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A Ballet Evokes the Holocaust Through the Eyes of a Child

State of the Arts


Published April 11, 2012 at 10:34 a.m.

As the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, Marion Hecht has always known that sometimes the most frightening things are those that go unsaid.

Hecht’s Hungarian mother and Czech father rarely talked about World War II when she was growing up. Their silence haunted Hecht, who as a child knew enough about the Holocaust to imagine the worst. “Nothing that happened to me could ever be as bad as what they didn’t talk about,” she says. “I remember coming to terms with having to ask my mother if she ever killed anybody.”

As an adult, Hecht, a former board member of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe, became active in the international community for the children of Holocaust survivors known as the “Second Generation.” It was increasingly important to her to keep the conversation about the Holocaust alive — and not just within the Jewish community.

That’s why last year she approached the Greater Stowe Interfaith Coalition about including a Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust remembrance day, in its programming. This year’s event at the Akeley Memorial Building features the New England Dance Ensemble’s original ballet A Child’s View of the Holocaust.

Barbara Mullen, artistic director of the New Hampshire-based ensemble and owner of Londonderry Dance Academy, choreographed the work in 1990 at the suggestion of a local rabbi. Her dancers have performed it on tour every year since. Hundreds of audiences around the country have seen the show, which last year won Keene State College’s Charles Hildebrandt Holocaust Studies Award.

In creating the work, Mullen saw an opportunity to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. “History keeps repeating itself,” she says. “We still haven’t got the message yet.”

Born in Wales in 1945, Mullen has vivid memories of the aftermath of World War II. Food was still rationed, and she played hide-and-seek in air-raid shelters. “I had friends whose fathers maybe only had one eye, or they shook because they had been near a bomb,” she says.

With A Child’s View, Mullen brings that era back to life onstage.

But how do you dance about the Holocaust? It’s more of a “silent dramatization” than a traditional ballet, Mullen explains. “There’s no vocalization, just beautiful movement,” she says. “What draws you into it are the expressions on the [dancers’] faces.”

In gesture and movement, the dancers, whose ages range from 7 to 18, enact a book burning and a Gestapo roundup. They board a train to a concentration camp and enter the gas chambers.

For the youngest dancers, this is the first they’ve heard of the Holocaust. “They are so wide-eyed, they just cannot believe that something like this would happen,” says Mullen. She has found herself explaining to them why someone would want to burn a book. She makes comparisons kids can understand, such as calling Hitler “a bully.”

The older, taller dancers play the Gestapo. Mullen says she’s amazed every year at their ability to embody the soldiers. “Their stone-face expressions are so chilling,” she says. “They’re doing this with their friends that they have lunch with at school, and yet they’re willing to throw them into the gas chambers.”

It’s heavy stuff for kids, to be sure. The show even includes a rape scene — soldiers do handstands over a writhing woman. Mullen says it’s subtle enough that young children don’t understand what’s going on.

The music is classical and contemporary — the show ends with Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” — and candles are the only props. Dancers use their bodies to create set pieces. “The soldiers make themselves into the train,” says Mullen. “The people are on the train, gently moving from side to side.”

After more than two decades touring the performance, Mullen still cries every time she sees it.

“It’s amazing because, as a teacher and choreographer, I’ve changed so much in 20 years,” she says. “I’ve never changed this ballet. Not a step.”

A Child’s View of the Holocaust, performed by the New England Dance Ensemble, Sunday, April 15, 4 p.m., at Akeley Memorial Building in Stowe. Free. Info, 253-1800. jcogs.org