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Sharing history with collaboration

If she survived she would tell their story. In return for hope, she received bread crumbs from the other women working in the factory.

Fritzie Fritzshall, an Auschwitz survivor tells her story on stage as a hologram at the Illinois Holocaust and Education Center. She answers the audiences questions, having the viewers lead the conversation.

On May 1, the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day, Chicagoan Tom Dianeo visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum and heard this message from Fritzshall.  He said he found it interesting that he could talk to Fritzie and be responded to.

Fritzie is not the museum’s only interactive exhibit; there is a “Take a Stand Lab” where visitors can take a quiz and find out how to get involved in the community, and the Harvey L. Miller Family Youth Exhibition of colorful lockers inside of which are stories of upstanders like Rosa Parks waiting to be explored by younger learners.

But the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center has gone beyond just exhibitions.  In July 2018, they partnered with Lincoln Park’s Victory Gardens Theater to provide the community opportunities to explore and learn about these sad atrocities. The partnership was announced as an innovative way to combat hatred, prejudice and indifference in society.

Since the announcement, the partnership has included excerpts from plays at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

Marcy Larson, vice president of marketing & business development at The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, thought positively of the partnership. “I think it helped people think of us as not just a Holocaust Museum but a place where we address and discuss challenging social issues,” she said.

Victory Gardens has never been the type of theater to shy away from productions that have tackled difficult subjects. This season, they found more topics in their productions that align with the museum exhibits.

Jana Liles, director of marketing and communications at Victory Gardens Theater, said the theater has always prided itself on being a theater that produces work that deals with socially progressive topics. “We’re interested in conversations around communities of color and communities that don’t always get their stories out to the forefront,” she said.

In January the cast of “Cambodian Rock Band,” Victory Gardens Theater’s most recent play, performed a few of their songs at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

“Cambodian Rock Band” explores the Cambodian genocide. The play is about a father-daughter duo who discover Cambodian rock music.

The Cambodian genocide happened under the leadership of the Khmer Rouge, the communist group of Kampuchea (what they ‘renamed’ Cambodia.) During the four year reign under the group’s leader, Pol Pot, intellectuals who could or would oppose their government were targeted, jailed and killed.

According to The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center during Pol Pot’s reign 1975-1979, an estimated number of 1.5 to 2 million people were murdered in Cambodia, about 20% of the population.

Eileen Doan, who plays the character Pou and is the music captain in “Cambodian Rock Band,” enjoyed working with a great cast.

“As soon as we got together on the first day of music rehearsal we were 100 percent a rock band already,” Doan said.

Doan who is a musician herself said the music for the play is fun. Despite the lyrics being in the language of Khmer, the songs are catchy enough for many types of audiences to enjoy. The music was written by L.A. band Dengue Fever.

The cast of “Cambodian Rock Band” has not only had the opportunity to perform at the museum but learned and researched their characters through its exhibits.

The play itself also brought knowledge to audiences who may have not been aware of the Cambodian genocide. Adam Joel, who went to see “Cambodian Rock Band,” found the play to be an educational experience.

“In school and in general, I had little exposure to the Khmer Rouge and the holocaust—how unaware I was of this tragedy was very eye opening,” Joel said. “It was also very interesting learning about the Khmer [Rouge] tactics of targeting artists and intellectuals and that form of cultural destruction was also very eye-opening.”

Both the play and museum are places of learning, yet they encourage those who educate themselves to go beyond this and take action.

“Part of our work is to educate what happens when someone becomes othered that can lead to prejudice and violence and indifference and bullying,” Larson said.

Although the play is about a tragic event, Doan hopes that after the performance of “Cambodian Rock Band” the audience will have a sense of understanding and empathy for Cambodia.

“They see that Cambodia is so much more than what the genocide did to it,” Doan said. “It’s so vibrant and full of life and full of people who dreamed and laughed and that it will be that way again. It is that way again.”

“Cambodian Rock Band’s” extended run is came to an end May 12, but  “If I Forget,” a play about family and Jewish culture, begins June 7. Victory Gardens Theater has recently released the lineup for their 2019/2020 season that features work with similar emotional subject matters.

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