Elaine Meyers Special to The Citizen Jan 9, 2021 Updated Jan 10, 2021
As the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Community Read team looks at 2021, we have a clear mandate to continue conversations begun in October with our discussion of Angie Thomas’ “The Hate You Give.” Sixty participants encouraged us to discuss racism throughout the coming school year and to develop partnerships that initiate and sustain conversations. Our hope is that continued sharing of ideas will foster understanding and equity.
Our next formal meeting occurred on Nov. 7 at Wells College in Stratton Hall and provided an opportunity for Community Read members to learn about the Hallway for Cultural Humility. A Wells’ college news release (wells.edu/multicultural-center) explains the concept of “cultural humility,” which originated in the health care field as a way for practitioners to better connect with patients of diverse backgrounds. The belief is that a humble and respectful attitude toward individuals of other cultures pushes us to challenge our own inherent cultural biases. The movement stresses the need to: maintain a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique; to have a desire to fix power imbalances where none should exist; and to forge partnerships with other individuals and groups who advocate for positive social change.
As we settled into the Hallway for Cultural Humility, community members joined two Wells students, Jazzmyne Williams and Kianna Stamps. The meeting began with an introduction from Jazzmyne, who greeted the community and told her story of selecting Wells for her undergraduate work. She delighted her listeners when she recounted her first visit to Aurora and her memory of watching Hallmark movies with her grandmother. She could not wait to show her photos of this beautiful small town and historic campus to her family when she returned home to San Antonio, Texas. Jazzmyne gave an overview of her work promoting community connections and understanding as a student summer worker at the Aurora Farmers Market, and living off campus in her own apartment. The group then did self-introductions and broke into small groups to discuss books and issues associated with racism and community culture.
The highlight of my individual group conversation was getting to know Kianna Stamps, a Wells senior from the Bronx. Kianna is a double major in political science and sociology/anthropology, and is in the process of preparing two thesis proposals for the Wells Research Institutional Review Board. One thesis is on foster care and the second is on immigration. Kianna is graduating in only three years and will be spending her holiday break working on finalizing both proposals and beginning her research. During her self-introduction, she credited the skill of her professors in knowing when to offer guidance and when to let students follow their own instincts and use personal experiences in developing their research.
During our small group discussion, Kianna was asked directly her opinion on a matter of race. She paused and began her reply with, “I am one person and can’t really speak for everyone. I can’t really speak for all Black people just as I can’t speak for all women.” At another junction, Kianna told the group members that the most important question they should be asking themselves is what each person is doing to be actively anti-racist in their community. She talked about her experiences with “code-switching” and learning to be comfortable in academic and professional settings, as well as with her personal culture of family and friends. As the small groups reconvened and shared their insights, it was clear that some of us would make plans to meet again. I told Kianna I would love to assist her in her research if community connections were needed. We exchanged emails and our adventure was underway.
In the last month, Kianna and I have discussed foster care. Her research is limited to New York state, but she encouraged me to reach out to friends and family with experience in foster care. Community partners were identified as potential avenues to finding research families for her interviews. She has referred me to academic articles contrasting private and public foster care and adoption agencies. I look forward to providing any support she needs in linking with our community. I will bring my experiences in Arizona and locally with migrant families to our conversations on immigration and look forward to creating additional connections to those who can aid her research. What I treasure about these conversations is that Kianna’s work will make a difference in many communities, and our community connections are the needed next steps for equity for all.
Each year the Aurora Free Library, Hazard Library and the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project come together to sponsor the Southern Cayuga Community Read. This year’s discussion of The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, needed to look different due to the challenges of the COVID19 health crisis. As a result, our community came together in both small in-person and virtual groups in record numbers. We doubled our participation from years past with nearly 70 people taking part in this year’s Community Read. We are truly thankful for all of those who participated, and for those who moderated these discussions.
While we had many meaningful discussions, our work is just beginning. We are heartened that participants have asked for follow up programming around the themes of racial injustice and furthermore, want to join together in actionable ways to make our own community a more equitable and inclusive one. We are currently planning future events and welcome your partnership. Whether you have suggestions for books, movies, speakers, programming or wish to donate towards future events we would love to hear from you. Please email email@example.com with any ideas or questions you may have.
With your support and partnership, we can continue to offer programming that honors the life and legacy of Anne Frank.
Spring encourages us to rejoice in all things green and growing. The Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project continues to gather the community for conversations that celebrate our ability to learn and grow. As the community assembled for spring programs, I could almost hear Anne Frank’s voice: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
On March 22, the community gathered to share a meal, discuss books and view the film “Book Thief,” based on the book of the same title by Markus Zusak. Zusak was inspired by a true story his mother told him. She related watching Jews being marched down the street by Nazis when a boy offered a struggling old man a piece of bread. In response, the German soldiers took away the bread and whipped the man and the boy. Zusak saw this as the ultimate symbol of the difference between kindness and cruelty. Death narrates the story of Liesel, a girl growing up in Germany during World War II. Liesel is raised by foster parents and first steals a book from the gravediggers who bury her young brother. Books sustain Liesel for their power to preserve the truth and overcome even death in keeping stories alive. Program participants were encouraged to bring a book that they would hide from any tyrant wanting to control the truth by burning books. One young reader needed the group to vote on the proper pronunciation of “Aesop,” with either an “A” or “E” as initial sound. The vote was inconclusive, and her wise mother commented, “It really doesn’t matter how you pronounce the author’s name, you just need to read the Fables and discuss them.”
Some adults brought books that had been required reading. “Of Mice and Men” sparked a conversation by a group who vividly remembered discussing the nature of evil in English classes in the 1960s. Conversations sprang up between those whose books were by the same authors, John Steinbeck and J.K. Rowling, and by those who loved fantasy, science fiction or classics like “Crime and Punishment,” the Bible or “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
May 1, 2019
On June 12, 2013, kids in Cayuga County, New York, were getting antsy: the sun was shining, the sky was bright blue, and the school bell was about to ring. Excitement built as the students gathered outside, some staring longingly at the nearby playground.
For the adults present, however, it was a somber occasion. Southern Cayuga Central School was about to plant one of the saplings of the Anne Frank tree — a horse chestnut that served as a symbol of hope to the teenager. Frank watched it for years from a window of an attic in Amsterdam, where her family lived in hiding.
“From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine,” Frank wrote in her diary on February 23, 1944. “As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances might be.”
Frank’s tree fell during a storm in 2010, after years of suffering from a fungal disease. But in the years leading up to its collapse, New York City’s Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect secured 11 saplings to distribute across the U.S. One is planted on the west lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Another sits in New York City’s 9/11 Memorial at Liberty Park. And, thanks to Southern Cayuga Central School English teacher Bill Zimpfer, another has taken root in a rural dairy farming community.
When Zimpfer first read about the sapling initiative, he immediately went to his superintendent for permission to apply. “This chestnut tree — this was like the Dutch Statue of Liberty,” he told FRONTLINE. “It symbolized their resistance to the Nazis and the Nazi philosophy.”
The superintendent gave him the green light. About three months later, the school — which has about 700 students — learned that it had secured a part of the historic tree.
“We’re just a little school district that nobody knows out in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York, and we’ve got something that is really special,” Zimpfer said. “It’s a source of pride for [the students].”
As the planting ceremony began on Anne Frank’s birthday in 2013, Zimpfer thought about the enormous responsibility that came with the sapling, which was then barely more than a twig with a bundle of roots the size of a softball. “This is an educational tool — not a tombstone with leaves on it,” he said. “Now, we have to follow through.”
The arrival of the sapling, nicknamed Annie, has helped transform Holocaust education at Southern Cayuga Central from a blip in a sprawling social studies or literature class into a year-long learning process. The school has since launched a nonprofit, the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, that brings in survivors from the Holocaust and other genocides, including Sudan, and arranges field trips to war memorials.
“I think everybody — especially students — when they have something physical they can see, something they can touch, it connects them to concepts that are very far away and makes it easier for them to understand,” Zimpfer said.
But the school’s concerted efforts to keep the memories and teachings of the Holocaust alive for the youngest generation is far from the norm. Educators across the country are grappling with how to make the lessons of the Holocaust relevant to children at a time when it is vanishing from the collective memory. Sixty-six percent of millennials could not identify what Auschwitz was, and 22 percent had not heard of or were unfamiliar with the Holocaust, according to a 2018 survey by Claims Conference, a group that negotiates restitution for Holocaust survivors. Additionally, 68 percent of millennials wrongly think Hitler came to power by force.
These gaps in awareness are underscored by an alarming uptick in schoolyard anti-Semitism. The number of hate incidents directed at Jews quadrupled in K-12 schools from 2015 to 2017, a study by the Anti-Defamation League shows, jumping from 114 to 457 reported incidents. School grounds surpassed other public spaces, such as parks and streets, to have the highest number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. And it’s all going viral on social media: a photo posted to Twitter and Snapchat earlier this year showed a Nazi-themed party where California high schoolers played a drinking game with red cups arranged in the shape of a swastika while laughing and doing a Sieg Heil salute.
“The internet helps amplify these ideas that spread hatred and violence,” Elisa Rapaport, Chief Operating Officer of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, told FRONTLINE. “Interactions are no longer limited to a small community. With opportunities to connect, we have also witnessed a rapidly-spreading virus of hostility.”
The rise of anti-Semitism in K-12 schools is “impossible to ignore at this point,” according to Peter Nelson, director of Holocaust education at the ADL. Nelson provides education support to schools, sometimes in the wake of an incident. “It’s not clear that these [students] are neo-Nazis necessarily,” he said. “It may not even be directed at Jews in particular. But it is woefully ignorant.”
Educators like Zimpfer believe Holocaust awareness can serve as a line of defense against anti-Semitism, and the American public strongly supports Holocaust education in schools: according to the Claims Conference survey, 93 percent believe that students should learn about the Holocaust in school, and 80 percent think it is important to learn about the Holocaust so something like it does not happen again. Yet only 10 states require schools to teach students about the Holocaust.
The recent surge of anti-Semitism has reignited legislative efforts to expand Holocaust education. In January, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney introduced a bipartisan bill that would establish a federal fund at the Department of Education for schools to develop and improve the quality of their teachings on the Holocaust. The proposed legislation, titled the Never Again Education Act, would prioritize schools that do not already cover the Holocaust. The bill has 99 co-sponsors.
There are also a number of additional states that are working to require Holocaust education in their schools, including Maryland, Massachusetts and North Carolina.
Still, not all states believe that Holocaust education should be required, highlighting the prickly politics behind public school curriculums. Some — including Colorado, Tennessee and Vermont — have pushed back because they did not want to support a bill that singles out the Holocaust, had concerns around extra costs to schools, or had competing legislative priorities.
Some educators fear that mandating a topic will result in an overloaded curriculum. “In your global history course, you have just covered everything from the Reconstruction to the Iraq War in nine months or something crazy,” Elizabeth Edelstein, vice president of education at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage said. “So, you have much less time per topic.”
Research has shown that mandating Holocaust education to teachers, who don’t always have the proper guidance on how best to approach the complex topic, can backfire. A study by the University of College London found that even though British students overwhelmingly were familiar with the Holocaust, most had a flawed understanding of it.
In New York, teachers have increasingly reached out to the Museum of Jewish Heritage for guidance on how to best teach the Holocaust, requests that tend to come on the heels of an anti-Semitic school incident. “One question we hear frequently is, ‘We don’t know how to start,’” Edelstein said.
The museum — in partnership with the NYC Department of Education — recently launched a free education portal for teachers in an attempt to promote best classroom practices. This includes relying on primary sources such as survivor testimony or artifacts, a change from outmoded textbooks that tend to highlight the chronology of Nazis at the expense of the Jewish experience.
“Kids perceive Jews, if they know anything about the Holocaust, as victims,” she said. “Of course they were victims of the Holocaust. But they were also active agents in their own fates to the utmost possibility that they could be.”
Although it’s become much less prevalent in the past 20 years, some schools still rely on dubious Holocaust education practices. Some teachers divide classrooms into two groups — Nazis and Jews — based on the color of their shirts and have them simulate scenarios such as a deportation. Others show graphic photos from concentration camps to the class with no context. “[The teachers’] intent is to show them the horrific outcome of when hatred is unchecked,” Edelstein said. “But when students are shocked, they shut down. They are not open to learning.”
Teaching the Holocaust just to tick a box is not enough, educators say. “That is not using the Holocaust to give us the lessons we need to be good citizens in a democracy — to not be complacent and take our responsibilities seriously,” Nelson said.
Back in Cayuga County, Annie the sapling was deliberately placed right next to the playground, so that the youngest children would always see it. “Every kid, grade K-12, can tell you about Anne Frank, can tell you about the sapling, can tell you about the Holocaust,” Zimpfer said. “It’s incredible what having this tree has done to draw attention to and enlighten everybody on the campus and in the community about the Holocaust.”
Cayuga County’s small part of the Anne Frank tree has sparked not only a comprehensive education about a horrific moment in our history, but a pathway to apply the lessons to the future.
“When you have a deeper knowledge of a subject and not just a passing knowledge,” Zimpfer said, “it gives you a deeper understanding of it, and then I think you connect it to your own life. I think you connect it to other events that are similar to it in some way.”
Our sapling is ready to burst open for spring! We would like to thank Phil Donovan for installing new signage. The new signs display security information to visitors in order keep the Anne Frank Tree safe from harm! The signage was partially funded by a grant from the Cayuga Community Fund of Central New York.
During a conversation with children in the Southern Cayuga Summer Camp program, I asked them about their favorite signs. A 9-year-old boy began to giggle. I asked about his sign. Still suppressing a laugh, he replied, “The one that says ‘Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.’” I was surprised, and asked him to tell me more. He explained: “One of those signs is near my house. I watch cars and trucks come driving down the road at top speed. You can see some of the drivers on their cellphones. When they see the sign, they slow down and pay lots of attention to the road. They carefully look right and left. But as soon as they pass the house with the sign, they speed up with cellphones in their faces.” He saw my astonished expression and continued: “If those drivers really cared about kids they would know that every house and every road has children. They need to drive safely all the time. The sign is funny because those drivers just don’t get it.” I had not been able to get the conversation out of my mind, nor the uncanny wisdom of this young boy.
When I drove up to the Southern Cayuga Central School on the first day in November, I observed the school flag flying at half-mast. I thought of the weekend of violence with the shooting rampage in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the bombs being delivered in the mail, and additional shootings in a supermarket and a school. How many times in the past year had the flag flown at half-mast? This was a sign of our times — a sign that brought both despair and horror. Then another sign appeared and reminded me that I was at the home of one of 11 Anne Frank trees in the U.S. As I entered the high school, I saw a new sign hanging in the lobby: “We are the proud home of the Anne Frank tree — a living reminder of the impact each human being can have on our global community.” I stood before Anne Frank and read her words written in July of 1944: “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet, I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
I needed to talk to students to see what they thought of Anne’s hope and idealism. Thinking of the wisdom of the young man who understood the irony of “Drive Like Your Child Lived Here,” I was sure students could help me understand more about these two signs — one of hatred and one of hope. Bill Zimpfer asked his ninth-grade students if they agreed with Anne’s statement that people were truly good at heart. I received 25 responses to this question. As I read and re-read the words of our students who are the same age as Anne, I realized they speak for themselves. Their thoughtfulness, eloquence and insights are optimistic signs of our times:
“I feel like some people can be truly evil because of how they are being raised, or not having parents in their life to guide them in the right way, or not feeling like anybody loves you.”
“I agree because if someone does something wrong, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. They just made a mistake they have got to live with.”
“I would like to believe this quote is true and everyone, even the worst person in the world has little bit of compassion and love deep down in their heart. … But there is a small minority population that has absolutely no compassion. … But these people are greatly outnumbered by the good, and we will fight back.”
“A person’s heart is different from a belief in many ways. Your heart includes both feelings and thoughts. Anne’s quote is quite motivating, and very appealing to the heart.”
“When people are scared, they become savage animals and the wheels of violence and death just keep spinning.”
“I think people have a choice to be cold at heart, or good at heart. I think most people try to do the right thing. But there are people in the world that try to hurt others, and are a threat to society.”
“We all have room in our hearts to put a little good into it.”
Elaine Meyers, of King Ferry, is a member of the boards of the King Ferry Food Pantry and ABC Cayuga, as well as Anne Frank Tree Project and Southern Cayuga Garden Club. She coordinates a literacy support program at Southern Cayuga Central School.
We are proud to announce that the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project is the recipient of a Cayuga Community Fund Grant!
Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project received $500 to add signage near the tree site to draw attention to the new surveillance system and deter vandalism.
This is the third grant we have received for the Cayuga Community Fund. Previous grants have been used to purchase and distribute books relative to our mission, and to purchase road signage directing the way to the Anne Frank Tree.
The new grant will allow us to erect signage near the tree site alerting visitors of the surveillance which we feel will be very instrumental in keeping the tree safe from harm. We are thankful for the continued support from the Cayuga Community Fund!
For the past four years, the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project has sponsored a trip to the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center for the ninth-grade class at Southern Cayuga Central School. Safe Haven tells the story of 982 mainly Jewish refugees who fled Europe in the U.S. government’s Safe Haven program in 1944. The refugees from 18 European countries were brought to the former Fort Ontario Army Camp in Oswego. This camp was the only refugee shelter for Holocaust victims in the United States. The refugees were the guests of President Franklin Roosevelt, and signed an agreement to leave America at the end of the war.
I talked about the impact of this trip with a student who made the trip in 2016. I asked her what she remembered about the experience: “It was a very cold and rainy day. I thought it was interesting that we treated them like prisoners in a way. They couldn’t leave camp without permission. I always wondered why they stopped with only 1,000 people.”
I next interviewed six ninth-graders who had just returned from this year’s trip on May 25. These students discussed the barracks where families lived in very tight quarters. The first student interviewed was shocked to learn that, as soon as the war ended, Holocaust victims had to leave the country. Some went to Canada or other countries, and eventually made their way back to the states. They had curfews and were not really given the freedoms enjoyed by American citizens. One student mentioned that people in the town of Oswego were friendly and helpful. He was especially impressed with Oswego’s school principal, who made every effort that children from the camp were well-integrated into classrooms, and treated well. This same student noted that students whose families came from Germany were very helpful — especially if they knew the German language. A Boy Scout troop also welcomed refugees. There was general agreement that the trip helped the students understand how brave those brought to the haven were. They also agreed that it would be impossible to really know the terror that Holocaust victims experienced.
Our conversation progressed to a discussion of the importance of providing safe havens today. The issue of school shootings has challenged everyone’s senses of safety. As the students continued to discuss the topic, it became clear that they feel very safe in their own school. They all know the names of their school safety officers and admire them. The current protocols for school visitors provide safety, but the greatest safety feature is that they live in a “small town” where “everybody knows everybody.” One student explained, “If someone is new and different, we get to know them. It doesn’t take long for us to understand even someone with very different experience. We accept people for who they are. We appreciate anyone that wants to live and work in our community.”
The advantages of these students’ situations contrast with those of large urban areas, where it is impossible to know everyone you encounter. The students talked about a classic young adult book, “The Outsiders,” that they had just finished reading. The book illustrates the problem of “us vs. them” thinking, and the barriers of getting to really know someone because of economic, religious or other social restraints. The students concluded that they are so happy to live in a school where they can really get to know their classmates, and have adults that support tolerance.
In thinking about these conversations, I reread a summary of current research at Princeton University: “Professor Fiske’s research addresses how stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are encouraged or discouraged by social relationships, such as cooperation, competition, and power. We begin with the premise that people easily categorize other people, especially based on race, gender, and age. Going beyond such categories, to learn about the individual person, requires motivation. Social relationships supply one form of motivation to individuate, and our work shows that being on the same team or depending on another person makes people go beyond stereotypes. Conversely, people in power are less motivated to go beyond their stereotypes.” (https://psych.princeton.edu/person/susan-fiske)
It is clear to me that the students I talked to have the motivation described by Dr. Fiske. I was reminded of another teen who had similar motivation. She lived in cramped quarters because of the intolerance that brought 982 people to our state. In 1944, Anne Frank wrote, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Carl Sagan loved stars and books. “Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” I wanted our conversations about stars to be both ageless and magical. So I began with books.
As I entered the second-grade classroom at Emily Howland Elementary School, I had a picture book, “A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars” by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg. After reading the book, we wrote the number: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. As soon as we wrote it, the real number had changed. Estimates of stars are tricky business, because we could take all of the telescopes on our planet and not begin to see the universe. We need to read and talk to lots of geniuses in math and science to begin to understand.
After we agreed that we had more research to do, we decided we could still talk about stars. Our favorite star was the sun. Second graders appreciated what the sun does for our planet and all the other planets in our solar system. The discussion of the sun caused some to worry. Stars do explode, and if they get too close to us, we might explode. Someone reminded us that when stars blow up, they make new stars. Generally, we trust our sun. We really can’t get along without it.
My next conversation was with a neighbor’s son, who had grown up watching Carl Sagan’s PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” which aired in 1980. Books based on the series, as well as countless re-showings and video editions, have allowed him to totally absorb Sagan’s cosmos. I asked Owen to return to second grade and tell me what he thought about stars at an early age. “The sun was a favorite star as a young child. I loved all it gave us. As I got older, I loved that we were made of stardust and that without stars there would be no ‘us.’ I also loved watching my grandparents listen to a favorite song by Nat King Cole, ‘Stardust’ and dance.”
The illustration of a new constellation called Cheetah was created by a precocious 6-year-old who loves cheetahs and could easily envision her constellation. She also loves “Pegasus” and is almost 90-percent sure that a winged horse does exist in the universe. We agreed to keep reading and observing.
Like all good conversations, this one is ongoing. If you would like to eat pizza, meet the best and the brightest of our Southern Cayuga math and science students, read a book with me, talk about our planetarium and see the film “Hidden Figures,” come to Southern Cayuga Central School at 6 p.m. Friday, March 9. “Hidden Figures” is the story of the four brilliant African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn. The event is sponsored by the Anne Frank Tree Committee and is free to the public. Join us and continue the conversation.
By the time the Seneca Community Players’ last dress rehearsal of “The Diary of Anne Frank” ended, many of the Southern Cayuga Central School District students in attendance were rapt.
The students were in the audience for a question-and-answer session with the show’s actors Thursday at the theater, located at the Partridge Building in Seneca Falls. The talkback was set up by the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, a district organization meant to promote education and peace.
Around 14 students and some adults saw the play, which is based on the personal written entries of Anne Frank, the renowned teenager who hid in the annex of a warehouse with her family and four others during the Holocaust. She was found with the others, and ultimately died in a concentration camp. Of the eight people in the annex, only her father, Otto Frank — played in the Seneca Community Players’ production by Steve Mitchell — survived World War II.
The tree project’s name refers to a tree Frank wrote about in her diary. The tree sat outside the annex, and she viewed it as a symbol of hope. After the tree was blown down in 2010, The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect selected the Southern Cayuga district and 10 other sites in the country to receive and plant its saplings.
The theater’s stage was on a lower floor of the building with the windows shut. From the moment the Franks enter the annex to when the Nazi officers haul the eight victims away, most of the actors were on stage for the entire production. During intermission, the performers silently went about their characters’ day-to-day activities as the stage lights stayed on. The break was only signaled by the house lights brightening and a woman standing by the theater door.
After the curtain call, the actors stayed on stage to field questions. Southern Cayuga student Kadrian Rossbach, 14, said the show was interesting and “amazing to watch,” before asking the actors how it felt bringing actual human beings to life.
Susie Cornett, who played Anne’s mother, Edith Frank, said she drew from experiences with her own two daughters to depict Edith’s conflicts with Anne.
“All of you girls or teenagers probably butt heads with your mother at times, right?” Cornett asked as the young audience murmered in agreement.
Cornett said she also connected to Edith through reading about her and constantly thinking about how Edith would react to every line and moment.
Eric Jansen, the play’s director, pitched the idea of students doing a question-and-answer session with the actors, and the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project loved the idea. Speaking on Oct. 4, Jansen said he was “elated” to have students talk to the performers.
He said he and the entire cast and crew felt a responsibility to be accurate, down to the color scheme of a prayer shawl and the fringes on the corner of the garment. He said cast members did their own deep dives into research, even learning the Yiddish lyrics of songs the characters sing to comfort themselves and others.
The production used the version of the script by Wendy Kesselman, who revised the original version of the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Kesselman’s revision included material from Anne Frank’s diary that had been omitted from earlier scripts, like her writing about her attraction to women’s bodies — which was greeted with subdued, uncomfortable laughs and amused looks from some of the teenagers during the dress rehearsal.
Jansen believes Kesselman’s changes amounted to a fuller depiction of the teenager as she actually was, from her hopes and dreams to her burgeoning sexuality. The director also felt it was important to show the emotional high and lows those eight people experienced while sequestered between the same few walls for 25 months.
“They had real trials and real tribulations, and real joy and real expectations that we have without being in those extraordinary circumstances,” Jansen said.
At the talkback, 13-year-old Riley Binns asked the actors who played the Nazi officers what it was like to portray hated figures. Tom Hoster, who played Karl Silberbauer — who actually arrested Anne Frank and the others — likened it to film actors playing villains, and said he had fun being the bad guy. To keep things light for himself, he gave his henchman officers silly names like “Stinky feet.”
The production’s Anne Frank, Union Springs sophomore Emma DeGroff, said that she heavily researched the part. She and other cast members also made flash cards to pronounce the Yiddish terms correctly. DeGroff said she was glad she was able to “carry (Anne Frank’s) legacy” through her performance.
Bill Zimpfer, an English and journalism teacher at Southern Cayuga and a member of the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, said that even though he wouldn’t be able to go to the dress rehearsal, he was glad the attending students — many of whom were drama club members — were going. He said he teaches the play in class and encourages students interested in drama to go see shows. Zimpfer said the school district, as host site to one of the saplings, has a “strong focus” on Holocaust education.
Speaking after the talkback, Kadrian Rossbach said she was moved by the production.
“It felt like I was feeling with them, and (I) just felt very emotional connecting with the characters,” Rossbach said.