Here’s a challenge for you: name one personal account of the Holocaust written by a woman.
Odds are you said “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Now, name another.
The fact that you, I and most people in the Seattle area only know of one such literary work is why Laura Ferri wrote “The Ruins of Memory: Women’s Voices of the Holocaust.” Her performance company, Tales of the Alchemysts Theatre, debuted the play as their first fully staged performance piece on Oct. 22.
Based on oral histories, short stories and poetry, “The Ruins of Memory” recounts the experiences of Jewish women from Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities throughout Europe who lived through the Holocaust, in their own words. The script has a structure akin to the “Book-It” style of playwriting; the dialogue and narrative descriptions are articulated by the characters as the action unfolds on stage. This can be difficult to pull off, but Ferri’s translation from personal account to stage is deft. As a founding member of Book-It Repertory Theatre, she adapted and directed several works for the company, and her facility with the form is evident.
The staging is minimalist, the better to highlight the words of the characters as they recount their memories. The set consists of five simple chairs and two large, empty frames made of unpainted wood. The frames are wheeled around the stage by a cast of five actors to suggest rooms, gardens, ghetto enclosures and the barbed wire fence of a concentration camp. The chairs are deployed for their predictable purpose, as well as pushed together to form beds and benches, shaped into a horse-drawn wagon and carried as luggage and other cumbersome burdens. Underscoring the action are subtle but highly effective sound effects: shattering glass, the far-off whistle of a train, relentlessly marching feet, gun shots and the increasingly tense ticking of a clock.
Ferri, who also directed the play, compiled a variety of written and recorded materials to create the script, including letters and oral histories by Jewish women who lived in Germany, the Island of Rhodes, Morocco and Hungary in the 1930s and 1940s; short stories by Polish-born author Ida Fink; and the accounts of French writers and Auschwitz survivors Marceline Loridan-Ivens and Charlotte Delbo.
“I wanted to show the scope of the Holocaust across Europe — not just Germany, not just Poland,” Ferri explained. “I especially wanted to include the Sephardic community because they are often forgotten [as victims of the Holocaust].”
The scope of the Holocaust is further suggested by the diversity of the languages employed by the performers. Mingled with English are Polish, Ladino, French, Dutch, German, Yiddish and Italian, which appear in the dialogue as well as in the traditional songs that punctuate the play, accompanied by a pair of musicians.
Coaching the cast to both speak and sing in half a dozen languages was challenging. Getting permission to use the source materials upon which the text is based was even more difficult.
“That was unbelievably complicated,” Ferri said. “I was able to obtain permission for every piece that I wanted to include — it just took quite a long time. In some cases, [Tales of the Alchemysts Theatre member] Carl Shutoff had to write multiple letters in French. Other times, I had to track down the writer’s descendants by googling obituaries and other online sources. When I was able to contact an author’s family directly, the response was usually very emotional. They were very touched that we wanted to tell their [relative’s] story.”
“The Ruins of Memory” was originally slated to premiere in 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. However, the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing shutdowns put the brakes on that plan. Instead, it opened two years later, on Oct. 22, 2022, at Vashon Center for the Arts on Vashon Island. A month-long tour of venues around the Sound area followed, including a Nov. 13 performance at Seattle’s Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, a Sephardic synagogue founded in the early 20th century by immigrants from the Island of Rhodes. The production closed at Taproot Theatre on Nov. 20.
In late October, “The Ruins of Memory” was presented to an audience of academics at Pacific Lutheran University’s 14th Annual Powell-Heller Conference for Holocaust Education. The crowd was filled with experts on the Holocaust who tend to approach the subject from a detached, analytic point of view, but Ferri said that the play affected them on a different level.
“They were so moved because they forgot how emotional this material is,” she said.
Other performances at libraries in Federal Way, Renton, Burien and Mercer Island weren’t attended by experts or even many Jewish people. Those who came to see the play told Ferri that they didn’t know a lot about the Holocaust but that they were seeking to learn more, and after the final curtain they asked many questions.
At the Nov. 13 performance at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, the audience was largely Jewish and quite knowledgeable about the Holocaust, sometimes from a firsthand perspective. Among the attendees was Regina Amira, younger sister of Claire Barchi, whose letters to her family were featured in the play. Amira immigrated to Seattle with her family in 1946 when she was 14 years old. After the performance, she expressed how impressed she was by the production, as well as the actors’ portrayals of her sister, mother and father.
Another audience member stated, “I just hope this can be performed for Holocaust deniers.” She added that she came to the show with tempered expectations.
“I was thinking it would be interesting. I didn’t know it would be devastating,” she said.
As for Ferri, she hopes the text of “The Ruins of Memory” will still be available 100 years from now as another way of preserving female-centric Holocaust histories. If so, maybe future generations will be able to name the stories of Claire Barchi, Etty Hillesum, Friedel Heilbronner and Isabella Leitner in addition to “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
For more information about Tales of the Alchemysts Theatre, visit alchemysts.org.
Read more of the Nov. 23-29, 2022 issue.