JOLIET – Terrifying.
That’s Natalie Schoeneck’s impression of the Holocaust after rehearsing the role of a teen girl who survived it.
Schoeneck, 13, of Morris, will help present, “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank,” about the experience of young teenagers during World War II, during Sunday’s Holocaust remembrance program at Joliet Jewish Congregation.
The synagogue’s rabbi – Charles Rubovits – has actually met Eva Geiringer Schloss, the drama’s main character and stepsister to Anne Frank. He called Schloss “a very interesting and intelligent woman.”
“When she tells the story as you sit around the dinner table, it makes the hair on the back of your neck rise,” Rubovits said. “The stuff that happens in the play is fairly benign compared to what she experienced.”
Similarly, Schoeneck’s previous acting experience also is benign by comparison. A previous ensemble member of three Coal City Middle School musicals (“Annie, “The Little Mermaid” and “High School Musical”), Schoeneck is now pretending, as Eva, that Nazis are interrogating her while “her mother” is held captive.
“I’m glad we don’t have anything like that today,” Schoeneck said.
Rubovits disagrees with the notion that Holocaust remembrances are for adults. By engaging some of the synagogue’s children in this year’s event, Rubovits hopes to “put a youthful face on it.”
“Children were affected, too,” Rubovits said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to sit with your mother behind a fake wall in the bathroom and hear the Nazis clumping up the stairs looking for you. I’d be frightened out of my trousers.”
The play, Rubovits said, recounts one story, after the liberation, of a starving mother and daughter stumbling upon a dead horse and quickly deciding to cook it. It’s not easy being Jewish, Rubovits said, and youth need to know life isn’t always “nice.”
“What do you do to survive?” Rubovits said. “You grab a knife and go to work.”
Rubovits occasionally challenges teens to spend 24 hours in complete and isolated silence with only a book for company: no phone, no iPad, no computer, no electric lights and no bathroom (except for a chamber pot) until the “sun goes down.”
“If anyone in your family hears you,” Rubovits said, “you lose.”
Yet, Rubovits praised teen idealism and resiliency, the very traits that allowed them to emerge from concentration camps less scathed than their “stodgy” adult counterparts.
“Young people look for that wonderful life,” Rubovits said, “And the fun and enjoyment that’s coming.”
Mac Vanoudt, 13, of Morris, whose drama performance was limited to one grade school play about rain forests, plays Eva’s 16-year-old brother Heinz, who goes into hiding with his father, Pappy, and then is captured and questioned.
Recreating Heinz has given Vanoudt a broad and personalized view of the Holocaust. One isn’t simply reading about the horrors, he said, but witnessing and hearing the accounts.
“You get to see how they felt and what they had to experience, not just in the concentration camps but going to the concentration camps in cattle cars,” Vanoudt said. “They had a loaf of bread and a bucket of water and a bucket for a bathroom. How these people survived, wow.”
If You Go
What: Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance)
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, April 27
Where: Joliet Jewish Congregation, 250 N. Midland Ave., Joliet
Etc: Historical readings, the presentation of “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank,” by the confirmation class and the “Mourners Kaddish,” a memorial prayer the deceased.