Not just good at heart

Beginning writers are constantly being reminded that the soul of their craft lies in the second draft (or as the admonition is usually firmly worded: “revise, revise, revise”).

But Anne Frank — who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp weeks before liberation — never had the luxury of revisiting her text, leaving generations of readers to wring meaning and insight from her unbridled 13-year-old musings.

There are hints of how 50-plus years of reflection might have shaped Frank’s understanding of the Holocaust embedded in And Then They Came For Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank, being staged this weekend at Diana Wortham Theatre. The multi-media production (including seven sold-out school shows and one public performance) focuses on the stories of two survivors, one of whom grew up in Frank’s apartment building and later became her step-sister.

Eva Geiringer Schloss’ experience closely paralleled Frank’s, although the two were not friends. Geiringer and Frank were the same age, and both went into hiding on the same day. Like the Franks, the Geiringers were ultimately betrayed to the authorities and sent to concentration camps. Geiringer and her mother survived, as did Frank’s father Otto. He later married Geiringer’s mother, who had been shielded from death by her cousin Minnie.

And it is that long branch of the Frank family tree which dips into Buncombe County, now home to Minnie’s son Peter Reiser.

“This is partly my mother’s story,” says Reiser, 82, who lives in Arden. “She saved Eva and her mother.”

As a nurse working under Joseph Mengele, whose genocidal sadism earned him the name “Dr. Death,” Minnie Reiser was able to protect the Geiringers. For years, Reiser says, none of his relatives spoke much about the Holocaust. Eva Geiringer Schloss has said she was ready to talk, but no one was ready to listen.

“People wanted to move on,” Schloss told The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California last year. “Some survivors suppressed it, and for 30 years they couldn’t talk about it. Then in the ’70s and ’80s people really wanted to know. It was a relief.”

Schloss responded by publishing her life story, which attracted the attention of playwright James Still. He spent two years collecting the words and images which would dramatize the personal terrors of Schloss and her wartime neighbor Ed Silverberg, who under the alias “Hello” appears in Frank’s diary as her first boyfriend.

“The original was the story of Anne Frank,” Reiser says, referring to the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by It’s a Wonderful Life writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, which has been performed everywhere from synagogue basements to the Broadway stage.

“Anne Frank is really not a character in this play,” explains Reiser. “It is the story of the camps.”

Works of art which wend their way into the American canon seem to have a static pull on controversy, and Frank’s writing is no exception. Her diary — heavily edited by Otto Frank — is permanently branded on most secondary schools’ required-reading lists, and is said to be the most-read secular book in the world.

But detractors in recent years have attacked the expurgated diary as inexcusably hagiographic, rendering Frank as a universal paragon of goodness at the expense of stressing the particular horrors of the Holocaust.

And Then They Came For Me steers clear of these scholarly duels by relegating Frank and her belief that “people are truly good at heart” — an endlessly repeated quote that pains readers searching for nuance — to a supporting role. Reiser said the show’s mix of newsreel footage, videotaped testimonies and live stage action centering on Schloss and Silverberg always stimulates provocative questions from the mostly student audience.

“They all ask about the gas chambers, the camps, why it happened,” says Reiser, a noted Holocaust lecturer who will share his recollections following the Feb. 12 performance. “But the general trend is always questions about survival.”

More than 3,000 students from six area counties will attend the school shows. Deborah Miles, director of the Center for Diversity Education, notes that the theater’s aura enhances the experience for many students who have never before seen a professional play.

“If you’re used to going to the movies and throwing popcorn at the screen, and nobody hollers at you, this is different,” Miles says. “The intimacy of the theater — as opposed to video — changes the realness of how something feels.”

Reiser points out that while many students have already studied the Holocaust in school, the play illustrates the point Otto Frank always stressed:

“This is a very good lesson in how mankind should behave and so often [doesn’t].”

[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]

The Center for Diversity Education and Highland Repertory Theatre present And Then They Came For Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank at Diana Wortham Theatre Saturday, Feb. 12 at 1 p.m. Tickets cost $10/adults, $8/seniors and students, $5/children under 12. The show is not recommended for children under 10. Limited student-rush tickets ($5) are available the day of the show. 257-4530.


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