Imprisoned in Auschwitz
Past and present collided in a visceral way for the Department of Theatre & Dance production of Who Will Carry the Word?, an affecting Holocaust drama made more real by the inspiration and input provided by concentration camp survivor Manya Frydman Perel.
As one who is a literal answer to the question posed in the play’s title, Perel has been “carrying the word” by speaking about her own experiences in seven camps between 1939 and 1945. In preparing for the production, the student cast of 20 young women met with Perel in December, at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center at Philadelphia’s Klein Jewish Community Center. As a living witness for the more than six million murdered during the Nazi regime, she provided the cast with some historic context and inspiration to accurately honor and depict the experiences of the women imprisoned in Auschwitz.
Born and raised in the Polish city of Radom in 1924, Perel was a teenage schoolgirl in September 1939 when the Nazi army marched into the city and confiscated homes and businesses, and imprisoned the Jewish citizens in the Radom ghetto. She was later deported to the Ravensbr?ck, Plaszow, Rechlin, Gundelsdorf and Auschwitz concentration and death camps. Despite the horrible living conditions, scarce food rations and the constant threat of the gas chambers, Perel risked her life to save others. In 1945, she and a friend escaped from a death march by fleeing into a forest before being liberated by the Russians. In July 1945 she was reunited with family at a displaced-persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, and later left Europe and immigrated to North America.
“Manya is the inspiration for our production,” states cast member Katie Knobloch, a senior Theatre major who plays the role of Agnes. “The gravity of the responsibility we had by taking on this piece was not fully understood until we met her.”
The meeting made the story real to the actresses in a way that other research could not. Knobloch believes the encounter is what made them feel the story was rightly theirs to tell now, too.
“What connected all of us was her hope, her courage, her determination to use her experience to teach and remind the world the great power hate has,” Knobloch adds.
Directed by Dr. Anthony Hostetter and based on Charlotte Delbo’s story (translated from the French by Cynthia Haft), the play depicts the lives of women sharing a barracks in Auschwitz whose goal is to keep the strongest alive so there will be someone to share their experiences with the world.
The cast dedicated the production to Perel and, following the opening night performance, she joined them on the small stage of Westby Hall’s Black Box Theatre; the women who had just enacted the life-and-death drama clinging to each other and clutching Perel’s hands.
“It tells the truth,” Perel stated after the performance.
“She told us that she was proud of us for taking on this responsibility,” Knobloch recalls. “None of us could believe that. She survived one the greatest tragedies the world has ever seen and she was proud of us!”
“It means everything,” Perel said in relating what the performance meant to her. “I am going to sleep better knowing that they are carrying the word.”