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Laguna Playhouse production will show life in a WWII concentration camp through the eyes of children

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Steven Harvey Hirsch, right, plays a rabbi in a wedding scene from “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” during a rehearsal at the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach usually closes at 7 p.m., but lately its seasonally appropriate, cobweb-strewn doors on Laguna Canyon Road have remained open and its corridors lighted long after employees take their leave.

Up the staircase and down the hall, an all-purpose room has become a stage. It’s there that 23 members of a Laguna Playhouse cast have worked since September on their next production: Celeste Raspanti’s drama “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”

The show is based on the story of Raja Englanderova — a survivor of the Terezín concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic — as well as the artistic and literary works of other Jewish children imprisoned there.

Of the more than 150,000 Jews sent to the Nazi-operated concentration camp during World War II, only 17,247 survived. Among those were 141 children, including Englanderova.

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Donna Inglima, left, directs Sophia Gabal and Quinton Yusi during a rehearsal for “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” which opens Saturday at Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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The production, which opens Saturday, features a cast made up almost entirely of young performers as part of Laguna Playhouse’s Theatre for a New Generation series. It is recommended for audiences in fourth grade or older.

Director Donna Inglima said she chose the production last winter to remind performers and audience members of the horrors of the Holocaust.

It turned out to be a timely decision. Afterward, there were two highly publicized incidents of anti-Semitic imagery involving Orange County high school students, including in March, when pictures circulated on social media showing some Newport-Mesa Unified School District students giving Nazi salutes around a swastika assembled from red plastic cups during an off-campus party.

Nazi imagery displayed at an off-campus party in Costa Mesa has caused shock and outrage in the community, across Newport-Mesa Unified School District and around the world.

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A video taken the same month showed students of Pacifica High School in Garden Grove raising the Nazi salute while singing a Nazi marching song at an off-campus athletic event.

“These kinds of acts of terror, racism, fear about immigrants — all of that has never gone away,” Inglima said. “It’s ancient, so how does [the play] fit in? It never goes away.”

Plays like this, she added, educate people about “the pieces that fall into place that allow people to have violence done against them or slanders or slurs. It helps [audiences] to recognize what’s going on.”

Ellen Richard, Laguna Playhouse’s executive director, said “theater gives you a unique opportunity to relate to the people onstage.”

“I don’t know of any other medium that has the same impact and tremendous potential for changing hearts and viewpoints,” Richard said. “It can be a powerful force for creating empathy and understanding.”

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Sophia Gabal dances around Quinton Yusi during a rehearsal for “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” which is based on the true story of concentration camp survivor Raja Englanderova.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Select shows will be followed by a panel discussion including Holocaust survivors who will tell their stories and answer questions, Inglima said. Laguna Playhouse also will offer free tickets and transportation for some schools and community groups.

“With the course of recent events that have occurred nationally, as well as in our own backyard, we are happy to extend this educational opportunity for the entire family that explains the dangers of bigotry and hatred leading to genocide,” Richard said.

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Cassidy Morgan and Elijah Lopez — who play Englanderova and Honza Kosek, respectively — said they learned about the Holocaust in history class.

“The main thing that we want to get across to the audience is ... the authenticity of it, making sure that we portray it right and that they take away the truth of how it was [in Terezín],” said Elijah, 16. “It’s so important to know the horrors of it, but it’s just as important to know the hope that was there too.”

Cassidy, also 16, said she doesn’t think some people her age truly understand the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and the pain that symbols like the swastika cause.

“I think that kids my age — because of technology — kind of live in this society where they think their life is really hard and they think that it’s just a joke and don’t realize that it’s actual people,” she said. "[Judaism’s] an actual religion that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years that’s so sacred and has so many beautiful elements to it.”

Some of her fellow teenagers, she continued, “don’t see that” and think it’s “laughable.”

“I think it also might be coming from a place of insecurity — not being secure in their thoughts about themselves and the world and maybe in their adolescence,” she said. “They turn to [the swastika] because it’s an easy way to mask that and seem like the ‘cool kids’ and that they’re rebelling.”

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Director Donna Inglima reads lines during a group rehearsal for “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Cassidy said she hopes her work will help “dissipate” some of the hate that has surfaced.

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“This is not a story about death,” she said. “It is a time that’s not happy, but I think there are moments of joy in this show. ... It’s about Raja’s life and what happened through that time, and how what happened to her is going to get her through what happens next. It’s about that support from your loved ones too that gets you through the moments when you’re by yourself.”

IF YOU GO

What: “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: Saturday through Oct. 27; show times vary

Cost: Tickets are $13 and available at purchase.lagunaplayhouse.com.

Information: lagunaplayhouse.com

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