Wendy Kout’s play Survivors is based on 10 real-life stories of young people’s Holocaust experiences. (photo by Peter Nadler)
Last year, Victoria-based Bema Productions and the Victoria Shoah Project collaborated on a pilot project: a nine-performance tour to middle and secondary schools of Survivors, a Holocaust-themed play by Wendy Kout. The success of the tour, which reached more than 1,100 students and 500 adults in the Victoria area, has led the organizations to broaden their reach throughout Vancouver Island, Metro Vancouver and other Western provinces beginning this autumn.
“Following our pilot tour in Victoria, we were asked to cover the Western provinces, and I happily accepted the challenge,” said Zelda Dean, the director of the play. “We will be touring to 30 schools on Vancouver Island in October 2023. In the fall of 2024, we will tour on the Mainland and in Alberta. Saskatchewan and Manitoba will be toured in 2025 – 150 performances in total will be presented.”
Citing a 2018 Canadian survey produced by the Azrieli Foundation, Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Claims Conference, the Victoria organizers offer compelling reasons why Holocaust education is necessary today, particularly (but not only) for youth. According to the survey, 52% of millennials cannot name a concentration camp or ghetto; 62% of millennials did not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust; 22% of millennials haven’t heard or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust; and 23% of all Canadians believe that substantially fewer than six million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust, while another 24% were unsure of how many were killed.
“I have been alarmed at the ongoing rise in antisemitism for some years and have been looking for a suitable educational play. I had previously produced a play by Wendy and loved her work,” said Dean, regarding the selection of Survivors.
The intention of the one-hour play, suitable for those from Grade 6 to adulthood, is to provide a vehicle to teach lessons from the Shoah to younger audiences. Based on 10 real-life stories of young people’s Holocaust experiences, the play hopes to enable students to recognize the short- and long-term causes and effects of prejudice, discrimination and, ultimately, genocide. It also aims to foster critical thinking and bring the importance of human rights and social justice advocacy to the forefront.
Survivors goes through the chronological history of the Holocaust by enacting the experiences of Jewish children and teenagers from Europe. The young cast of six professional actors portrays the survivors, starting at innocence and continuing through the terrifying rise and rule of bigotry, xenophobia and violence, before they immigrate to America.
The play includes the true stories of a teen who watched her boyfriend being taken away to a concentration camp, a girl who was separated from her parents and relocated to England through the Kindertransport and a boy whose family struggled to escape to China.
Dean credited the young actors in the production for their diligence and dedication to their parts. “I put a casting call out and was delighted that a large number of very skilled young actors tried out for the roles. Those who were cast were tasked with doing considerable research into the Holocaust prior to rehearsals starting,” she said.
Survivors was originally commissioned and developed by CenterStage Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., in 2017, when Kout was asked to write a Holocaust play about survivors who had immigrated to the city. Shortly thereafter, while watching neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville, Va., Kout expressed the feeling that she was not simply writing an historical play but also a “warning play.”
The Victoria production in November and December 2022 – which played in school auditoriums, theatres and libraries, and had four public performances – was the first international tour of the play. There are other tours currently on both coasts of the United States, with Kout, along with the New York company that developed Survivors, creating a documentary on how the play came to be.
“Sharing the history of the Holocaust with students provides an important historical example of the dangers of allowing hatred and intolerance to take hold within a society,” said former B.C. minister of education Rob Fleming about the Victoria tour.
Additionally, several students who saw the play offered their input concerning how the performance affected them.
“I want to continue to learn more about the Holocaust and people’s stories. I’ve read [Elie Wiesel’s] Night and seen this play but other than that I haven’t heard many personal stories, so I’d like to learn more,” said one.
“I learned once again that I should not judge others selfishly based on race, religion, appearance or prejudice, and I will try to [remember that] whenever I meet new people from now on,” contributed another.
The organizers are looking for financial support to fund the upcoming Western Canadian tours.
“Over $450,000 is required to offer this powerful educational play to so many students, and we are actively fundraising to individuals, corporations, foundations, etc. We are running a campaign inviting folks to sponsor a school in their area for only $500,” Dean explained.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.