Jack Pariser has something he's eager to share.
Giddy, he steps to the kitchen table and brings back a stack of photos, the top few of which show a gray-haired woman posing with his daughter and others.
"The last surviving lady who saved us!" he says with a near-theatrical flourish, beaming a smile that wipes away half of his 83 years.
Pariser, a retired engineer who lives on a rocky hillside in Laguna Beach, is a Holocaust survivor. He has no qualms about saying that now, even though he did for decades as a young man. This month, he's scheduled to talk about his experiences again, meeting with children after a youth theater production at the Laguna Playhouse.
He'll go into that in a moment, but first he wants to present — in photo form — the last remaining person responsible for him being here now. As a child, hiding from the Nazis with his family in Poland, Pariser took shelter with a pair of families, and Maria, the woman in the pictures, is the youngest child of the second one. Pariser has only a fleeting memory of her from the 1940s; he and his parents and sister hid in her barn for two weeks, and she would sneak their food to them when she went to feed the pigs.
Pariser's living room looks almost like a shrine to that time in history; aside from the photos of Maria, the coffee table sports an array of Holocaust books, one of which, a survivor's yearbook produced by Chapman University, features Pariser on the cover. And yet the mood here is anything but somber.
Pariser tears up on occasion remembering the past, but a moment later, his face reverts back to a playful grin. Even the book cover photo shows him grinning through sunglasses, his arms outstretched before a blue sky. He carries himself, understandably, like a man who has gotten some amazing breaks in life and looks forward to seeing what comes next.
For the short term, that will be "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," a play by Celeste Raspanti based on a book of poems and pictures by children who lived in the Terezin concentration camp. To accompany each of the play's five performances, the theater has booked a Holocaust survivor to speak to the audience, and Pariser will appear at both Friday shows and the first on Saturday.
"I would love to forget it all," he says quietly, his smile disappearing for a moment. "But it's no longer possible."
He still has the clippers. During the years the family hid, Pariser's father kept a small pair of metal clippers that he used to trim his beard, and they reside now at the home in Laguna. But Pariser wishes he still had the knife as well.
In 1942, before Maria's family took him in, the Parisers stayed in another hiding place that the host betrayed. The Polish police who arrested them gave them a small pen knife to cut their bread in the cell, reasoning that it would be too weak to use for escape. Pariser's father, however, managed to bore a hole in the wall. Soon after, when the family stopped in the forest to cut a piece of bread, the knife broke.
That was reality then. After the war, Pariser moved to America, and reality became the opposite: school, a job, a wife, children and grandchildren. He worked for years in the aircraft industry and bought a home by the beach in one of California's poshest cities. His newest hobby is taking pictures of the sunrise and sunset.
Asked if his circumstances feel jarring after what he went through as a child, he shrugs that anything becomes commonplace with time. But he's hardly enjoying an idle retirement at home. He's interviewed fellow survivors for the Anti-Defamation League and spent years raising funds for a man who discovers mass graves in Poland and erects markers over them.
A dozen or more times a year, Pariser visits schools to talk about his experiences and brings his documentary to screen. Recently, a school sent him a box of thank-you cards, which he displays on the coffee table.
"People ask, 'What were you talking about?'" he says. "The answer was nothing. The other one that comes up often is, 'Have you lost faith in God?' That's a touchy subject, because I used to be a lot more religious than I am now."
Pariser, for all his informal nature, is picky about words. He prefers "acceptance" to "tolerance," since the latter sounds too weak. And rather than "preventing" genocide, he uses "precluding" — which, to him, means stopping its root causes before the army enters the equation.
Donna Inglima feels the same way. The director of youth theater education and outreach for the Laguna Playhouse has staged two other Holocaust-themed shows in the last decade, and she personally lined up the survivors to speak for "Butterfly." (Gary Lenzner, who survived the death camps, and Ruth Moos, who came to America in the 1930s on the kindertransport, will talk at the other performances.)
In a way, Inglima is a kindred spirit of one of the play's main characters: a teacher who leads her students in art and poetry lessons at Terezin.
"It just took on its own life after I read it," says Inglima, who invited Pariser to speak at one of her previous productions. "It's about a teacher who made a difference in these children's lives, and it was about them creating art and poetry amidst this concentration camp."
Raspanti, a former nun and now an archivist at a cathedral in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote the play in the late 1960s after discovering a book of poems and drawings by Terezin children. The back of the book featured a listing of each child and his or her fate; most of them had been removed from Terezin, which the Nazis ran as a show camp for foreign inspectors, and perished at Auschwitz.
Then, Raspanti's eye stopped on one resident, Raja Englanderova, who was listed as having survived the war and returned to Prague. After months of overseas correspondence, Raspanti tracked her down and arranged to meet her at the site of Terezin.
The resulting play, which shared the title of the book that inspired it, premiered in Milwaukee and has been a theater staple ever since. Raspanti, speaking by phone from Minnesota, says she sometimes gets invited to productions and attends when she can, although Laguna may not be possible.
When she notes that her work has been translated in several languages, her voice brightens.
"The thing that makes me very proud is that it's in German, and it's being seen and viewed by people in Germany," Raspanti says. "This is their history, and they should know it."