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Sunday, May 1, 2016

'Gerda's Story' a touching tale of survival

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gerda (Emily Friend) reads a letter sent to her in Holland from her parents in Germany. Gerda's parents sent her and her sister to separate families in Holland to escape the racism and discrimination rampant in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. [Order this photo]
Hearing the traumatic stories of spiritual and physical anguish from Holocaust survivors never gets any less heart wrenching.

Such is the case with Gerda Nothmann Luner.

Directed and dramatized by associate professor of communication and theatre Tim Good with help from junior J.C. Pankratz, "Gerda's Story" is based on the memoir Holocaust survivor Gerda Nothmann Luner had never really intended to publish.

Luner wrote her memoir on 32 tightly-typed sheets of paper, but ultimately decided against sharing it, "realizing others might recall them in a different way," her husband Charles Luner wrote in her memoir.

After she died of ovarian cancer in 1999, Charles published her memoir, adding photographs from her family and friends to further illustrate the horrors she experienced in childhood and her crisis of faith following her liberation at the end of the war.

"Gerda was always in touch with her past," he wrote. "She saved photographs, mementos and letters that she wanted to pass on to her children and grandchildren."

Gerda (Emily Friend) and her family grew up in Berlin at the beginning of Hitler's reign in Germany, at a time when discrimination against Jewish Germans on the streets, in stores and in schools ran most rampant.

To escape the strife brought on by racism, many Jews made attempts to emigrate from Germany, but economic hardship and the fear of familial separation often made parting with the country more difficult.

The turning point for Gerda's family came during Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, on Nov. 9-10, 1938, when Nazi German mobs destroyed what they could of the Jewish-German presence by ransacking homes and shops, leaving streets covered in pieces of smashed windows.

As a result, her parents made the difficult decision to send Gerda and her younger sister Vera (Libby Brush) to stay with separate families in Holland while they stayed behind in Germany.

The first act of "Gerda's Story" follows this struggle and the family's luck in dodging Nazi occupation and concentration camps with poignant narrated asides by Vicki Parker, who plays Gerda Nothmann Luner reflecting on her struggles during those most difficult years.

The audience quickly learns that what kept up the family's strength was its reliance on supporting and communicating with one another, even when they lived countries apart.

The play continues in its second act when the family's luck in dodging the buses to concentration camps, and the tension builds.

Gerda is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, when she learns those who came before her to its gates -- including her parents and sister -- did not make it out alive.

The play also explores the idea of Heimat, German for a "sense of place of belonging," which Gerda openly discussed with her family via their correspondence and later in her struggles for survival and purpose after having stayed at Auschwitz.

"During the time I fought in the camp years to live, now I just want to die," she recalls.

The same concept of finding a sense of identity and greater purpose is a struggle for many today and is expressively illustrated and acted in a traumatic tale of humans inflicting suffering upon other humans in perhaps one of the most horrific race termination attempts in history.

But as the play closes, Gerda reminds us why we carry on: "And even when we're the hardest hit, we cannot change, but make the best of it. With working and humor we can lay many lights where happiness can grow."

Gerda's Story

"Gerda's Story" opens at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Moore Theatre in the Judson and Joyce Green Center for the Performing Arts. Additional performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets are $3 for DePauw University students and $6 for adults. To purchase tickets, a patron pass or for more information, send an e-mail to greencenter@depauw.edu or call 658-4827.

The DePauw Theatre season opener of "Gerda's Story" also includes a series of related events to tie into the week's performances.

Wednesday night JoAn Segal presented "Gerda's Letters," a performance of actual letters exchanged between Gerda Nothmann Luner and her parents while she was living with foster families in Holland during WWII, in the ballroom of the Memorial Student Union.

At 9:30 p.m. Friday, Gerda Nothmann Luner's husband Charles Luner and visiting Holocaust scholars will lead a question and answer session following the night's performance of "Gerda's Story" in Moore Theatre.

Both events are free and open to the public.

More information on "Gerda's Story: Memoir of a Holocaust Survivor" can be found online at www.depauw.edu/arts/theatre.