Young Butterfly actors grapple with Holocaust theme

An estimated 15,000 Jewish children passed through the gates of the Terezin concentration camp during the Holocaust. About 100 lived to tell the tale.

Eight East Bay youths have been struggling with those statistics in recent rehearsals for the upcoming Moraga Playhouse production of "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" in Orinda.

Walking around backstage, wearing ragged coats onto which yellow stars are sewn, the young actors who have grown up in Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Orinda and Berkeley acknowledge that it's sometimes hard to relate.

"All my life I've been called Laiah and to think somebody could come in and say "Hey, Number 5074…," said 11-year-old Laiah Idelson of Walnut Creek, looking down at the number on the placard she wears around her neck as one of the camp's inmates.

Idelson, who is Jewish, has read a lot about the Holocaust. "But now I feel like this is more than just reading. This is all true," she said.

Playwright Celeste Raspanti based her reconstruction of life in Terezin on the true story of Raja Englanderova, one of the survivors of the Czechoslovakian camp. The script was augmented by the journals, poems and pictures that made Terezin's children famous in the book and touring exhibit "I Never Saw Another Butterfly."

In the play, Raja journeys from childhood to adulthood, hanging onto life and her Jewish identity with courage, humor and concern for others.

Youths make up more than half the play's cast. A number of them are Jews. The playhouse specifically sought Jewish youths for the roles, sending out audition notices to synagogues, Jewish youths groups and other Jewish organizations in the East Bay.

Fourteen-year-old Alyssa Stone, who is Jewish, plays Raja. It is not an easy role for her.

"If I let myself really believe I was there, I couldn't do my lines," said Stone, of Lafayette. "I have to put this kind of transparent protective envelope around myself. I have an empathy for her, but sometimes I feel like I'm plagiarizing a pain I've only heard about."

Evan Brody, 15, of Berkeley plays Raja's boyfriend, Honza. He looks at the role with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God attitude.

"It's hard not to let your emotions drown you out in the play," said Brody, who is Jewish. "But if my grandparents hadn't left when they did, this could have been the story of my family and I wouldn't even be here.

"It's a sad subject. But it's good in a way and happy because we can do this show for people who may never have known the stories, the poems, the songs."

One of those who might not have known is 11-year-old Josh VanLandingham of Pleasant Hill.

Josh, who is Catholic, said that studying about the Holocaust led him to audition for this show. He came to "Butterfly" from a production of "Cinderella" in Concord.

"I can relate to castles," he said. "I've seen a castle. But this is more serious."

He added that it's "kind of cool to learn about another religion though. My friend invited me to his bar mitzvah and it was good that I could go and see" what it was like.

"I Never Saw Another Butterfly" is Moraga Playhouse's third Holocaust-based drama in recent seasons. The playhouse, which now uses a local high school's theater for its productions, staged "Kindertransport" earlier this year and "Diary of Anne Frank" in 1995.

Playhouse founder and artistic director Cliff Beyer, however, said he isn't choosing the plays simply because they're about the Holocaust.

"It isn't necessarily so much that these are Holocaust shows but that I have a strong desire to explore man's inhumanity to man, especially in this century."