Several years ago, I was in a play called, I
Never Saw Another Butterfly. The play takes place during the Holocaust in
Terezin, an internment camp, located in what was then Czechoslovakia. I
Never Saw Another Butterfly tells the story of a group of children
condemned to a place of despair, heartbreak and anguish. In an effort to
lift their spirits, they are encouraged by their teacher, herself a
prisoner, to write poems and stories and to paint what they feel. (I Never
Saw Another Butterfly)
My role was that of a young girl named Marika who finds herself, separated from her parents, living in a children's barracks in Terezin. Marika was once like any child anywhere. She loved to paint and play and gossip and giggle. However, she has learned at a very early age that there is something terribly wrong with the world. She has learned that people hate one another because of their race, religion and creed and that that hatred is a destructive force that leads to devastation and death. Unlike the other children in the barracks, Marika is unable to express herself through art and writing. Her feelings are just too raw. Consumed by a fear that she disguises with anger, Marika is moody and wary of everyone she meets. (I Never Saw Another Butterfly)
Inhabiting the role of Marika made me realize how similar she was to my grandmother in many respects. Like Marika, my grandmother lived through the Holocaust and, as a young teenager, lost her entire family. The impact of this inconceivable, irredeemable loss at such a young age changed my grandmother forever.
Nevertheless, as I grew up I did not have much sympathy for my grandmother. In fact, I constantly became frustrated with her because, like Marika, her moods seemed to change so suddenly. Sometimes she would scream just because my mother forgot to call her and she would fret because my father had a cold. Until recently, I never took the time to realize who she was and why she acted this way. I always thought she was just born to be angry and an incessant worrier. I was completely unaware of how traumatized she was. As Eva Hoffman writes, "A traumatized person is not overtly maimed or overtly mad. It is only in the family, or among intimates, that the symptoms of psychic injury are evident - and there they are usually understood as modes of behavior, or features of personality, rather than as symptoms of disturbance." (Hoffman 37). When I finally came to understand my grandmother, to understand that if she didn't hear from my mother she felt abandoned once again, and, if anyone fell ill she feared losing him or her, I saw her in a completely new light. I realized that she lived with a fear so profound and so pervasive that it informed everything she did and everything that she is.
I determined then to learn about the Holocaust so that I could more closely identify with my grandmother. I needed to further grasp the terror-filled world, the world where bias, bigotry and prejudice reigned, that was her home when she was a young adolescent. I needed also to make her believe that she had not suffered for naught - that I would do what I could to make certain that the Holocaust would never be forgotten and would never be repeated.
I am now studying in Prague for the spring semester of my junior year of high school. While just the experience of living abroad is teaching me a great deal about accepting and appreciating the differences between people of various cultures, one specific experience answered my question about how I, as one young woman, could help rid our society of bias, bigotry and prejudice and the violence it provokes.
Several weeks ago, I took a day trip to Terezin- just outside of Prague. Marika's world then truly became a reality to me. While walking around Terezin, I imagined the young children painting and writing poetry, many probably wondering how their world had come to be such a nightmare. I thought, too, of my grandmother, a young teenager, faced with an ugly reality at an early age. It was at this moment, standing in the wooden barracks, the remnants of the past still lingering in the air, that I felt truly compelled as a Jew and a member of a new generation to take my knowledge of the Holocaust and other tragedies in human history and use it as a positive force for education.
I have always thought that I would focus on education in my studies and perhaps become a teacher, but it was the short time that I spent in Terezin that helped give shape to what I want to do in the future. My dream is to create a school where history's lessons are studied in depth and brought to life. Students at this school will dissect and strive to understand the tragedies and atrocities that man has wrought and visit such places like Terezin, Auschwitz and Birkenau so that they can see the devastating results of man's inhumanity and indifference. Simultaneously, the school will teach the students about wonderful, inspiring historical events that will instill in them the belief that man is capable of enormous good. The school will also emphasize the importance of community and the acceptance and celebration of our differences. By intertwining important events in history and the lessons that these events teach us and by fostering a sense of community where students understand that they are responsible for one other, I know I can help forge a society founded on the principles of love respect and tolerance. In this society, Marika and my grandmother would have nothing to fear.
Today, however, the wounds inflicted by terror on Marika, on my grandmother and countless others like them, are still there. They are my wounds too, because "[t]he deep effects of catastrophe, the kind that are passed from psyche to psyche and mind to mind, continue to reverberate..." in me, the grandchild of survivors. (Hoffman 185) But I will help to heal these wounds. I pledge to be an educator and to be vigilant in ensuring that the horrors endured by those who lived through the Holocaust not be forgotten and that they not be visited upon anyone else.
To this task I dedicate myself.
Hoffman, Eva, After Such Knowledge, Public Affairs, 2004.
Raspanti, Celeste, I Never Saw Another Butterfly (This play was further adapted by Sharon Talbot and Geraldine Teagarden).
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