By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — A Holocaust survivor and author brought her message of acceptance and understanding to a packed auditorium at Mount Saint Mary Academy Tuesday night.
Gerda Weissmann Klein, who suffered at the hands of the Nazis for six years, attended the performance of an adaptation of her book at the school and spoke to the audience about her experience.
After surviving World War II and moving to Kenmore, Klein met her neighbor, a young girl named Jenny, on her street, East Hazeltine. Jenny has disabilities and Klein observed her outside, not jumping the fence or playing like the other kids.
Klein was inspired.
“I sat at my kitchen table and wrote this little book,” Klein said.
Klein’s book was published in 1974 and has since been translated into 20 different languages. The work has a strong anti-bullying message and is one of the first books to advocate for those with disabilities.
“Jenny and I have a lot in common,” Klein, now 88, said. “I was being made fun of because I was different, because I was Jewish in Nazi Germany.”
And although Jenny is different, too, the play shows she is remarkable in her own way. She still can make friends, love her family, dance and joke. She may struggle with learning certain things, but in many ways, she is just like us.
Klein’s book was published in 1974. Then a few years ago, the executive and artistic director of the local Theatre for Change, Darleen Pickering Hummert, got the chance to meet Klein. Hummert told Klein she wanted to adapt the book into a play, and Klein readily accepted.
“I revered her so, so I wanted to make sure it was excellent,” Hummert said. “I thought so much of her book and wanted to be able to bring it to more people in a theatrical way.”
Hummert expanded the book to include seven characters — Jenny, her family and friends, with two adult actors and five teenagers. She added music, like “Blackbird” by Paul McCartney, dancing and funny, modern references to Google and Wikipedia.
“All of Gerda’s words are in there. All of her narrative was divided between the seven characters,” Hummert said. “It just goes back and forth between the things I added and the narrative.”
The first time Klein saw the play in 2010, she couldn’t stop smiling.
“She was so thrilled,” Hummert said.
Hummert said the play changes a bit every time it has been performed, with different actors taking part. At the most recent performance Tuesday night, 12-year-old Adam Kluge, of Tonawanda, performed a song he wrote after being bullied.
“The main message is that it is OK to be who you are, no matter how many people tell you to change,” Kluge said. “It will get better and you are not alone.”
Three of the other actors in the show are also from the Ken-Ton area, including the star, Kelsie Skinner, who plays Jenny and has disabilities herself. Skinner is a student at Kenmore East High School.
“I am ‘like’ Jenny is many ways,” Kelsie said. “Kids with disabilities have trouble walking or talking well ... we only want to be accepted for the people we are.”
Before the play got underway, The Blue Rose Foundation President Beverly Slichta-Cusick announced that East Hazeltine, where Klein lived, will be adorned with a new sign naming it Blue Rose Lane.
And after the performance, Klein spoke, answered questions and signed copies of her book.
Klein now lives in Phoenix, but enjoyed her trip home to Buffalo to see the play again.
“Buffalo will always be my home,” she said. “This is where I found freedom. This is where sadness and death turned to joy and life.”
In 2010, Klein received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and the documentary of her experience in the Holocaust, “One Survivor Remembers,” received an Emmy and Academy Award in 1995.Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150.