Show Me the Shoah
Karen Hafter is a cast member in Skidmore's Who Will Carry the Word, which is running October 21-23 and 27-30th in the JKB Theater.
Who Will Carry the Word, written by Charlotte Delbo, is based on the stories of 23 female French Nationalists who were imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkinau during WWII. Their stories are beautiful and devastating, but I had major reservations when auditioning for the show because none of the women are typical victims of the Holocaust. None of the 23 French Nationalists were Jewish, Romani, Slavic, or a person with disabilities. The most common victims of the Holocaust are not even mentioned within the script, with the sole exception of a single mention of the word “Polish.” How can you tell the story of the Shoah without telling the story of those peoples? Initially, I firmly believed that you could not. I felt as though the story would be whitewashed, religion-washed, ability-washed, and would be inaccurate because of the stories it ignored. Thankfully, I was proven wrong.
The cast of Who Will Carry the Word started rehearsal, as most productions do, with a read through of the script. This process introduces the material and characters to the actors in a low-pressure environment where initial discoveries can be made . My initial discovery was that the words, read by women who had never seen them before, could break my heart and reduce me to tears in a matter of minutes, but just because the play could make me cry did not mean the story it told was entirely valid.
As we moved further into the rehearsal process, we read parts of Charlotte Delbo’s writing, pieces that described her story of survival and her journey to freedom. It should be mentioned that the cast is made up entirely of women, as is our acting management, with the exception of our male assistant director. Just as Charlotte supported herself with her fellow Nationalists, so did we with each other. Who Will Carry the Word is a difficult show about a personally painful topic, one that I could not have made it through without the kindness and compassion of my cast-mates. Together, sitting on the floor of the stage, we read through the most difficult part of Charlotte’s life, explained in graphic, all too vivid detail. She was starved, beaten, demoralized, forced to watch her friends-turned-family waste away and die in a lifeless landscape which held no hope for a future other than miserable death.
Amidst all this suffering, Charlotte could still admit that there were others who had it much, much worse. There is a reason the most common victims of the Holocaust are not mentioned in this play: the French Nationalists were kept away from the “inhuman” people who were treated as if they were already dead. Charlotte could not tell the story of people she never knew, she was never allowed to know. She was not ignoring them; she was respecting them by not misrepresenting their story. The only life she knew was her own and those of her comrades.
I have spent two months pretending to die on a stage, acting out stories that I should have no right to tell, but am granted the honor of representing. I watch women I have grown to love paint their faces with masks of death, clothe themselves in tattered dresses, de-individualize themselves entirely, and get on stage and die.
I was wrong. Who Will Carry the Word may not tell the stories of the most commonly annihilated people, but it tells a story that must be heard, especially in a time like this, where there are those who would deny the very existence of the Holocaust or even call for a new one. Charlotte Delbo crafted a story of women who stand when all they are told to do is fall, and who believe in their cause, each other and the future. This is a story of women who die, but live on in every line of the script. We as actors have taken on the duty of carrying each woman’s story because to forget them would be to forget each victim of the Shoah. The French Nationalist story may not be the same as the Jewish, Slavic, Romani, or disabled, but it is a story that holds great value in the eyes of history.