Lincoln Family Letters From Holocaust Victims Come Alive in School Play
By Melissa Rosales, Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
April 22, 2021, 6:31 a.m. ·
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According to a 50-state survey among adults under 40, one in 10 of them don’t remember ever hearing the word “Holocaust,” where 6 million Jews were killed in World War II. Among them were Curt and Regina Schönwald whose son and grandsons lived in Lincoln. Lincoln High School is performing a play based on the family’s experience.
Curt and Regina Schönwald pose for a photo (Photo Courtesy Ken Wald).
Growing up in Lincoln, Ken Wald never knew his grandparents. He knew his parents met after fleeing Germany and settled in Nebraska. His father, Heinz Schönwald, changed his name to Henry Wald in America. And in the small Jewish community they lived in, virtually no one talked about their grandparents.
"There was a silence about them," he said. "None of the survivors in our group really wanted to talk about what had happened to them. They didn't want us to be frightened. They were very much in the mode of you know, we went through it let's move on with our lives."
It wasn’t until Wald’s father passed away in 1986 that he and his brother rummaged through his belongings.
"I remember, I reached into this drawer, and I pulled out this unusually thick file folder. And I opened it up, and I saw what were clearly old documents. When I looked more closely, I saw that they were mostly in German, and that most of them were dated the very late 1930s through about 1941, or 42.
Neither my brother nor I spoke German, but I was able to make out that these were letters written from my grandparents to my father, but I couldn't read them," Wald said.
It took 14 years, after his mother died, until Wald was able to translate the letters.
Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances
One long paragraph was in English, written by his grandmother, Regina Schönwald. Wald at least knew she spent some time in England.
In the letter, she was comforting her son, who recently arrived in America, couldn’t find a job, and was depressed.
“My grandmother said, 'Your letter I have read many times, for God's sake, don't lose hope. Think of the Easter week last year, and enjoy everything that comes across your way. Father and I take our long walks, and we enjoy it very much. We have beautiful spring days.
The Schönwalds used to own a department store (Photo Courtesy Ken Wald).
On holidays and Sundays we walk in the forenoon, on other days in the afternoon, very often, we meet Uncle and Aunt. And we see the old Berlin trees and old parks that we knew 35 years ago. Our flat is now very nice and so comfortable. Everything is found to place. And the nice furniture is also very practical. With fondest care to you and all relations. A kiss my dear boy.' And that just blew me away," he said.
Wald was amazed by how careful they were writing the letters-- never exactly saying what was happening. Censors in Germany had to read them before they were mailed out.
Wald’s grandparents were shopkeepers, but they had to sell their store to a non-Jew, and live in Jewish homes.
"They were ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances," he said. "They didn't feel sorry for themselves. They didn't whine and moan. They just set about trying to get ready for what they thought would be their life in America."
The Schönwalds never got to leave Germany. They were able to get visas to Cuba, but by that time, the Germans decided on a policy to exterminate Jews. Although he isn’t certain, Wald believes his grandparents died in a concentration camp in Sobibor.
Lincoln High School Junior Evan Works is cast as Ken Wald and senior Ethan Rask as Curt Schönwald in the play (Photo Courtesy Evan Works).
Wald went on to share their letters with Lincoln High School English teacher Christopher Maly, who wrote and directed the play, “Ghosts On The Wall.”
Maly said the play is completely primary sourced, based on the letters, German memos, and Wald’s personal essays. It’s acted by a cast of 24 drama students at the school.
"Now that we're losing a lot of people from that era, their voices aren't here with us anymore," Maly said. "So we have to really fight to keep that legacy accessible to younger generations."
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nebraska does not require Holocaust education in schools. But, the Department of Education encourages teaching about it in their most recent standards.
Junior Evan Works portrays Ken Wald in the Lincoln High School play and he’s passionate about the story.
"The son of the Holocaust victims came to Lincoln. So it happened here," he said. "And it just seems very close."
Curt Schönwald and his children pose for a photo. His son lived in Lincoln and his daughter spent the rest of her life in South Africa (Photo Courtesy Ken Wald).
The importance of history
Works said the Holocaust is intimidating to learn about. But starting with the play, and hearing the Schönwald’s story, is a good place to start.
"We need to read the stories and hear about these stories to see what happened and how we can see patterns that are still around today," he said. "And how important it is to stop these patterns and to make changes in our world. So that something like the Holocaust will never happen again."
Ken Wald agrees. For the most part, his kids grew up thinking being Jewish was fine.. Until anti-Semitism attacks, like the Charlottesville shooting, happened. He hopes people will take attacks like those seriously.
"Having to tell my kids and they having to tell our grandkids that this is a reality they may have to live with is just very, very dispiriting to me," he said. "We can't stop it, but at least we can do things to make people understand the costs and the dangers of going down this road. And, I think Chris’ play does that beautifully."
The play has been performed in Florida schools, but this is Nebraska’s first high school production.
“Ghosts On The Wall” will be livestreamed on Thursday, Apr. 22, and Friday, Apr. 23 at 7 p.m., and Saturday, Apr. 24, at 2 p.m.
Buy tickets here.
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