The title of James Still’s harrowing play about the Holocaust has a double significance. On the one hand, it’s a factual statement made by 15-year-old Eva to describe her arrest by the Nazis – an arrest that led to several months in Auschwitz, and the loss of her father and brother. But it also recalls the haunting final line of Martin Niemöller’s well-known poem: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The Holocaust is one of those moments in history that feels almost mythical; we all grow up hearing about it, but it’s so impossible to imagine such brutality that unless you have a personal connection to those events, it doesn’t feel quite real. And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank doesn’t allow us to shrug it off so easily, though – in no small part because the production was personally requested by Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, who approached the director, June Trask, and asked her to take the show on tour around the UK.
Eva herself also appears in the play, which uses a unique combination of video footage and live action to tell her story, along with that of Ed Silverberg (formerly Helmuth ‘Hello’ Silberberg) and their mutual friend, Anne Frank. All three were young teenagers when the persecution of the Jews began, and so we see the nightmare through two sets of eyes: those of the adult Eva and Ed looking back on what happened, and those of the confused children trying to comprehend the terrifying ordeal they’re living through.
The play deals first with the rapid spread of anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution in the early 1940s, and the attempts of Eva, Ed, Anne and their families to find safety in Amsterdam. It then kicks into another gear altogether with a portrayal of the unspeakable horror experienced by Eva and her mother, Anne and so many others in Auschwitz, where human lives were treated as utterly worthless and a split second decision could mean the difference between life and death. The scenes within the camp are sensitively and minimally portrayed, but the outstanding cast – Gemma Reynolds, Leo Graham, Bethan Kate-Tonkin and James Coupland – ensure that we feel every moment of their fear, pain and grief, and are themselves visibly shaken by the performance’s poignantly staged conclusion.
Eva Schloss felt this play needed to be seen by audiences around the UK, not only so that her family’s ordeal can be remembered, but so that we can take steps to ensure it’s never repeated. That’s an easy idea to dismiss – surely we’d never allow such a thing to happen now – but this play reminds us that it happened once before, and the world let it happen. We only have to read the news to see that we’re headed back in that direction: millions of people around the world have been forced to flee their homes; anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are rife across Europe and the USA; far-right groups are on the rise, emboldened by the anti-immigration rhetoric of politicians. It’s a frightening picture, and one that will only get worse if left unchecked. The best way we can honour the memory of Anne Frank, Heinz and Erich Geiringer, and the millions of others who lost their lives in the Holocaust, is to speak up now – while we still can.
For information about future productions, or to book a performance of And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank for a school, organisation or public group, visit the website.