Journey To Berlin

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
TES writers describe plays about the Holocaust and racism today.

We've seen it on TV but I've never heard anyone talk about what happened to them." "Was Schindler's List true?" Sporadic responses break the silence of 11 to 15-year-olds from Bristol schools after they have listened to victims of fascism and racial violence tell their stories.

Hosted by Hartcliffe School, which has a history of integrating the arts into a volatile, inner city area, the Legacy project was initiated by Shauna Kanter, founder of New York's Voice Theatre.

The play is set in Nazi Germany and recreates her father's heroic journey to Berlin on false papers to smuggle out a Jewish woman and her daughters. It is spliced with accounts of racist incidents witnessed by children, and incorporates seven Bristol pupils.

Speakers at the connected workshop on racism included Pakistani-born Raj, a microbiologist working as a taxi-driver. Forced to abandon study after being attacked, he broke down twice while telling his story.

Peter Prager, a chemistry teacher who escaped Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport, described the rampant inflation paving the ground for anti-Semitism. He described the attraction of the Hitler Youth ("If you went to their meetings, you didn't have to do homework") who jeered as they tried to burn down his Jewish private school during Kristallnacht. He told of biology lessons on the inferiority of Jewish heads, the exclusion of Jews and gypsies from Aryan schools, and his father's deportation.

Margot Linczyc kept silent for 50 years before telling the story of her escape from Auschwitz to Berlin where she was homeless and without identity papers and learnt to steal, the only way to survive.

Asked to choose a key incident and act it out, students struggled with the exercise. Prager said: "It's frightening that students have not heard of the persecution of the Jews. They seemed numb."

But when Kindertransport refugee Ruth Barnet talked to smaller school groups of rapt 10 and 11-year-olds in London, her words provoked a torrent of questions.

So what impact had this workshop had on participating schools?

"The kids were devastated," says Kanter, who accepted the shortcomings of the workshop afternoon but later received hundreds of personal and imagined stories of racial discrimination from students. "Part of the chaos of the workshop was a letting out of these horrific stories. The effect of hearing them won't surface for many years but the very fact of doing it has planted seeds for future reference. They may well see Schindler's List in a different context 20 years from now."

Vic Ecclestone, of Hartcliffe School, said the project had prompted Year 10 students to focus their prejudice module on Nazi Germany, supported by the educational resources of the Spiro Institute for the Study of Jewish History.

At St Georges with a 29 per cent Caribbean and Asian intake, Helen Salmon of the English Department said: "Racism is taken on board but this project provided a focus for the GCSE drama group to work on World War Two rather than contemporary conflict themes."

Fifteen-year-old Assia Shafie who is involved in the production alongside students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and professional actors said: "Most people think that racism isn't happening, but it's everywhere. We're trying to show what it's like from the victim's point of view."

Images from the play etch themselves into the memory: a column of Jews trudging into Auschwitz; Nazi officers barging on to the train bearing Kanter, his proteges and their forged papers to the boat bound for America; the tinkle of breaking glass on Kristallnacht. Archive photographs reinforce the atmosphere of unease in pre-war Germany.

It is Kanter's belief that individual action can make a difference: "For this generation, non-action is condoned but theatre can move people to carry out acts greater than themselves."

Legacy is at The New Vic Theatre, Bristol tonight and tomorrow (tickets: 0117 987 7877). A tour of Germany next spring will follow a UK national tour ending in London.

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