What do you get if you tell middle schoolers about the Holocaust, an event that happened long before their parents were born? Shock. Horror. Disbelief that any government democratically elected to power could exterminate 11 million people living under its control.
What do you get if you don't tell middle schoolers about the Holocaust? Maybe, someday, another one. As philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
That's why Children's Theatre of Charlotte will do "And Then They Came for Me" this month at ImaginOn, targeting audiences 10 and older.
James Still's play is subtitled "Remembering the World of Anne Frank," but it's only tangentially about the world's most famous Jewish refugee. The "leads" are Holocaust survivors Ed Silverberg, who appears in Anne's much-read diary as her first boyfriend, and Eva Schloss, who was the same age as Anne and grew up in the same apartment building.
The play intertwines videotaped interviews of Ed and Eva with scenes where actors recreate their lives, often against a backdrop of film clips from the period. The goal is to leave teen audiences slightly shaken and powerfully awakened.
"When you think of 6 million Jews or 11 million people total being killed, the numbers are hard to absorb," says Sheila Spitz. "Listeners respond better to individual stories."
She knows: Spitz teaches sixth-grade Judaica-Holocaust studies at the Temple Israel Religious School, and she supplied some of the images to be projected on the set of this production. She's also the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who regularly shares her story.
"She'll be at a pier in Miami, where she lives, talking to 1,000 high schoolers, and they'll come up afterward and want to touch her," says Spitz. "I tell kids, 'You are the last generation who can actually meet survivors.' That makes such a difference in your learning."
Spitz's grandmother and mother were both in Stutthof, a work/death camp that was the first built by the Nazis outside Germany - it's in Poland, near Gdansk - and the last to be liberated by the Allies in 1945.
Spitz grew up with their tales, hearing enough "to give me nightmares," then went off to pursue a life in corporate entertainment law and an art gallery at Phillips Place. But when asked to teach at Temple Israel's school, she said yes.
"Second-generation people have a keen sense of justice, a complete intolerance for the idea that anything like this could happen again," she says. "I look at what happened recently in Sudan (where Arabs slaughtered black Africans in Darfur) and ask, 'Where is the world? Where is the reaction?' So I felt obligated to do this."
She instructs in big ways - she took kids to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington - and small: She'll meet with faith-based groups after a private performance of "Then They Came" March 16.
Teaching the Holocaust to middle schoolers is a tricky business. You don't want to sugarcoat the hideous facts, but images that are too graphic may overwhelm 12-year-olds.
One key classroom technique is a ladder of prejudice. It begins with bigotry in speech at the bottom and moves up to extermination at the top, so students can understand how Nazi-ruled Germany behaved.
"Most Americans believe this could never happen here," says Spitz. "But what if a president came along in bad economic times, as Hitler did, and was a great orator who urged people to look for a scapegoat?
"Think how much faster disinformation can spread on the Internet, especially if a reader doesn't take the time to look up the facts. We've never come near the top of that ladder in America over the last century, but the goal is to keep kids from climbing up that ladder at all."