A burly Grade 9 student at Ridgemont High School student turned to his teacher after watching the performance of “My Heart in a Suitcase” at the school on May 11.
“Miss, I shed a tear,” said the usually undemonstrative student. His two friends were equally attentive and moved.
The play was performed by ArtsPower, a non-profit touring theatre company from New York City. Ottawa was their first Canadian visit.
The 550 students attending the play were mostly Grade 8, 9 and 10 students at Ridgemont, but there were also students there from St. Patrick’s High School and Alta Vista and Sawmill Creek Elementary schools.
In the play, Anne Lehmann and her family no longer feel safe in their Berlin home. Life in 1938 Germany is deteriorating quickly for all Jews living there.
In order to protect their daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Lehmann may have to say goodbye to her forever.
By bringing the play to Ottawa students, the Shoah Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa hoped to touch the students by providing historical content “in an emotionally powerful format to which they could relate.” It obviously succeeded, as there was lots of clapping, cheering and many rising at the end of the performance.
Speaking to the students before the performance, Shoah Committee Chair Debbie Halton-Weiss said that “similar to the true story portrayed in this play,” her father escaped from Czechoslovakia 80 years ago, “got on a train bound for England, and never saw his parents or any members of his family again.”
She said that it was an honour to welcome them, “as it makes me feel that a little bit of meaning has been added to the lives of my family who were so needlessly murdered for no other reason than that they were Jewish.
“Six million other Jewish people were killed during the Second World War, over one million were children, but it is a number so huge, it’s just impossible to understand or visualize,” she said. “So instead we need to remember that each person who was killed had a story, a life, a family… So today’s program is not just a history lesson, but also an opportunity to teach the next generation, all of you, the importance of tolerance and understanding, so that we don’t repeat the horrific mistakes of the past.”
The Shoah Committee, along with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and play sponsors Miriam and Michael Leber, brought “My Heart in a Suitcase” to Ottawa as a way to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport which rescued thousands of Jewish children from Nazi Germany by bringing them to Britain between 1938 and 1940, Halton-Weiss told the Bulletin before the event.
The Shoah Committee wanted to reach out to students of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds to teach about the Holocaust “in an accessible, and even entertaining way,” she said. “Many of these students, aged 12 to 15, will not even have heard about the Holocaust, and we are hoping this play and the Q&A following the performance will be a way of teaching the lessons of the Shoah, with the hope that this will raise further conversations and introspection.”
The Shoah Committee knows it is important for Jewish audiences “to commemorate, and acknowledge our own history,” said Halton-Weiss. “But equally and sometimes more importantly, we want to ensure that the next generation of Canadian students, from all backgrounds, understand the dangers of intolerance, and how we as individuals and a society, have the obligation and responsibility to speak out when faced with intolerance, prejudice, and racism.”