Most say they knew what the Holocaust was, of course, and what led to it. Some had read books on the subject in school. A few had noticed parallels in current events.

Even so, none expected the bomb threat.

For many of the young performers at Northern Starz Children’s Theatre in Ramsey, the last six months have marked their first in-depth study of the Holocaust, when Germany and its collaborators systematically killed 6 million Jews. Next week, these sixth- to 12th-graders will begin performing “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a play about children in the Terezin concentration camp and the comfort they find in a makeshift school.

But what began as a lesson in history, the performers say, has turned into a reflection on their own world. Opening night will take the young actors to Sabes Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park, where a phoned-in bomb threat in January resulted in the center’s evacuation. It was part of a wave of similar threats across the country.

“It’s hard for me to believe this is still happening,” said 14-year-old Grace Hiltner, who plays one of the lead roles. “We’re all people; we’re all different.”

The play’s performance coincides with what observers have described as a noticeable increase in anti-Semitic incidents and attitudes over the past year, especially in recent months.

Just this week, a Jewish student at the University of Minnesota reported finding a swastika and drawing of a concentration camp scrawled in his dorm room. Seven incidents involving neo-Nazi propaganda, swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti have been reported at the U since early December, according to the university’s Bias Response and Referral Network.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Minnesota and the Dakotas has also seen more reported incidents over the past year, said Anthony Sussman, director of communications and community security.

“We find this uptick deeply troubling and concerning,” Sussman said.

The cast at Northern Starz said recent events have come up during rehearsals and during talks at home. Since auditions in August, they have attended educational sessions to prepare for their roles. They’ve watched movies, sampled traditional Jewish foods, heard from the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and talked to Jewish students their age about the prejudices they still face.

Laura Zelle, director of Tolerance Minnesota and Holocaust education at JCRC of Minnesota and the Dakotas, met with the cast about the play’s historical context, including the rise of anti-Semitism and the hatred underpinning the Holocaust.

“I give the whole production staff a really big congratulations for tackling the subject at this time,” Zelle said.

The play marks a departure from the theater’s usual material. “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” is the first nonmusical that the nonprofit has put on, said Rachel Bohnsack, executive director of Northern Starz.

Meeting the playwright and hearing the story behind the play, Bohnsack said, left her and the play’s director, Ben Layne, speechless.

Celeste Raspanti wrote the play in 1966, and it is now performed around the world. Raspanti, 88, still recalls the day decades ago when she came across the book “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” which inspired the play. The slim volume offers a moving collection of children’s drawings and poems preserved from Terezin, a concentration camp outside of Prague where only about 100 of the 15,000 children who were sent there survived the war.

In the back of the book, Raspanti found the name of a survivor, Raja Englanderova.

“It jumped out at me,” said Raspanti, a former nun and college professor living in St. Paul. “I thought, ‘Who is this person?’ ”

Over the years, she befriended Englanderova and centers the play on her experiences.

“I will do anything to keep people thinking about the Holocaust,” Raspanti said.

For months, the cast has thought about the children who lived in Terezin, and they have worked to embody their words and emotions.

History lessons in school came with facts, they said, but the play has inspired empathy. They’ve talked about the recent bomb threat at the community center and about how a new version of Adolf Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf,” became a bestseller in Germany last year. They talked about why anti-Semitic incidents persist.

“There are still people who believe in this stuff,” said 12-year-old Cooper McCalister of Coon Rapids. “There are people who want to forget the Holocaust and that it happened.”

Seventh-grader Gabby Rosen said she can never forget. Her great-grandparents survived the Holocaust, but this is the first time she’s dug into her family history, she said.

Her father, Rob Rosen, said he has researched the places his grandparents were kept during World War II. Though recent events have been troubling, Rosen said he’s proud of how his daughter and the young cast have approached the play.

“It’s great to see them ask questions about Judaism,” said Rosen, who is a board member at Northern Starz.

After being cast, Gabby read Anne Frank’s diary for the first time. She’s told younger friends about the Holocaust.

“I’m Jewish, and this is part of me,” Gabby said. “But there’s something for everybody to learn from it.”

The cast will be performing “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” at several locations in February and March. Tickets and performance dates are available at northernstarz.org.

 

hannah.covington@startribune.com 612-673-4751