Staging History

03/04/2016 - 8:45am
A high school production of ‘Letters to Sala’ made the Holocaust feel relevant to all audience members.

A scene from a play: Women line up for inspection at the Geppersdorf labor camp. Courtesy of Ben Hunt/ Mount Notre Dame High School

Presenting the Holocaust on stage in a way that high school students can relate to is challenging. Many Jewish teens have strong emotional ties to this history while non-Jewish teens may view this time period as the distant past. Last month, I attended a local high school’s production of “Letters to Sala,” a play written by Arlene Hutton. The show demonstrated how high school theatrical productions can provoke emotion and introspection among diverse audience members. The play was performed at Mount Notre Dame High School in Reading, Ohio, and the cast was comprised of students from a Catholic girls’ school and other Cincinnati-area high schools. The actors conveyed a difficult topic and moved the entire audience.  For schools or groups looking for an alternative to the classically powerful, “Diary of Anne Frank,” “Letters to Sala” is an outstanding option.

This dramatic, emotional play portrays Sala, a Holocaust survivor, as she remembers her traumatic childhood in labor camps in Poland. Old letters sent to and from Sala’s family members spark flashbacks of her experience during the Holocaust. Each letter awakens memories that play out on stage and force her contemporary family members to understand the significance of the letters.

Young and Chaim discuss their future. A quality Holocaust production gives the cast an understanding of the time period and immerses the audience into the lives of people who might otherwise be forgotten. Young Sala was relatable; the actor’s realistic, emotional reactions reflected the fear and terror of prisoners in a labor camp. The supporting actor, Ala, a friend of Sala’s in the work camps, revealed similarly strong and meaningful emotion in unforgettable scenes in the barracks where she consoled young Sala. (Photo: A young Sala discusses her future with Chaim, another prisoner. Courtesy of Ben Hunt/ Mount Notre Dame High School.)

In the performance that I attended, the portrayals by the two actors reflected intense exploration of their characters’ feelings. Every member of the cast, including the ensemble, added authenticity to the representation of their historical characters, whether by having Nazi guards speak in German or Yiddish-speaking family members interacting like a Jewish family of the shtetl. The talented young actors performed these roles with a great deal of professionalism. 

Offstage, the crew had many occasions to creatively use sounds in a way that contributes to the honesty of the play. Car honks and city bustle highlighted the contrast with the tears and gunshots that defined lives during the Holocaust. The set effectively established the barren, desolate labor camp and distinguished the setting from a typical Polish home. The gaping hole in the wall of Sala’s home represented the dire situation that she faced.

This play also focused on the Holocaust’s relevance. In modern New York, the characters argue as they try to decide the right destiny of the letters that were written long ago. Contemporary characters show the struggle of today’s teens to understand the significance of the Holocaust. While Jewish teens may attend Holocaust memorial programs or visit the sites of these horrors, non-Jewish teens do not have as many opportunities to explore the lives of the Jews who experienced this pain. Mia, Sala’s granddaughter, became enamored with these letters and could not stop questioning her elderly grandmother who displayed genuine fear and anguish while staring into her past. These moments turned history into reality. 

High schools that are considering producing this show should be aware that this play is more than a historical piece. It offers relevant opportunities for discussions about prejudice and discrimination. Through “Letters to Sala,” students from every religious background can experience a memorable and meaningful play that provides a window into this important period in history. 

author's bio: 
Charlie Goldsmith is a junior at Seven Hills High School in Cincinnati.