both of the buildings of the schools. The halls are empty, no inhabitants in it. We pleaded for disengaging of these rooms, but without success. We were told that the schools would be occupied above all, that the occupation is final. The command is clear and irrevocable.”
The events of this time were some of the worst in recorded history. And yet, I Never Saw Another Butterfly is about how people, especially children, faced these events and somehow kept hope and humanity alive in their own hearts and lives. As Hrdina notes, “The story is not just about the devastation, but also the courage and the happy moments-and creating the happiness for others, even in the situation as dire as the Holocaust. Resilience also comes from having hope as part of your life view.”
Butterfly is about how people found those moments of creating and nurturing hope, even in the face of horror and war. It was the mechanism though which they could cope with what was happening all around them, and to help others do the same. And it was to keep alive the idea of humanity in an inhumane time, especially in the hearts of the children.
Asher Suski is one of the young people involved in the production of Butterfly as Assistant Director. Part of his duties is to help the younger actors to learn and understand both the trials of the Holocaust, but also how people found the courage to deal with their circumstances. “With I Never Saw Another Butterfly, we took a lot of rehearsal time to discuss the play. Many of our first month’s rehearsals were table work with different groups of actors, including some with only youth. We discussed what they drew from the script, as well as their previous knowledge. We’ve talked about what they’d learned about the Holocaust from school or elsewhere. We’ve had conversations about how it seems more real when we see these specific stories instead of generalized information we may have known before.”
“From the beginning, we’ve also emphasized the amount of hope and joy that exists throughout the story. It’s easy to get stuck in the sadness and the weight of the story, and while that is a very real and important part of it, it is also crucial to bring out the hope present in the story. We’ve also discussed the differences between how we perceive the events of the show today and how the characters would in their time. Looking back from now, we know how the events took place and how far everything went.”
“Throughout the process, we’ve encouraged the cast to do their own research and invited them to share those discoveries during rehearsal. We’ve had several cast members who’ve done research on Terezin specifically, or specific people whose stories are similar to the characters presented in the script. It’s been amazing to see everyone become so interested in learning more about what experiences in Terezin may have been.”
Butterflies Take Flight
I Never Saw Another Butterfly is an impactful play, both on the audience and on the creative individuals involved in bringing it to life. And that impact manifests itself in unexpected ways. “During research for the show, it was discovered that various projects promoted social change by collecting artwork butterflies, inspired by the poem ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly’” reports Hrdina. “Some of these projects collected origami butterflies. Subsequently, many of the cast members have learned how to fold origami butterflies, and the butterflies are often seen floating around rehearsals.”
“The kids who are in this play are having an amazing opportunity to learn about and discuss this period in history. As an actor, you strive to understand the character you are portraying, and what their motives are. Through this process, you have an intimate relationship with this time in history. After closing night, the lessons learned through this process do not go away, and the children leave with a bigger picture of the world. They may be able to put the adversities they experience in their daily life in perspective, compared to what the characters in this play lived through.”
Director David VanCleave gets the final word. “The thing I want to stress the most is that this is far more than ‘a Holocaust play.’ This is the story of hope, a reminder to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and a call to action to do whatever we can to prevent similar nightmares from happening again. I know others have said that, but I had to repeat it. It’s just that important.”
For those who are interested in reflecting beyond the show, there will be a post-show discussion after the Sunday, February 11 performance, including members from the cast and crew and Rabbi Emily Barton. Joining them will be Beverly Ellis, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany to two Holocaust survivors. DMYAT will be facilitating a conversation with the audience on the production, its theme, history, and what can be done right now in 2018 to further education and empathy.
I Never Saw Another Butterfly will be presented by the Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre at the Stoner Studio Theatre inside the Civic Center from February 9-18. Tickets are available through the DMYAT website and the Civic Center website, or at the Civic Center box office. Also, DMYAT is publishing an Enrichment Guide for the show--A collection of research, discussion questions, writing prompts, theme explorations, curriculum connections, and more to enrich your theatre experience and extend the education back into your home.