The discovery of a box of documents, dated to 1945, and written by Jewish students at the Thessaloniki Umberto Primo Italian School, has led Professor Antonio Crescenzi to track them down, and give them a voice through a theatrical performance staged after 75 years. Until November 5, audiences will have the opportunity to watch these children’s stories in the performance “The students of Umberto Primo”, the Alessandra Maioletti-directed dramatization of a true story at Theater Ex Machina (Apo Mixanis Theatro). The performance is dedicated to Holocaust remembrance.
The performance’s text and characters are based on the essays and other writings of the students found in the basement of the former Italian Umberto Primo school in Thessaloniki, whose operation ended in 1942, when the first persecution the Jewish population began, a short while before the first trains left for Auschwitz.
The performance, first presented in January 2017 at the Thessaloniki Music Hall, depicts the everyday life of the children in a school room. However, as 16 year old Lefteris Kolitsos, playing the part of Alberto Modiano, tells us: “a sense of an ominous future for all children runs through every single scene.” “Fourteen year old Sophia Maioletti-Skaramagkas, playing the part of Mathilde Benachmias, adds that “every scene gives off a certain quality, it makes one think. Viewers leave the theater thinking, ‘I learned something today’”. Youngest in the group, 13 year old Maria Skarpelou, playing Letitia Matalon, who was killed in Auschwitz along with the rest of her family, stresses that “each scene has its own emotion, its own thoughts. It is the show’s gift. This kind of theater is special because it’s real.”
Like Lefteris Kolitsos, 17 year old Panagiotis Kotsalis is a high school student in the third grade, and prepares to take the introductory exams. “What I miss in terms of studying, I get threefold from what we are doing here. We will present these children’s untold stories and their dreams, which is very important. In the same way that we today have dreams to fulfill, so did they. I play Daniel Benachmias, who was in the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz… They were gathering corpses, seeing awful things… He was one of the fortunate ones to survive.”
“Schools are not keen on providing information on this issue, and it’s a shame, because some things should not be repeated. There are children who do not know who Hitler is, or why he did all that he did,” says Sophia. “If they come to see the show, they will want to learn a lot. And even 10 year olds can come see it, because the history books don’t tell it any better than the show,” says Maria, as Lefteris adds: “They will find that nothing in their lives can be taken for granted.”
Charalambos Magoulas, who edited the performance’s text, also stresses its educational value. “From the very first moment I was asked to write the text, I felt that something could be done which would be educational in the ancient Greek meaning of the word. Not just a purely artistic creation, constricted to its aesthetics. It sends out a very loud and powerful message, that resonates with societies through time. Reading the news and learning, for example, that over 70% of children in Germany today do not know what Auschwitz means, and seeing how totalitarianism emerges again across the whole western world, I think that such a performance is a tie to the past, so people can realize their history and chart their future in more humane ways, without repeating the mistakes of the past.”
Antonio Crescenzi is the Italian professor who discovered the box of documents and essays by the 1941-42 class of Umberto Primo students, on which the performance is based. “The whole thing started out of my need to embark on an attempt to raise awareness about the Holocaust. Through this process, nine children have matured, so for me much of the bet has been won. These children will now do their own part so others can also learn from this story,” he says.
Moved, Greek-Australian director Alessandra Maioletti thanks her colleagues: “When we started on this work with Antonio, he told me he had found by accident some children’s documents in a box. I felt compelled to give life back to these children. To me the theater makes sense when it has a social and political message. In each of my performances, my goal is to broaden viewers’ minds and horizons. This is a very complex issue, but we have staged it with some ‘lightness’, which makes it accessible to all ages. As for the child actors, it never occurred to me to think of them as amateurs. A real actor is one who can be sincere and generous in his feelings about his part, and all children do that.”
Included in the documents discovered by Antonio Crescenzi was the children’s curriculum. “They were taught Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French, English, Painting, Theater… They performed Shakespeare and Goldoni, which gave us the idea for a play within a play. We found a timeless Shakespearean speech in Sir Thomas More, being addressed to a crowd furious against immigrants, and we made it part of the show,” says the director.
Panagiotis adds: “We see what school was like at that time; how, despite the difficulties, they were taught drama, and many languages -children worked together to create something beautiful. Unfortunately, in our own time, we face grade inflation and extreme competition -children don’t work together to achieve something beautiful. One thing that this group has taught us is to work together towards a goal. It is very sad that school does not teach children one of the greatest arts, theater.”
“Unfortunately,” Lefteris notes, “in our days young people disregard art, and anything cultural. We who know how art directs the spirit are saddened by this.”
Assistant director, Evangeli Fili, speaks warmly about the young actors: “These children are more professional than many actors I know. I was stunned by last year’s experience at the Thessaloniki Music Hall; how consistent, precise and right they always are! They have given up their personal time, their studying. Young and old, we all have matured through this experience. It is inconceivable that Holocaust deniers still exist, that the far-right is rising in Europe.”
At the end of the show, audiences will get on stage, read the original essays, and see the photos and degrees of the students who left us their life stories to teach us a life lesson.
ERT’s New Media General Directorate has long now been working on the story of Crescenzi’s research on Umberto Primo’s students, and is preparing a web documentary on the subject, by Dafni Scaglioni and Marineta Mak Kritikou – a creative documentary, which through the story of Antonio Crescenzi aims to approach for the first time the horror of the Holocaust through the eyes and lives of nine Jewish children in Thessaloniki.
Unpublished testimonies and visual archival material, interviews with historians and other scientists and researchers, interviews with the characters’ relatives, live shooting on location where they were born, where they lived prior to being exiled to the ghettos, animated shots of the tortures they suffered during the Holocaust, all these combine, and alongside the characters’ stories themselves, make for a poetic aesthetic representation of life in pre-Occupation Thessaloniki, as well as through Occupation, and all the way to Liberation.
Concept – Direction: Alessandra Maioletti
Historical research: Antonio Crescenzi
Text: Charalambos Magoulas, Antonio Crescenzi
Assistant Director: Evangeli Fili
Music – Sound Design: Christos David Ntaoulas
Set design: Vassia Exarchou
Costumes: Elena Papamichail
Video: Dionysia Kopana
Lighting Design: Giorgio Maioletti
Journalistic research: Dafni Scaglioni
Production: “Oneiro” theatrical company
Professor: Vassilis Kotoulas
Students: Anna Maria Tsekoura, Georgia Katsikonouri, Maria Skarpelou, Sofia Maioletti Skaramagka, Giorgos Skarpelos, Ilias Piperakis, Ioulianos Rachiotis, Lefteris Kolitsos, Panagiotis Kotsalis
Where: Theater Ex Machina (Apo Mixanis Theatro), 13 Akadimou street