For more than 15 years, the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater has offered area schools a professional, multimedia show that culturally enriches, historically educates and socially motivates students about the Holocaust and all prejudice.
Some schools regularly book Through the Eyes of a Friend, an original production from Seattle, Wash.-based Living Voices. Others book intermittently, and some don’t schedule at all.
A surprising and unexpected development occurred while scheduling the 2013 performances; so many schools booked performances that not all who expressed interest could be accommodated.
Feb. 4–15, almost 5,100 students saw Through the Eyes of a Friend. In 22 different public and private schools, from Gloucester to Virginia Beach and cities in between, the show was presented 25 times (some schools had more than one showing).
“The support and interest we received this year from local schools for Through the Eyes of a Friend is encouraging, and important,” says Elena Barr Baum, Holocaust Commission director. “Educating students about the Holocaust isn’t merely a history lesson. It teaches empathy and understanding, ethics and morality, dignity and humanity. Our hope is these students grow up and take to heart the lessons of the Holocaust—the dangers of discrimination, peer pressure, unthinking obedience to authority, and indifference—and use them as they make moral decisions in their own lives.”
A standing-room-only audience of 180 students filled the auditorium at Tallwood High School on Feb. 14. Elizabeth Rainer filled the role of educator before and after the lights were dimmed, and on a darkened stage acted the part of Sarah, the fictional best friend of Holocaust diarist Anne Frank. Rainer’s scripted dialogue supplemented archival footage, music, and photographs that described the teens’ life during the Holocaust.
In a question and answer period that followed her performance, Rainer confidently replied to inquiries about other Holocaust diarists, why Jews didn’t lie about their religion, shared how the job affected her personally, and then paused before responding to a question about any misconceptions Americans may have about the Holocaust.
“One huge misconception,” Rainer said, after repeating the question so others could hear, “is that the Holocaust never existed.”
Her answer was followed by a directive from English teacher Earl DeMott to the students that they carried the responsibility of continuing to tell the truth about the Holocaust. Students Bailee Kelley and Aubrey Medina, both 9th graders took DeMott’s message and the show seriously.
“I got really emotional watching this—I was tearing up,” says Bailee. “Getting the story from a different perspective, a friend’s point of view, isn’t normally done, but it was so effective.”
“This performance was like watching a movie and a play at the same time,” adds Aubrey. “I learned things I didn’t know before—you never hear about what it was like hiding all the time, and you hear about the Star of David, but I didn’t know other people had to wear stars, too. More than anything, hearing about the concentration camps was the thing I’ll remember most about this performance. It was really a powerful message.”
To hear Earl DeMott’s message to his students, and to see more photos of the event, click here. To find out more about the mission and programs of the Holocaust Commission of the UJFT, visit www.holocaustcommission.org.
article and photos by Laine M. Rutherford