A weeping violin plays in the background and a single young lady enters on stage, brow furrowed, pacing. She stops in her tracks as her thoughts are broken by a piercing train whistle…or perhaps a woman’s scream?
Other children join the young lady as a narrator lists their names over a loudspeaker. They stand apart from the girl, who watches on wistfully. This group of children has much in common, including their fates: “…perished in Auschwitz.”
This single opening scene caught my breath. I knew this performance of I Never Saw Another Butterfly would be one to remain in my heart and mind even after the actors would end up leaving the stage, one by one, as their Jewish counterparts were called to depart for the Auschwitz death camp.
The Butterfly Project is an outreach program presented by Wolf Performing Arts Center. Wolf PAC performed the play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, last Saturday evening in Stokes Auditorium at Haverford College. It is based on the book of the same name, …I never saw another butterfly…, which is a collection of art and poetry created by the Jewish children in the Terezin concentration camp in what was previously Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Throughout the play, these poems and art are incorporated into the narrative.
Wolf PAC Special Projects Director Tim Popp introduced the play by quoting the tragic numbers that are recorded in the collection, “A total of around 15,000 children under the age of 15 passed through Terezin. Of these, around 100 came back.”
The young lady who entered first on stage was Megan Rapuano, who played the older Raja Engländerova, the narrator of the tale and one of the few child survivors.
As Raja narrates how she first came to Terezin alone, she looks back upon the other children, drawing silently in their unsanctioned schoolroom in the ghetto. A younger version of herself age 14 is played by Monica Altomare, who approaches the scene timidly.
The only words she is able to say are, “My name is Raja.”
Thrust into this drastically different world of despair, it is the only thing she can do to reassure herself that she still has something left to call her own, after everything else has been taken away from her: her home, her friends, her family.
But as Raja opens up and forges bonds with the others, a renewed sense of identity begins to grow in their fellowship as Jews:
“I am a Jew and will be a Jew forever.
Even if I should die from hunger,
never will I submit.
Even though I am suppressed,
I will always come back to life.”
The original poem called “I am a Jew” was written by Franta (František) Bass, who was deported to Terezin in early December of 1941 and died in Auschwitz in October of 1944 at 14 years old. In the play, the Jewish children stand to recite the words together, sealing their identity in their community. They cling to this, sustaining the hope that one day they will return home.
But as the names of the children are called for the train to take them away to Auschwitz, a realization looms over characters on stage and the audience: These children will never return to the comfort of their past lives and homes again. Perhaps instead, they will be able to return “home” in death to be reunited with friends, family, and God.
It is almost unfair to call them “children,” as they were wise beyond their years, as seen in their poetry and prose. Their emotions were clear as they embodied despair, weakness, and yet hope. Under the lights, tears gleamed in their eyes, and I wanted to do something, anything, to save them from their misery. The line that struck me was from Hanuš Hachenberg’s poem “Terezin:”
“I am no more a children
For I have learned to hate.
I am a grown-up person now,
I have known fear.”
A message Raja’s schoolteacher, Irena, played by Brandi Burgess, offers for patience and hope is to take each day just one step at a time. Can she live and reach that afternoon? How about that evening? And into the next morning? “Yes, of course,” Raja says. And so they must keep a determined spirit to just reach the next day.
When Raja confronts Irena about the truth in the rumors of Auschwitz and how those who are sent there are sent to die, their voices begin to shake and break. Tears begin rolling down their cheeks as Raja renounces the hopes they once held onto. I could hear the audience around me sniffling and shifting as they tried to keep their composure and hold back their own tears. I was one of them.
Although by the end, everyone has been taken away from Raja to Auschwitz, she is joined once more by her past friends and her future self. Although the future Raja started the play by recounting how she was “alone,” the younger Raja can now look back and say that she survived “not alone and not afraid.”
With the violin weeping in the background once more, each stolen child holds a painting or drawing up in front of their faces. Although the children have gone and have perished, we can still remember them by the words and pictures they left behind, true reminders of the emotions that either broke them or strengthened them.
After the performance, discussion was opened for audience members to ask questions to the cast. One audience member asked, “What is the goal of your production?”
Rapuano started the discussion by saying that The Butterfly Project is meant “to inspire others.”
“The Holocaust is one form of killing and slaughter, but there are so many other instances and other places that people don’t know so much about,” she continued. “Just the story of Raja… She was able to go back to Prague after being a part of Terezin…and she started a new life: She became a doctor, she married, she had children. I think she’s a very big inspiration in my life and I just hope that people can be inspired by Raja and her story and everyone else who survived as well.”
Altomare hopes that The Butterfly Project will “not let the children who died be forgotten. Especially because we are the last generation where we’ll be able to meet or talk to Holocaust survivors, so in a few years, those people will probably have passed away. We don’t want that memory of them and those who died at a very young age to pass with them.”
The play itself was written by a former nun, Celeste Raspanti, who was so moved by the book that she wanted to share these experiences to educate and commemorate the children who lived within the walls of Terezin. When Raspanti finally met and showed the real Raja Engländerova her original script, Engländerova’s only words were, “How could you know?”
The Butterfly Project is Wolf PAC’s first touring outreach program which started three years ago with an ever growing, rotating cast. While usually visiting schools, synagogues, and universities, the acting company will also be traveling to Prague and to Terezin where they will meet and perform for Raja Engländerova, now Raya Zadnikova, herself.
The Butterfly Project was sponsored by The Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, the Haverford Jewish Student Union, the Haverford Activities Office, and the Haverford Collection Committee.
Jeremy Steinberg, a member of the JSU board, says, “In bringing The Butterfly Project to campus, we wanted to help create an audience for this powerful story and to carry on the important goal of teaching about the Holocaust so that it will never be forgotten and never be repeated.”
“…That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live here,
in the ghetto.”
The Butterfly by Pavel Friedmann
Born January 7th, 1921
Deported to Terezin, April 26th, 1942
Perished in Auschwitz, September 29, 1944