By Mara Dresner
The Kreisau Project, which features the late playwright Marc P. Smith’s final two plays, has established a partnership with the non-profit Facing History and Ourselves, based in Brookline. Facing History and Ourselves “combats racism, antisemitism and prejudice and nurtures democracy through education programs worldwide.”
The scripts, A Journey to Kreisau and Karski, are available, free of charge, for use by Facing History and Ourselves educators for classroom study purposes. The two scripts dovetail with Facing History’s “Holocaust and Human Behavior” unit of study and provide new materials on resistance during the Holocaust.
Smith, along with his wife, Susan, co-founded the non-profit professional theater company, Worcester Foothills Theatre, which the pair ran for 25 years (1974-1999). For most of his remaining years (he passed away in March 2011), Marc Smith focused his work on the research and writing of these two plays as well as guest lecturing and directing the two plays in their various performance cities.
Susan Smith said that her husband’s interest in the subject matter goes back to his boyhood.
“He was born in 1934, roughly a decade before the end of World War 2. He had a very politically tuned-in family. Politics were very much a dinner table conversation. … He was aware from a very early age what was happening in Europe,” she said, noting that when Marc was 10, he read Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski.
“Throughout his life, he was just a voracious reader. He never met a used bookstore he didn’t like; that was just part of his DNA.”
Marc Smith wrote on a number of topics, including about his experiences in the Army, stationed in Columbia, South Carolina in the late 1950s.
“He had met a young man who was the son of a Nazi official; he and his family were living in the United States. He and Marc had weird conversations, exploring each other’s backgrounds. Here was this Jew in the United States, coming face to face with a former Nazi as he would describe himself. He wasn’t able to absorb the experience and put it down on paper until the 1980s,” said Susan Smith, adjunct faculty & internship coordinator, Clark University/COPACE.
Both of the plays in the Kreisau Project are full-length works.
A Journey to Kreisau focuses on an emotional journey of moral courage, relating the powerful and little-known story of Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, central figures in German resistance to the horrors of the Third Reich. At the von Moltke estate in Kreisau, Eastern Germany, a small circle of friends – capitalists and socialists, Protestants and Catholics, academics and military officers-laid plans for a post-Hitler world that would encompass a democratic Germany within a democratic Europe; within the Nazi regime, this activity was definitively treasonous. Helmuth James was arrested, imprisoned, and then executed by the Nazis during the final months of the Third Reich. Freya escaped with their two sons, ultimately coming to live in Vermont. The von Moltke estate, now part of Poland and called Krzyzowa, is a center for the study of reconciliation, tolerance, and democratic values. Marc Smith’s last public speaking appearance was in January 2011 at the Goethe Institut-Boston, where he spoke at an event commemorating Freya von Moltke who had passed away just a year earlier at the age of 98.
Karski presents the intense and chilling story of Jan Karski, a hero of the Polish underground who is sometimes referred to as “the man who tried to stop the Holocaust.” Karski joined the Polish Underground Army at the outset of the German occupation of his country, serving as courier between underground groups in Poland and the government in exile in London. With breathtaking courage and subterfuge, he smuggled himself into the Warsaw ghetto to witness what was happening there and then, in a borrowed Ukrainian guard’s uniform, entered a Nazi extermination camp in Eastern Poland. He was so horrified by what he saw that he made the perilous journey across Nazi-occupied Europe to report firsthand to Western leaders in England and in the U.S. His reports were generally received with disbelief as being too outrageous to be true. Karski remained in the United States, teaching at Georgetown University until his death in 2000. He was posthumously awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in May 2012. April 2014 marks the centennial of his birth.
Susan Smith said that the plays are appropriate for seventh or eighth graders through adults. Each runs about two hours with an intermission. They are written to be presented as staged readings, which Smith said has artistic as well as budgetary benefits.
“These plays are a powerful way to reveal the stories that Marc felt needed to be told,” she said. “You don’t have scenery; you don’t have props; you don’t have actors changing costumes; you don’t have sound effects. You simply have the words and the skill of the actors presenting an emotional and intense story.”
Smith said that the primary goal of the plays is “to be sure to meet the responsibility of telling the stories we’ve learned about, the stories about people who did the right thing, who resisted during the Holocaust. It’s important for those stories to be told. We have a moral obligation to tell them.”
She would like the plays to have “expanded exposure.”
“It’s a form of legacy I’d like to have of the creative work that Marc has done.”
The plays have already been performed more than a dozen locations worldwide, including Worcester Foothills Theatre, Elms College in Chicopee, Smith College in Northampton and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre; as well as in Hamburg and Berlin, Germany; and in Lodz, Wroclaw, Kreisau/Krzyzowa, and Krakow, Poland.
The alliance with Facing History and Ourselves will make the plays more readily available.
Facing History and Ourselves was founded in 1976 by educators who believed that instilling intellectual vigor and curiosity goes hand-in-hand with teaching facts and figures.
“Drama is a particularly important way of analyzing and looking at history,” said Associate Executive Director Marty Sleeper. He said that the organization uses various ways to help students connect to history, including artwork, written documents, survivor testimony and videos.
“As history is receding farther and farther, it’s very important that the current and future generations understand the legacy and [these plays] help do that,” said Sleeper. “We’re delighted to make those two stories and those plays available to our audiences.”
For further information visit www.thekreisauproject.com or www.facinghistory.org.
Mara Dresner is a freelance writer in Rocky Hill, Conn.