An interactive stage production, now touring Europe, conveys the stories of seven Holocaust survivors, who are all living in Israel. The play uses drama, but also photographs and artefacts to say: "Keep Me in Mind."
"Toi Toi Toi." The seven storytellers are wished good luck. The audience is ushered in.
Aside from the historically-poignant location - the former assembly hall of Berlin's Neue Synagoge (pictured above) with its Moorish-designed golden domed roof - the scene is sparse. Seated at a table opposite three members of the audience, the storyteller or "messenger" introduces the author - a Holocaust survivor.
Entitled "Keep Me in Mind," the performance retells the lives of Benjamin Ginzburg, Miriam Kremin, Josef Künstlich, Ester Liber, Leakadia Szlak, Siegfried Teller, and Sara Zamir.
Now in their 80s and 90s and living in Haifa, the seven survivors of the Holocaust (also known as Shoah in Hebrew) have documented their lives through handwritten drawings and writings. Treasured photographs of family holidays as well as small random objects complement these life pictures.
Christina Friedrich and Michael Brauchli took on the challenge of keeping the survivors' stories alive
"The drawings are like letters or scripts or maps; they need to be translated," says Michael Brauchli, one-half of the artistic team behind the scenes. "We try to create a moment with a person that hopefully creates a lasting memory. You get involved, you get touched."
Passing it on
At the close of each performance, the messengers - all of whom are volunteers -invite the audience to take home copies of the stories to share with others.
Seventh-grader Kazimierz Schorlemmer missed his last lesson of school to attend the Berlin sessions.
He listened intently as he heard one survivor’s continuing heartache and overwhelming guilt to have survived, while her younger brother did not. Like thousands of others, her mother and 12-year-old brother were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
"I think it's very important. You need to pass it on to other people," says Kazimierz, himself 12 years old.
Family photos from the survivors' lives after the Holocaust are part of the production; this one portrays Miriam Kremin's sons with a camel in Israel
Miriam Kremin was 16 when she fled a Jewish ghetto in what is now Ukraine. Her parents had already been shot dead, and she ran for three years before finding safety.
It was Kremin’s fears that after her death no one would believe her story that inspired German theater director Christina Friedrich, who co-devised the concept.
"This sentence struck my heart. I thought about how I can keep her story alive," says the Berlin-based author and director.
Carrying a suitcase full of pens and paper, Friedrich visited Kremin in Haifa, where the 91-year-old still lives with other Shoah survivors in a care facility for the elderly.
Two years later a group, the "Keep Me in Mind" organizers had gathered seven survivors - six from the care center in Haifa - who were ready to share their stories.
"It was really hard and heavy work," says Friedrich, who grew up near Nordhausen, where the Nazis had built the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. "It's like a mine to dig up all of these spaces and rooms that are connected with death, with panic, with blood, with guilt."
'Open our minds'
Funded by the German Cultural Foundation, the stage project premiered in Berlin and is currently traveling across Europe, visiting the birthplace and survival journeys of the seven survivors.
Jens-Christian Wagner, head of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, calls the project's approach "innovative," and says the result is profoundly moving.
"Here these testimonies are shared with others by messengers who not only tell the stories but also pass on their photographs and drawings," commented Wagner.
Friedrich says the project doesn't just recall the past, but is designed to "open our senses, to open our minds to people who are in life-threatening situations.
"It's up to everyone to build a connection and a bridge in his mind from Miriam to Syria or from Josef to Africa," she added. "You need just empathy, nothing more."
"Keep Me in Mind" is free and is slated to run for one week in Vilnius in October and Brussels this coming winter. It will visit Warsaw, Venice, Marseille, London, and Berlin next year.