Almost Secret Art

Last Wednesday Laura, Roisin and I jumped on a train from Jewellery Quarter station and took the 14 minute ride to Acocks Green where we found our way to the mostly hidden Archbishop Ilsley Catholic School where Craig had come to the conclusion of a modest new edition of the Echo Eternal series commemorating the Holocaust in schools across Birmingham this year. Back in the spring he worked with students from Jewellery Quarter Academy creating Zigi Doesn’t Hate (see video above), inspired by the testimony of Zigi Shipper. On this occasion it was Hedi Frankl who provided the inspiration.

Responding to the constraints of considerable time pressure Craig had come up with a beautifully simple concept whose form aligned so neatly with the concept that it led to a wonderfully powerful performance being performed by students with limited performance experience. It was one of those rare theatrical experiences in which you felt privileged to be in the audience and the fact you shared the experience with just one class of students, a few parent and a handful of low grade VIPs (no offense) made the privilege feel all the more acute.

The performance opened with a student performing a plaintive Jewish folk melody on the trumpet. As students gather on stage the same melody is played off stage on the violin. The line of students then recite Hedi Frankl’s testimony in chorus, solo and duet. They embody the first person narration of Hedi’s story, how she was a Jewish child in Hungary, captured by the Nazis, incarcerated in a labour camp, escaping a death march through good fortune and after the war had ended realising that her how family had been murdered. Through this section of the performance a series of slides are displayed giving historical context to the story, including an image of shoes piled in a death camp. In the performance’s final section each child steps forward in turn and explains “it could be me because…” and inserts some detail about themselves that could mark them out for persecution; then “it could be you because…” and speculates about us in the audience. They then take their shoes off and leave the stage until finally there is nothing on stage but the shoes.

The close proximity in age between Hedi in the story and the students added to the performance’s power, as did the lack of theatricality or artifice on the bare school stage with only a semi black out. A lack of experience or perhaps rehearsal time meant that though the performance was pretty slick many of the performers looked uncomfortable and exposed on the stage – this vulnerability also added to the power of the peace. We listened to the story, we looked at the children, we heard a fragment about their lives and they were gone. It was hard not to cry. That moment will not be repeated, we were the only ones who will ever see it. I’m sure it will haunt us, hopefully the performers will remember it with pride as they grow up.

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