Voices of the Holocaust, a new theatre and education company, performed its latest show Fragile Fire at the Library Theatre in Sheffield on 4th December.
Fragile Fire tells the story of Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the chief figures of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who kept the invading Nazis at bay for a month in 1943.
The group is touring with Sheffield resident Shonaleigh, who is thought to be the only remaining Drut’syla in the world, a traditional Yiddish storyteller. The play is paired with one of Shonaleigh’s stories, The Fool of the Warsaw Ghetto, which was created by her grandmother in Auschwitz.
Her grandmother survived the death camp and came to live with Shonaleigh in Britain, where she began to teach her the tradition from the age of four. Shonaleigh holds around 4,500 stories in her head, and now travels around the world telling. She is also Associate Lecturer in Storytelling at the University of Derby.
Shonaleigh said: “It is a huge reportoire of folktales, wonder tales, legends, myths, traditionally passed down from the grandmother to the granddaughter. It worked within a community, you told these stories, they promoted debate and enlightenment.”
A Drut’syla would historically be embedded within a small Jewish community, but their numbers began to diminish after the first world war, and they barely existed following the second.
“The first people into the gas chambers were the old people and the children so it pretty much wiped out the tradition.”
Shonaleigh is working with three universities to record her stories, and is beginning to teach them to her 16-year-old son.
Voices of the Holocaust was formed on Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this year, and is the only specialist group of its type in the country, teaching the Holocaust through theatre and performance.
Cate Hibbert, Voices of the Holocaust’s founder and creative director said: “What we do is create historically accurate narratives by using theatre in the most beautiful and stunning visual and aural styles you can imagine.”
Although Cate is passionate about theatre, she believes there is a fundamental problem with the way the Holocaust is being taught to children, and wants to take Voices into schools.
“We’ve only existed for a few months and we’ve had to work flat out as volunteers. We had to set this up from nothing. People didn’t really see that there was a need but there is a need and it’s massive.
“For 70 years the Jews have been represented as a people who went like lambs to the slaughter, that they didn’t fight back or resist. Well that’s not true.”
Although still in its infancy, Voices has been winning support from politicians, and attended an event in parliament earlier this year. Local MPs in its performing cities attend the shows and have been moved by what they have seen.
Iain Stewart, MP for Milton Keynes South, where Voices have their headquarters, said: “I think that the work of Voices of the Holocaust is a very effective way of bringing the reality of the Holocaust into the curriculum for students.
“As time goes on fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust will be left to tell their stories firsthand. These need to be kept alive to remind, and educate, future generations about the possible consequences of intolerance.”
Fragile Fire is touring theatres across the country. More information about the show can be found at http://www.voicesoftheholocaust.co.uk/.