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Production focuses on children of the Holocaust

Cast members of "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" are seated in what is depicted as the classroom of the Terezin ghetto. In the front row from left are Kendra Jacobson, Robert Byers and Anna Howard. In the middle row from left are Maddie Stromberg, Jordan Lawrence, Kay Dee Sanders, Krysta Sanders, Hannah Allen, Emily Quanrud and Jack Meixell. In the back from left are Bridget Stromberg and Carolyn Towler. The play opens Friday at the Wild Rose Theater. Pioneer Photo/Patt Rall

The award-winning and internationally recognized "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" will open this week at the Wild Rose Theater as a Saarens Productions presentation.

The play, by Celeste Raspanti, takes its name from a poem written by Pavel Friedman, a young man who lived for a time in the notorious Terezin (Theresienstadt), a Jewish ghetto in Prague, Czechoslovakia, during World War II.

This one-act production is the story of one of the children who survived internment during the Holocaust, and her family and friends. Raja Englanderova's experiences are similar to those of many other children, except that she lived to tell her story. Of the 15,000 children who entered Terezin, only about 100 survived.

The play is based on a book of poems and drawings by the children who were protected by their teacher, Irena Synkova. Despite the squalor and sickness, Synkova wanted the children to be able to express their feelings in creative ways that also brought hope and love to their drab surroundings. The original collection of poems and pictures were edited by Hana Volavkova at the end of the war. Raspanti, who adapted this book into a play, also wrote other manuscripts based on the events surrounding the Holocaust.

Director DeeJay Arens chose this play to correspond with World Holocaust Remembrance Day, which will begin at sundown on Saturday. The play is about children who held onto hope even in the face of unspeakable horror. "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" is produced worldwide and is particularly popular with high school age young adults because it is a coming-of-age story in unbecoming times.

"Theater isn't just about fun and games," Arens said. "As an actor, one has a responsibility to teach. Videos of the actual artwork will be projected on a screen during the play. Steve Saari has composed original music for this show and he will be joined by Bridget Stromberg on the autoharp."

Carolyn Towler plays Raja, who returns to her home town as an adult who recalls those dark days.

"I am kind of a narrator in this play, and I am looking back into the concentration camp, and my speaking is about memories," Towler said. "I looked online and when I saw those pictures, it really struck me hard. I think I identify more with the lines - when she might be angry, sad or just deadened. It just made it more real for me. Everybody that I know and love dies, so sometimes anger comes out, not wanting to remember, or depression."

The cast includes familiar faces in Bemidji productions and some newcomers. Emily Quanrud was last seen as Shelby in "Steel Magnolias," a Saarens production from early winter.

"I am playing a real-life person on this play, one of the survivors of the holocaust," said Emily, "and it brought a lot of sentiment to me and I think to a lot of other people."

Bridget Stromberg is in this production with her daughter Maddie, who chose to audition for this play because the storyline sounded interesting and she had never worked with Arens before. Maddie is in the eighth grade at Blackduck High School and she has appeared in other productions at the historic Chief Theater.

"I don't have many lines," said Mattie, who is sight-impaired, "so I didn't need to use a script and had to memorize cues. I am getting to a point now where I have a better understanding of what they went through. I definitely want to continue to do theater."

Vicki Stenerson is the assistant director. Dwayne Johnson constructed the set, which was designed by Allison Cease. Betty Arens is running the stage lighting. Cheryl Winnett has assembled the props and costumes.

"When you do props and costumes, especially in this period, you have to do research," said Winnett. "I downloaded over 50 pictures of these children with their names on placards. As a props person, it is very difficult to remove yourself from that because when I was sitting there making 12 Star of David facsimiles that said Juden (Jew) on them, just the inhumanity of that really touched me. This is just a play, but that was real. It was very difficult for me to remove myself from that research and just turn away. Also having to simulate barbed wire with twine and paint was a challenge."

The production will start at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 29 and 30, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 1, at the Wild Rose Theater, 501 Bemidji Ave. N. Tickets are $5. Reservations may be made by calling 556-1777.

The Butterfly

"The last, the very last,

So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.

Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing

Against a white stone....

Such, such a yellow

Is carried lightly 'way up high.

It went away I'm sure because it wished to

Kiss the world good-bye.

For seven weeks I've lived in here,

Penned up inside this ghetto.

But I have found what I love here.

The dandelions call to me

And the white chestnut branches in the court.

Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.

Butterflies don't live in here

In the ghetto.

Pavel Friedman died in Auschwitz.