Local

Teens’ Holocaust Diaries Express Hope Amid Unforgettable Horror in ‘Witnesses’

His cast
The cast of ‘Witnesses’ at the California Center for the Arts. Photo by Ken Jacques

You might think that Anne Frank was the only teenager who kept a diary of her experiences during Holocaust.

In fact, there were hundreds of them stored and published, some recently fetching as much as $800 for a used copy.

I learned from that Jordan Beck who, 14 years ago, came across a book of Holocaust diary excerpts written by young people, including Anne Frank.

He couldn’t get those stories and feelings out of his mind.

Now, Beck, a longtime lyricist and producer, is the managing producer of CCAE Theatricals, a new company based in California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

Conceived the new musical, “Witnesses”, based on five teenage diaries. The series’ world premiere wraps up the new company’s first full season.

The subject matter may be daunting, but the inventive production is technically complex and emotionally compelling.

Youth concerns, while familiar to teenagers (crushes, bullying, fights with parents or siblings) have the added anxiety of bombings and the threat of death every day. The diaries could have been written today — in Ukraine.

These diarists, aged 12-18, whether they were in the Netherlands, Lithuania or Poland, faced Nazi onslaught and extreme anti-Semitism that forced them to drop out of school, banned them from using public transport, made them to wear a yellow Star of David at all times (a “badge of shame” identifying them as outsiders — and targets) and led to hiding places or prison-like ghettos (and later, labor, detention, or concentration camps).

The reports are heartbreaking and heartbreaking. Conscientious writers try so hard to keep hope and keep faith.

Someone says: “Even in the darkest moment, there is something that can lift you up, make you smile. Even in the darkest moment, there is beauty, peace, connection, liberation.” But another wonders, “If there is a God, would He allow people to treat other people like this?”

The last time I visited Anne Frank’s house, years ago, the information display downstairs from the attic annex where she was one of the eight people who hid for 2+ years featured newspaper articles from around the world questioning her truth of her story, debunking her diary, denying the entire Holocaust. (There is now a full museum).

As if all the photos and newsreels and archival documentation—not to mention the ever-dwindling population of survivors—don’t give the lie to all this hateful denial, this new series of first-person accounts offers additional evidence of that reality. of the time — and it eerily mirrors our own, with fascism and anti-Semitism on the rise at home and abroad.

At the show I expected to meet five young people and hear their stories one by one. Beck’s original idea was to recruit five different writing teams to use the words from the diaries for a song cycle.

When he approached Tony Award-winner Robert L. Freedman (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which had its world premiere at The Old Globe in 2013) to write the book for the 100-minute musical, the piece was supposed to be different. form.

Freedman created dialogue from the diaries and put the teenagers together (although they were in different countries and ranged in age from 12 to 18). He had them sing and interact as a group, interspersing their songs and thoughts since there was so much in common.

This makes it a bit more difficult to keep the characters and stories straight, especially since the ten talented performers take on multiple roles (perhaps a fixed costume element for each actor playing one of the five main diarists would help).

Also, since the tales start to sound similar after a while, it needs to be cut. There were at least four or five musical moments that could have easily marked the end of the show — but then it went on.

The performances — especially by the group’s two Equity actors — San Diego actor/director and Broadway/film performer Austyn Myers as the Lithuanian Yitskhok Rudashewski, with songs by Matt Gould (who co-wrote the pre-Broadway La Jolla Playhouse musical, “Lempicka”), and Yale graduate Camille Umoff as Poland’s Renia Spiegel, with heartfelt songs by Anna K. Jacobs.

Afra Sofia Tulley, who has Off Broadway and regional credits, also stands out as Romanian-born 13-year-old Éva Heyman, singing songs by Carmel Dean (music) and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics).

Kai Justice Rosales, who just received his BFA in musical theater from Cal State Fullerton, stars as Dutch-born Moshe Ze’ev Flinker, whose songs were written by Adam Gwon.

Beck was more occupied with the diary of 12-year-old Dawid Rubinowicz (played by Giovanny Diaz de Leon, a recent graduate of San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts). Beck felt a personal connection to Dawid’s story, so in collaboration with composer Gwon, he wrote the lyrics. Gwon also wrote the show’s title song, “We Will Be Witnesses”.

Most of the songs are ballads or hymns. some are a bit optimistic. Gwon’s haunting number, “What Will You Do?”, reminiscent of the “Cabaret” song, “What Would You Do?”, is pointedly aimed at the audience.

Deft musical direction is by Gerald Sternbach, and there is an (unseen) but skilled 7-piece orchestra conducted by Lisa LeMay.

J. Scott Lapp directs with creativity and sensitivity, accompanied by Los Angeles choreographer Natalie Iscovich, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. In the dance pieces, too, there are shades of other Broadway musicals.

Matthew Herman’s set is a character and a wonder in itself. An austere and commanding composition of grays and browns, wood and stone, it features raised walls (into which are cast evocative projections, by Andrew Nagy), a door frame that rises/falls, two trapdoor openings in the floor, a record player and a hanging bookshelf , including calendars. It’s a stunning creation of technical wizardry, beautifully enhanced by Zach Blane’s lighting and Jon Fredette’s sound.

This is not a history lesson, but a sometimes painful reminder of what happened — and what could easily happen again.

We can’t turn our backs. We cannot ignore rising fascism or the abolition of rights and freedoms. Or senseless, wanton killing of innocents.

Are we all witnesses? we cannot look away. Not then. Not now. Not “there”. Not exactly here. Never.

Everyone, young and old, should see this show.


  • “Witnesses” will run until July 30 at California Center for the Arts, Escondidoat 340 N. Escondido Ave.
  • Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
  • Tickets ($35-$75) are available at 800-988-4253 or online at artcenter.org/education/ccae-theatricals
  • Performance duration: 100 minutes. (no break)
  • COVID Protocol: Vaccination proofs and masks are no longer required. Masks are required, but very few people covered themselves voluntarily.

Pat Launer, member of the American Association of Theater Critics, is a longtime San Diego arts writer and Emmy-winning theater critic. You can find an archive of her previews and reviews at patlawner.com.

Teens’ Holocaust Diaries Express Hope Amid Unforgettable Horror in ‘Witnesses’ Source link Teens’ Holocaust Diaries Express Hope Amid Unforgettable Horror in ‘Witnesses’

Related Articles

Back to top button