Here is a challenge for you: name a personal account of the Holocaust written by a woman.
Chances are you said “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Now name another.
The fact that you, I, and most people in the Seattle area know of only one such literary work is why Laura Ferri wrote “The Ruins of Memory: Women’s Voices on the Holocaust”. His show company, Theater of the alchemists’ taleslaunched the play as its first fully staged performance piece on October 22.
Based on oral histories, short stories and poetry, “The Ruins of Memory” chronicles the experiences of Jewish women from Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities across Europe who experienced the Holocaust, in their own words. The script has a structure similar to the “Book-It” playwriting style; the dialogues and narrative descriptions are articulated by the characters as the action unfolds on stage. It can be tricky to pull off, but Ferri’s translation from personal narrative to stage is deft. As a founding member of Book-It Repertory Theatre, she has adapted and directed several works for the company, and her ease with the form is evident.
The staging is minimalist, to better highlight the words of the characters who tell their memories. The set consists of five simple chairs and two large empty frames in unpainted wood. Frames are rolled around the stage by a cast of five actors to suggest bedrooms, gardens, ghetto compounds and the barbed wire fence of a concentration camp. Chairs are spread out for their predictable purpose, as well as pushed together to form beds and benches, fashioned into a horse-drawn wagon, and carried as luggage and other bulky loads. Subtle but very effective sound effects highlight the action: shards of glass, the distant whistle of a train, incessant footsteps, gunshots 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 screenplay, including letters and oral histories from 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 extent of the Holocaust across Europe – not just in Germany, not just in Poland,” Ferri explained. “I especially wanted to include the Sephardic community because it is often forgotten [as victims of the Holocaust].”
The significance of the Holocaust is further suggested by the diversity of languages used by interpreters. Polish, Ladino, French, Dutch, German, Yiddish and Italian are mixed with English, which appear in the dialogues as well as in the traditional songs that punctuate the play, accompanied by a duet of musicians.
Training the actors to speak and sing in half a dozen languages was a challenge. Obtaining permission to use the source documents on which the text is based was even more difficult.
“It was incredibly complicated,” Ferri said. “I was able to get permission for every piece I wanted to include – it just took a long time. In some cases, [Tales of the Alchemysts Theatre member] Carl Shutoff must have written several 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 Nazi death camps. However, the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing shutdowns put a damper on that plan. Instead, it opened two years later, on October 22, 2022, at the Vashon Center for the Arts on Vashon Island. A month-long tour of Sound region venues followed, including a November 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 wrapped at the Taproot Theater on November 20.
In late October, “The Ruins of Memory” was presented to an academic audience at Pacific Lutheran University’s 14th Annual Powell-Heller Lecture for Holocaust Education. The crowd was filled with Holocaust experts who tend to approach the subject from an analytical and detached perspective, but Ferri said the play touched them on a different level.
“They were so moved because they forgot how emotional this material is,” she said.
Other depictions in the Federal Way, Renton, Burien, and Mercer Island libraries were not followed by experts or even by many Jews. Those who came to see the play told Ferri that they didn’t know much about the Holocaust but wanted to know more, and after the final curtain they asked lots of questions.
At the November 13 performance at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, the audience was largely Jewish and knowledgeable about the Holocaust, sometimes from a first-hand perspective. Among the attendees was Regina Amira, the younger sister of Claire Barchi, whose letters to her family 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 with the production, as well as the cast’s portrayals of her sister, mother, and father.
Another audience member said, “I just hope it can be played for Holocaust deniers.” She added that she came to the show with tempered expectations.
“I thought it would be interesting. I had no idea 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 to preserve women-centered Holocaust stories. If so, perhaps future generations can name the stories of Claire Barchi, Etty Hillesum, Friedel Heilbronner, and Isabella Leitner in addition to “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
For more information on the Tales of the Alchemysts theater, visit alchemysts.org.