AHS students memorialize the Holocaust

From left, Arlington High School French class students Keeley Killebrew, Kate Hagenston, Esra Al-Ameedi and Kayla Wright look on and study their own lines as Naheed Arang delivers her
From left, Arlington High School French class students Keeley Killebrew, Kate Hagenston, Esra Al-Ameedi and Kayla Wright look on and study their own lines as Naheed Arang delivers her 'This I believe …' closing statement during the 'France in Her Own Words' readers theater at the Linda M. Byrnes Performing Arts Center on May 23.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — The stage of the Linda M. Byrnes Performing Arts Center was starkly unfurnished, to match the all-black outfits worn by the 20 Arlington High School French class students who spoke and sang that evening, and to reflect the somber mood of the passages from which they read.

Sue Weingarten, who teaches French III and IV along with Sherida Taylor, had spent more than a dozen years compiling quotations about the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation of France from historic quotations by the French people themselves, and on Wednesday, May 23, her research was performed as "France in Her Own Words" by the students who had devoted two weeks to rehearsing the material, after devoting the two weeks prior to that studying the Holocaust from a French perspective in Weingarten's class.

"It was just a matter of finding pieces that fit the chronological progression of events, and arranging them in a coherent order," said Weingarten, whose Holocaust education efforts were initially inspired by her own family's history. "The more I learned, the more fascinating the topic became. It's a microcosm of universal humanity, a study of at least five lifetimes."

After two weeks of learning the history and discussing how it intersected with politics, justice and personal responsibility, the students set aside 15 hours over the course of the following two weeks to getting the songs and blocking down, as well as working on performance skills such as enunciating clearly, audibly and with emotion.

"These are French students, not drama students, so we worked hard with them, with great success," Taylor said. "They were excellent listeners and learned quickly."

Over the course of their seven rehearsal sessions, students such as Meg Coalson found it challenging to invest enough emotion into their readings, but once they began making connections with the material, they soon found themselves facing the opposite problem, of feeling overwhelmed emotionally by the personal anecdotes from that dark time in history.

"Every time I read through it and heard it, I understood it more, and it made a greater impact on me, making it easier to convey it to the audience," said Coalson, who felt gratified by how much their performance was able to move Weingarten. "She had worked so hard on this play, and toward the end of our time practicing, she started crying. She had this vision that she made clear to all of us, and by the end, I was on the verge of tears because it was beginning to affect me as well."

Weingarten praised the students for the sensitivity and enthusiasm with which they approached the material.

"Their efforts moved the audience, as evidenced by the sniffles circulating in the auditorium," said Weingarten, who noted that the students' closing "This I believe ..." statements were their own responses to what they had learned. "It's clear they understand and represent a future generation who will strive for justice. I hope the students and audience both understand that it's their responsibility to be aware of events that could lead to dangerous times, and to speak up before it's too late. Tolerance and justice give human dignity, which in turn helps the world get along."

"We want genocide to end forever," said Coalson, one of the AHS French students who was able to meet 89-year-old Holocaust survivor Magda Schaloum the week before their May 23 performance at the PAC. "We will be the last generation to meet the people who were in those concentration camps, and to truly understand what happened. After us, it will be purely documentation. To hear it is a lot different than to read it."

"All of us must never forget, and have the courage to fight against injustice, so that we can always flourish as a society," Taylor said. "This lesson is meaningful, in that it shows that, even in a free and flourishing society like France, good people can do the wrong thing. Picking the wrong side can be devastating to life as we know it."

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