Hester Kamin is the Director of Education at Gulfshore Playhouse.
It’s a December night in 2016, and I’m driving to Temple Shalom to hear Amy Snyder, Executive Director of the Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida, speak. Normally, there would be services at the temple that night, but there has been a rash of anti-Semitic incidents in Naples. Swastikas were painted on school walls. There were whispers about “Kick a Jew Day.” And that week, the synagogue sign was shot out. Rabbi Adam Miller has invited the entire region to attend a Shabbat for Solidarity to discuss how to actively create peace in our community.
Traffic is at a standstill. I text Amy that I’m going to be late. No response. As traffic slowly creeps forward, I see flashing lights in the distance, and my heart begins to race. Has the synagogue been attacked? What’s going on? I text Amy again. No response.
I am imagining a bomb. I am imagining a mass shooting. My knuckles are white on the steering wheel.
But once I approach the synagogue, I see that the flashing lights come from police cars and that policemen are calmly directing traffic. As I continue along the dark road, I see a dreamlike and astonishing sight: hundreds of men, women, and children of all shapes, colors, and sizes walking towards me down the highway. There are young fathers carrying babies, elderly ladies slowly moving forward with walkers, women with crimson bindis, men with turbans. Everyone has ditched their cars in the grass median and along the side of the road, and I do the same thing. I hear guitar music and singing in the distance. I say to people walking near me, “Is everyone going to the Shabbat for Solidarity?” They say, “Yes!” Someone shouts, “Love wins!” And we all begin to shout that out, climbing the hill past the police cars, past the shattered sign.
I squeeze in the door and lean against the wall. Children in bright dresses run through the crowd. There are men in yarmulkes, women in long dresses, teenagers in shorts and t-shirts. Leaders who represent all religions from throughout Florida stand and speak. How do we take action to create peace?
Several months before, I’d received a call from Amy. Could Gulfshore Playhouse somehow collaborate with The Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida? We met several times, talking over ideas. I watched Amy lead programs with elementary school students. I toured the museum and heard the heartbreaking stories. No matter how many times I saw the images, I was still undone. The topic of Amy’s speech is this: We are all asked what we want to be, but what about who we want to be?
The final speaker is Reverend Dr. Kathy Kircher. She tells a story about the first time she had a sense of responsibility for others: in sixth grade, when she became a member of her school’s Safety Patrol and helped people get safely across the street. She says that years later, she was on a bus in Israel, and the cross she wears around her neck came out from her turtleneck sweater. A man confronted her, and her friend stepped between them.
Dr. Kircher said, “My friend was on safety patrol. And here, tonight, in Naples, I am putting you all on safety patrol.”
The religious leaders stand together at the front of the synagogue with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They ask us to join them as they sing “Imagine.” We all stand and sing. Imagine all the people sharing all the world.
We often ask ourselves: what can art do? Entertain us, yes. Bring us joy. But also enlighten us. Also, make us think. Hopefully, also, illuminate us. Guide us.
Theatre, in its simplest and most complex forms, is always about telling stories. What makes it different than any other art form is that it creates a safe space that allows us to talk about difficult issues within the framework of what we have just seen.
The youngest Holocaust survivors are now in their eighties. We want them to live forever, but many of them are already gone. As I watch leaders from every religion stand together, I know that it is our responsibility to tell their stories. The telling may be – will be – imperfect. But the time is now.
Amy has suggested that we create a play about survivor Sabine Van Dam, who was only four years old when World War II began. Sabine and her parents and sister fled their home in the Netherlands in 1942 and lived in a series of abandoned houses in Belgium before they were caught and captured. Sabine and her sister survived, and Sabine now tells her story throughout the region.
I expect to meet a frail woman, but Sabine looks like Sophia Loren: she is in a dress, stilettos, and lipstick. I travel to the Fort Myers Beach Library to hear her speak, and I have the opportunity to interview her myself. For days and weeks and months, I cannot stop thinking about Sabine’s courage and grace.
I am afraid to write about a real person and about the Holocaust. But I know that telling Sabine’s story is so important and that discussing these issues is so important that action has to override fear. As an arts educator, I work with children and teenagers almost every day. They ask big questions. They want to talk. They want to better understand the world. They care.
Sabine became a flight attendant. I called her story In Flight, to represent the family’s story of fleeing across Europe and also as a tribute to her courage.
The four actors of In Flight play every role: not only Sabine’s family, but also a Nazi collaborator, an SS soldier, an orphanage attendant. They are often shaken by the material. On Saturday, we visited The Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida and they saw photos of the real people that they will be portraying.
Today, I told part of the story to a class of eighth graders who will see the performance next week. They asked question after question.
I hope that the young people who see In Flight will not only ask questions, but also identify ways that they can make a difference. I hope that we will talk about concrete ways to address issues in their schools and in their communities. I hope that as well as being touched by the play, they will be inspired to take action to make their corner of the world a better place. We are all on safety patrol.