Several years ago, members of the Tales of the Alchemysts Theatre started to talk about creating a show that would debut in 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The Seattle-based performance company, founded in 2016 by four friends who had been working and performing together professionally for more than 20 years, had a history of staging theatrical works that drew from Jewish literature and music. It had previously adapted pieces by Polish American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, American novelist Bernard Malamud and Polish novelist Sholem Asch. When conversations about the new show began, company member and Artistic Director Laura Ferri was on board — with one request.
“I wanted us to focus on women’s stories,” she says, “and I wanted to look at material that covered many different countries, not just a few in Eastern Europe. People often overlook the loss of Jewish life in Sephardic communities around the Mediterranean.”
The resulting show, “The Ruins of Memory: Women’s Voices of the Holocaust” (which was delayed from its 2020 debut due to the COVID-19 pandemic), will run at the Isaac Studio at Taproot Theatre Nov. 18-20. Working with fellow company members Shellie Shulkin (who acts and serves as the executive and managing director of Tales of the Alchemysts Theatre), actor David Klein and musician Carl Shutoff, Ferri (who directs the work) adapted the oral histories, short stories and poetry of women who suffered the indignities and inhumanities of the Holocaust and the years leading up to World War II. Live instrumental and choral music accompanies and underscores the production, which spans 11 years (1933-44). It features snapshots from the lives of 19 women, some of whom survived and some who did not. Aside from Anne Frank and the lesser-known Gisella Perl, a Jewish doctor at Auschwitz, few women’s voices have made it into the mainstream narrative surrounding this dark time in history. The most famous Holocaust writers — Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel — were all men.
“In many cases, women just weren’t asked,” Ferri says of the dearth of female perspectives. “But the way they tell their stories is different from men. There’s this selfless quality to their writing — it’s not about glorifying themselves and what they are going through. There is great strength; there is resilience. They will do anything they can to help their families.”
In preparation for the production, Ferri spent months researching and reading diaries, letters, stories and poetry, and in the case of Sephardic Holocaust survivor Laura Varon, Ferri watched a video recording of her oral history through the digital archives at the University of Washington. Varon and Claire Barchi, another Sephardic woman featured in the show, both ended up immigrating to Seattle after the war.
The subject matter of “The Ruins of Memory” is heart-rending to its core, but for Ferri, it was important to include everyday moments of levity — for example, a woman outwitting the German soldiers or a tender interaction between sisters. “I didn’t want it to all be tragic,” she says. “It was important to show a range of life experiences. Amid the fear and desperation, there were moments of humor and lightness.”
The play does not go into the death camps, but it recounts the experiences, relationships, struggles and achievements of real people in the days, weeks and years leading up to their forced deportation and imprisonment across Europe. It’s a performative tapestry that celebrates the strength and triumph of the human spirit, even in the face of unimaginable horror. And even though these atrocities happened eight decades ago, there is a contemporary relevance given the recent constriction of women’s rights and the explosive rise of antisemitism.
“I hope viewers will be moved deeply by these stories of courage and resilience in the face of evil,” Ferri says. “And that they will leave with an awareness that we have to actively, at all times, work against it. When we hear words or hate directed at other people, we cannot be bystanders, we must speak out.”