NEWBURYPORT – With the backdrop of headlines about the pandemic, global protests for racial and social justice, and the rise of discriminatory acts and hate speech, a group of local students decided to do something about it this summer.
By creating a unique, remote “social bubble,” they rehearsed and filmed a performance of “Terezin – Children of the Holocaust,” with the goal of working with schools to incorporate the show and its message into their curriculum in this time of online learning.
For nearly 50 years, students have been performing “Terezin” for middle and high school students locally, nationally, and internationally. The play, written by Newburyport playwright and director Anna Smulowitz, chronicles the anguish endured by children of the Holocaust. It tells the story of the last two days in the lives of six children interned at the notorious Theresienstadt concentration camp before they were taken to die at Auschwitz during World War II.
Because they were of little use to the Nazis, children were among the first to go to the gas chambers when they arrived at the death camps. As many as 1.5 million Jewish children died in the Holocaust.
With the closure of schools for in-person learning in the spring and the variety of remote and hybrid school plans for the fall, the future for any “live” performances of “Terezin” was in doubt at a time when the message of the play has never been so important. Triton Regional High School 2020 graduate and former “Terezin” performer Andrew Valianti of Newbury approached Smulowitz about producing, codirecting, and acting in a recorded performance to bring the show to students in remote leaning environments.
Valianti, who is now attending Northeastern University, believed the themes of oppression and of speaking out against acts of racism and hatred were especially important in the current political climate.
“The message of the show goes beyond bringing this painful part of history to life for students across the globe,” said Valianti. “It underscores a fundamental truth: How we treat each other – as human beings – matters. That’s why we knew we couldn’t wait for the pandemic to be over to bring this play to young people across the country.”
In order to complete the production, the cast of six students, ranging in age from 11 to 20, received tests for COVID-19 prior to gathering. The troupe then isolated together in northern New Hampshire to rehearse safely. The show was then taped over a two-day period at the Actors Studio in Newburyport. Katie Lowell of Georgetown, a recent graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, codirected in addition to performing in the production.
“I am deeply grateful and so proud of these fine young actors; as well as to Andrew and Katie for their excellent direction,” said Smulowitz, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who taped an introduction for the film. “It has been my honor to work with these students through the years and to support this project. Through their tireless efforts and amazing talent, they honor the voices, poetry, and art of those Terezin victims; all children who were deported to Auschwitz from 1942-1944.”
The next step for the Terezin Film Project will be to edit the film and then work with schools – locally and across the country – to incorporate the film and its important message into their curriculum.
“This film would not have been possible without the dedication of our incredible cast and their equally incredible parents,” said Valianti. “At the end of the day though, no one deserves more credit than Anna [Smulowitz]. She has always inspired in each one of us a passion for social justice and taught us all to speak out against what we know is not right, just as she did and has done for close to 50 years. Our only hope is to inspire others with this film in the same way she inspired us.”
Cast members include Olivia Colden, Newbury; Ava Laroche, Boxford; Katie Lowell, Georgetown; Jessie Rosenthal, Newburyport; Andrew Valianti, Newbury; and Ava Valianti, Newbury.
For more information about “Terezin – Children of the Holocaust,” visit terezin.org/anna/