I knew I wanted to be a writer in 1943, when
I won an essay contest in high school. The prize for the winning
essay that second year of WWII was appropriately a $25 War Bond.
But more important to me was a framed certificate with the designation:
WRITER OF THE YEAR. I reveled in the title and did everything
I could to enhance it—writing for the school paper, writing
skits for school assemblies, writing a pageant for my parish jubilee,
even writing a play in Latin that was performed before the whole
school. (I attended a Catholic girls' school in the 40s!)
It was not suprising that when I went to
college, I would dedicate myself to perfecting my talents as a
writer with a future. But a funny thing happened on the way to
the publisher's office. I entered the convent, started to teach—and
But I never stopped writing. Inspiration
was everywhere I turned. A theatre workshop at Columbia University
inspired a short play set in Harlem; an intense rereading of the
Brontë novels inspired another play; my own teaching of Shakespeare
brought me to my first commissioned work: the book and lyrics
for a children's operetta during the Shakespeare quadricentennial
So it is that I have never had any difficulty
in answering the most frequent questions about my plays—both
published and produced. Where do your ideas come from? How do
you begin? My answer is direct: I begin in fact, in history, in
that little knot of truth that I can unravel and spin into a drama.
And I find my subjects everywhere, though sometimes they find
me. My play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, is a case
It was some years ago that I stepped into
Brentano's bookstore in Chicago to pass the time waiting for a
friend. "Waiting doesn't matter in Brentano's," I said. As I wandered
into the poetry section, I picked up a book which I thought to
be just another book, one of many in a lifetime of books. But
as I opened the pages, I sensed that this book would be different.
While the title, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, was irresistibly
poetic, the subtitle was informative: Children's Drawings
from Terezin Concentration Camp: 1942-1944. These simple
facts sent me on a long journey of research, writing and publishing.
It was impossible for me to put the book
down. I turned page after page, reading the poetry, moved by the
simple poignancy of the drawings, charmed by the clumsy child
humor, terrified at the brutal truth that came so directly and
so openly from the mouths of the children. When I reached the
end of the book, I could not speak.
The final section of the book identified
the child poets and artists of the works included in this slim
volume. There was a brief paragraph, all that was known of each
child: the date of birth, the date of the transport to Terezin,
and the date the child perished at Auschwitz.
As I glanced at the pages, I noticed one
recurring phrase in the grim litany of brief, young lives, "perished
at Auschwitz, perished at Auschwitz, perished at Auschwitz." But
another phrase startled me, "Raja Englanderova, after the liberation,
returned to Prague."
At that moment I knew I was committed to
these children, to the more than 15,000 children who were incarcerated
in Terezin, to the mere 100 who survived, and in a special way,
to that one child, now a woman, who would become the subject of
my research, the nominal principal character in my play, and a
dear personal friend.
My first reaction to the story of the Terezin
children was silence. My second reaction was the inability to
keep silent. As a published playwright, I began my research thinking
in terms of a play. I was encouraged by friend and director Robert
Pitman, who met me almost daily with the question, "How's the
script coming?" One day he made a compelling promise, "If you
write it, I'll direct it," and I knew I would have to create this
The research was absorbing, becoming in
time a kind of obsession. I began in my own college library, expanded
to the libraries at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the
University of Chicago and the Yivo Institute in New York. I contacted
a number of Holocaust survivors in the Jewish communities in Milwaukee
and Chicago. Through the editor of the book, I located Dr. Karel
Lagus, the curator of the Jewish Museum in Prague. Letter after
letter passed between us, mine with questions, his with answers
that only led to further questions.
As I worked, the single child survivor
mentioned in the book became real to me, so real that I decided
to use her name for the principal character. Except for that name,
I knew very little about her—only the date of her birth,
the date of her transportation to Terezin, and that one fact:
"After the liberation, returned to Prague."
With a statement that was almost an afterthought,
I wrote to Dr. Lagus, "Is Raja Englanderova still living? I suppose
like many of the children who survived, she has disappeared into
the present, unreachable."
But she was not unreachable, as I was to
learn from Dr. Lagus. He wrote that he had located Raja Englanderova,
now married. "She is Dr. Raja Lodinova, working in the Clinic
for Mothers and Children, a research center here in Prague. I
told her there was a woman in Milwaukee writing a play about her,
and she was very pleased to be the hero of your play. She asked
me to tell you to write to her..."
In a way, the letter frightened me. What
could I say to her? What might she say to me? She might be, as
were many Holocaust survivors, bitter and silent about her experience,
resenting what might look like an outsider's curiosity. But I
wrote—with trepidation. I explained that though I intended
to use her name, I had no other information about her to use in
the play. "I've used the writer's privilege," I wrote, "assuming
that what happened to one person in Terezin, could have happened
to any other person. I will not use your name, if you do not wish
me to do so." I waited for her answer, preparing myself to make
changes if she requested them. Three weeks later I received my
first letter from Raja.
"Dear Friend," she wrote, "I am very pleased
to learn that you are writing a play about the Terezin children.
I would be happy to help you. We could speak together about it,
and I could give you some information you may not have found in
your research. It would be pleasant for you to visit me in Prague."
Yes, I thought, it would be pleasant. Her
invitation was so casual, a friendly, "Stop in for a cup of coffee
and we'll chat." That wasn't possible, I thought at the time,
but at least I had her permission to use her name, and better
yet, I had the promise of her memories to share.
Some months later I did travel to Prague
and Terezin to verify my research and to absorb the sense of place
there. To my suprise, Raja decided to go with me and Dr. Lagus,
who was to be my guide. We went together driving silently through
the hills outside of Prague into the country, until we arrived
at Terezin. I had come to know Terezin through books, documents,
and photographs. I was to learn its meaning through the eyes of
one who had lived there and survived its terrors.
In Terezin the quality of life was the
astounding thing. The question that had prompted me to begin my
research and to write my play had been: "Why should Raja Englanderova
have survived?" After meeting Raja, visiting Dachau, Lidice, and
Terezin, my question was not why, but how, how was it possible
that Raja could have survived to become the unique person she
was. She seemed a whole person, without hatred, without bitterness,
When we returned to my hotel, Raja asked
to read the first draft of the play. Sitting across the room from
her, I tried to write postcards to my friends and family, but
I couldn't concentrate. My mind was reading through the script
with Raja, and I was anxious for her reaction.
How could I have presumed to write her
story? Now, more than ever, knowing her, I felt inadequate. I
glanced at her several times as she read. But there was nothing
on her face or in her posture to indicate what she was thinking
or feeling. With a rustle of paper, she turned the last page and
placed her hand on the script, gently, it seemed to me, almost
lovingly. I looked at her not daring to ask, and her answer came
without my question. "But how could you have known? A Catholic
nun? How could you have known so well what it was like to be a
Jew in Terezin? How could you have known?"
She asked that question many times as we
visited. "How could you have known that I fell in love, young
love, in Terezin? How could you have known about our teacher in
Terezin?" I knew she was pleased and so was I. I had been immersed
in these lives for two years, and I assumed that wherever there
were young people—lonely and afraid, there would be the
need for love. Wherever there were children huddled in the shadows
of hunger and fear, there would be at least one strong person
to teach the children how to sing, how to write poetry, how to
paint pictures—how to survive. How could I have known? If
you are a writer, you know. You know.
Three months later she asked that question
again. Through the generosity of the Jewish community in Milwaukee,
assisted by "twelve Jewish men who wished to do a mitzvah," Raja
came to the United States and sat in the audience for the first
performance of I Never Saw Another Butterfly. When she
left the theatre in silence and came to embrace me, she asked
it once more, "How could you have known?"
There is no simple answer, of course. Who
can explain how one book, one phrase, one story can affect a writer?
How vicarious experience becomes so real, that it can truly be
described? Only another writer perhaps.
The writer who truly loves her story—researching,
studying, living with it, can begin to enter into the characters.
The first rule of writing, "Write what you know," really means,
"You must learn what you need to know to tell your story." For
me that has always meant reading, research, talking to people
who can help me to know what I need to know to tell my story.
Sometimes I stumble across other stories
that need to be told. While researching the background of the
Holocaust, I came across a reference to another story. A father
tells his son that he received his Bar Mitzvah in a German convent,
where the nuns were actively involved in the underground transfer
of Jewish children to France and England.
Deprived of his Bar Mitzvah, the boy tries
to return to his Jewish community, now destroyed by the Nazis.
He is prevented by the Mother Superior, who convinces him to stay.
She promises that she will arrange his Bar Mitzvah in the convent
chapel and then send him through the underground to safety in
A Bar Mitzvah in a convent: the knot of
truth was irresistable. My own personal history was a rich background
for the story I would create around that one true event: a Bar
Mitzvah in a convent.
The plays that are still on my hard drive
have the same point of origin: history, a true event, a fact.
I like to begin my building on the solid ground of fact and then
let characters and dialogue emerge. I take what is often called
"poetic license," and carefully assume that within the context
of a true event, historical and fictional characters will pursue
their personal goals—and there will be drama. How do I know?
If you are a writer, you know. You know.