I cried. Not just a lone tear running down my cheek, but a wet stream that went on and on, long after the actors took their final bows, and my daughter came down from the stage.
The scene was the auditorium, where my daughter’s Magnet middle school put on three one-act plays: two comedies (one written by a student in the school, and both directed by students in the school)—followed by a solemn change in mood as the students put on a powerful Holocaust play called: “Anne Frank and Me”.
“Anne Frank and Me,” was based on the novel by Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld. In this stage adaption, which apparently diverges somewhat from the novel, the protagonist is a typical 15-year-old girl named Nicole living in the US in 2011. Her affluent parents, if not actually meeting the formal definition of Holocaust deniers, certainly convey the message that the death toll of the Holocaust was exaggerated. The girl, who shows little interest in reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” for school, encounters the deniers who claim that the entire story was made up by Jewish-Zionists (see the section on DENIALS and LEGAL ACTION). Shortly afterward, Nicole meets with an accident, and most of the play takes place in the course of her “awakening”—a sleep/coma dream, where she is transposed in time to 1942 as a young Jewish girl in France and forced to see first-hand what life for Jews under the Nazi occupation was really like.
This is a very emotionally powerful play, and the drama teacher, Mr. Schik, did a phenomenal job with an outstanding cast of students in this superb rendition. Despite the use of minimal sets and props, the message clearly reverberated across the room and I was not the only one in tears. Especially compelling was the final scene in which the hero Nicole, her little sister (played by my daughter) and the mother are transported eastward across Europe to the death camps in cattle cars under unbearable conditions.
In this scene, Anne Frank herself boards the train in Amsterdam, adding an electrifying element to the historical drama. But the power in this scene is conveyed by the wonderful acting of the silent passengers, whose eyes spoke a lifetime of sorrow as they move relentlessly onwards east and to their deaths. A chilling and emotional ending to the play.
Finally, in what I see as a huge tribute to modern American society and this school in particular, I cannot fail to point out the multi-cultural composition of the cast in the play. Nothing could have made this play more powerful than to realize that the cast and lead parts were played by African American children, Asian American children, Mexican/Hispanic children, Caucasian children, and any number of mixtures of the above. Add to that, of course, the variety of religious denominations, and this becomes a truly remarkable achievement. And yes, it was not even trivial to note the multi-cultural make-up of the actors; because the acting was so compelling, the audience (at least in my case) did not even stop to consider whether a Parisian-Jewish family in 1942 would be likely to be multi-racial. This only added to the power of the play.
Despite my emotional outbreak toward the end of the performance, the Holocaust and its horrors are not new to me. I have read a considerable body of literature about the Second World War and particularly the Holocaust, including non-fiction, historical fiction and fiction. I have seen many films and plays, and I have visited Israel’s Holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem) on half a dozen occasions, as well as the newer United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. But for some reason “Anne Frank and Me” brought back a specific long-repressed memory from about 20 years ago.
It was back at the Hebrew University at the Givat Ram science campus in about 1989. I was in my third and final year of the undergraduate program—the year we finally had an opportunity to select whatever courses were of interest to us from any of the major realms of biology. I chose the majority of my courses in biochemistry and cell and molecular biology, with a smattering of microbiology, genetics and zoology. All botany and ecology were banished (no offense, for any of you who may be botanists or ecologists–just not my cup of tea…).
One of the zoology courses was really a physiology course that taught organ systems at a pretty advanced level. The lecturer, who must have been close to 70 at the time–and I might add who was extremely unpleasant but at the same time an outstanding instructor—taught us about the function of the kidney in fascinating detail.
When we were done with the kidney, he then began an introduction to the body’s mechanisms for thermoregulation, and this is something I will never forget. As a teacher, he was driven to teach us about how the body controls its temperature, and the experimental evidence that led to the current body of knowledge. At the same time, as a Holocaust survivor, he was clearly conflicted about what to do. It appears that this has been a difficult ethical issue since the Holocaust.
The reason for this, he explained to us, was that a significant amount of knowledge about thermoregulation was derived from throwing Jews and other concentration camp prisoners into baths of ice water for varying lengths of time, and later doing further experimentation and postmortem work on these human experimental victims. For those who can stomach it, Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive article about the specific Nazis who were involved in this torture. The American Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) has also aired a session about experiments and torture during the Holocaust on its science program “NOVA”, entitled “The Holocaust on Trial“.
It was difficult to concentrate in class after our instructor’s comments. At the same time, it was an incredibly important lesson. Despite high levels of formal education and training—as physicians and scientists—it was obvious that these Nazis were devoid of any semblance of humanity. So while we scientists need to continue to lobby for better science education in schools and universities, we must not forget that a well-rounded education to emphasize the significance of being human beings–capable of empathy– is equally important.
This is precisely the goal of productions such as “Anne Frank and Me”.