Seventy-two years after her death, Anne Frank remains perhaps the most well-known face of the Holocaust, a young girl trapped in the horrors of the Nazi regime. At 16, she succumbed to typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but her former boyfriend Ed Silverberg and future stepsister Eva Schloss survived, and their stories of hope and fear and are interwoven in "And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank," which will be staged Sept. 17, 19 and 20 by the La Crosse Community Theatre.
The multi-media production, written in 1999 by playwright James Still, combines narration, monologues and live acting interspersed with videotaped accounts from Silverberg and Schloss, recreating the devastation of Nazi Germany during World War II and their struggle to survive.
"The play is sort of a memoir," said director Sara Adams, who first saw the production at the Appleseed Community Theater in La Crescent. "You have these three family journeys that overlap in a way yet have completely different survival stories or completely different outcomes."
Silverberg, who at 16 dated a 13-year-old Anne, was sent to live in Amsterdam after Kristallnacht, and managed to escape from a Nazi truck and flee to Brussels, Belgium, where he remained in hiding for more than two years before the city's liberation.
Schloss, who lived in the same Amsterdam apartment building as the Franks, hid with her own family for two years, and was captured by Nazis on her 15th birthday. The family was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where her father and brother died. She and her mother, Elfriede Geiringer, spent eight months in captivity until Russian troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, and they eventually returned to Amsterdam. There they reconnected with Otto Frank, the sole survivor of the Frank family, who lost daughters Anne, 16, and Margo, 19, to typhus and wife, Edith, to starvation. Otto and Elfriede later married.
The families of Schloss and Silverberg are portrayed in the production, along with Anne and a Hitler youth, the only character not based on a real person.
"To me he's actually one of the most interesting characters," Adams said of the Hitler youth, played by teen Joshua Kaiser. "I think a lot of things he has to say are really quite shocking. (Kaiser) is an exceptional actor — it's really a horrible thing to put yourself in that (role) in particular."
Adams, who studied "The Theatre of the Holocaust" in college and found herself drawn to the stories of young survivors, said rehearsals have been difficult at times for the five teen actors in the cast.
"We've definitely been going through the growing pains of allowing actors to be in such vulnerable positions of terror, really," Adams said. "We've had some really emotional days."
"There are some pretty intense scenes — when we first read (the script) it was heartbreaking," said Madelyn Mikshowsky, 17, who portrays Eva as a teen. "Obviously, you learn about it in school but you don't get the full effect of it. But when you're in a play you get the full emotion of what these victims experience. ... I've definitely realized how bad it was."
The cast and crew are diligent about checking in on feelings and talking through particularly harrowing scenes, and Adams notes the production has a few lighthearted moments.
"It will definitely bring tears, you will gasp audibly probably, but there are some laughs ... and there are some real moments of hope," Adams said. "Some theater is all about being entertained and having fun, but there are also opportunities to educate. ... I get to help tell these stories on the stage and follow Eva's goal of making sure they stay alive and relevant."
Schloss, now 88 and living in London, will be at each show in person, hosting a question-and-answer session at the conclusion. For decades, Schloss declined to discuss her experience, but since 1985 she has been promoting Holocaust education around the world, giving talks and writing books.
Schloss has previously expressed both frustration at living in Anne's shadow and gratitude for being spared, stating in a 2013 interview, "After my mother married Otto I started to be introduced as Anne Frank's stepsister. I thought, 'I am still a person, I have a name and I lived through the same things she did.' ...I eventually accepted it. I thought, 'I have a life, I have a family, I have children and Anne has nothing.'"
The cast will meet Schloss for the first time at their opening performance, and while Mikshowsky is honored to portray a young Schloss and give recognition to her harrowing ordeal, she is admittedly intimidated to perform in front of Schloss herself.
"It's stressful knowing she's going to be watching me — I can't wrap my head around it," Mikshowsky said. "I'm super nervous. I don't know if I'm going to be good enough for her. But the director reminds us that one thing Eva wanted to do is reunite her family through stage, and I'm excited to do that."