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'Grateful for every single day'

Holocaust survivor shares story with young cast of 'Terezin' play

Holocaust survivor Zdenka Fantlova of London visited the play’s cast at the Actors Studio in Newburyport. Holocaust survivor Zdenka Fantlova of London visited the play’s cast at the Actors Studio in Newburyport. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 11, 2011

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NEWBURYPORT - The actors of “Terezin, Children of the Holocaust’’ are mostly teenagers, a few even younger. Until now, they have never met anyone like Zdenka Fantlova. She is 89, but when she was just 18, she became a real child of Terezin. And Auschwitz. And Bergen-Belsen.

“I am a happy person . . . grateful for every single day,’’ she says.

Fantlova told her story in a 2010 book, “The Tin Ring: How I Cheated Death.’’ She goes more often by her married name, Zdenka Ehrlich, and lives in London, writing and speaking all over Europe about her experiences in the Holocaust. In Boston to visit her daughter, she has come to the Actors Studio on this July evening to share her story with the children who are taking the play “Terezin’’ to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe during the first three weeks of August.

Playwright Anna Smulowitz is herself the child of Auschwitz survivors, born in a displaced persons camp just after World War II. “I grew up with the Holocaust as the main story of our lives, because my parents had blue numbers on their arms,’’ she says.

She wrote “Terezin’’ some 40 years ago to honor her parents and many family members who did not survive the camps. Some of her parents’ experiences, even the names of perished aunts and uncles, appear in the play. It has been performed all over the world, including at Terezin and Auschwitz in the mid-1990s.

“When someone sees the history on the stage, teaching someone about the Holocaust is so much different and so much more memorable than using a textbook,’’ says cast member Fedja Celebic, 13, of Newburyport. “I find that people, when they watch theater, they get a connection they can’t get anywhere else.’’

Smulowitz chose the story of the Terezin (or Theresienstadt) camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, because it seemed more likely to be endurable for an audience than the horrors of the death camps. At Terezin, prisoners were allowed to make art - theater and music especially - while they waited, mostly unknowing, to be chosen for the gas chambers.

The Nazis even used the camp to make a propaganda film showing how well they supposedly treated the Jews. Smulowitz’s play tells the story of six children in the camp, mulling their fate as art and brutality coexist around them.

“Terezin was heaven compared to what came after,’’ Fantlova tells the 30 or so children and parents gathered to meet her. “We didn’t know . . . we were dancing under the gallows for two and a half years.’’

She acted in plays and even had a boyfriend until he was selected for one of the early trains “to the east.’’ He gave her a tin ring that she risked everything to keep through all the horrors till liberation, when she was surrounded by the dead and dying, and close to becoming one of them herself.

“Then, everyone was on his own,’’ she says. “What most people are interested in [now] is the art of survival, and there is a secret to it. . . . I was 18, I was young, healthy, I was single, I was in love - and that is a tremendous power. To be in love and to have hope was something that gives you strength.

“It’s actually quite simple. Most people who came in felt like a victim. If you feel like a victim you become one. It takes a lot of energy out of you. You are afraid, you worry about what’s going to happen,’’ she says. “I never felt like a victim. I actually felt as though it has nothing to do with me. I was an observer looking out at the barbed wire, the guards, the dogs. And if you don’t feel like a victim you have a chance.’’

“It makes it more real for us, realizing this is someone’s actual life that we’re portraying,’’ said cast member Allegra Larson, 16, of West Newbury.

In “Terezin,’’ Larson plays a capo, basically a prisoner who takes on a role for the guards in return for favors like extra food. She asked Fantlova what the real capos were like, in hopes of learning something she could use to better her performances.

“That is human nature,’’ Fantlova said. “That kind of experience sorts out people according to what they actually are. . . . There, everybody was naked and everybody behaved according to what he was. In crisis, everybody becomes what he is, and it’s visible.’’

Fantlova spent a long time talking quietly to the youngsters after her talk.

“It just gave me such a vivid picture,’’ said Celebic. “It really made me feel like I was there. When I’ve been performing I knew what it was like, but I never really felt so connected. . . . It’s just so touching how one person’s will to survive can push you forward.’’

“I thought it was amazing, even how I could apply it to my own life,’’ Larson said afterward. “Like you just always have to have hope, and just love, and never take anything for granted.’’

Fantlova seems energized at the end of the evening. She has agreed to record some voice-overs for the Edinburgh production.

A longtime theater teacher in the Newburyport area, Smulowitz has seen many casts come and go. She and Actors Studio founder Marc Clopton direct the current production. The trip to Edinburgh is an unusual opportunity, and Smulowitz hopes the production, with a rotating cast, will get enough attention that the play will be published.

She notes with a chuckle that they’re performing it in the same theater as Alec Baldwin in “Hamlet’’: “It’s so pro! We’re on at 2, he’s at 4!’’

But on this predeparture night, the actors and their families get another perspective entirely.

“This is very important that [this story] is kept alive and not forgotten, because it is a warning that it should never happen again,’’ Fantlova says as the evening winds down.

For the cast, “it gives them also a recipe for how to cope in their life, even if it is silly things or important things, the comparison with an experience like this. It teaches them that life is a struggle, and one can get through.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.