Holocaust survivor Sam Ponczak was a toddler when he and his mother escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland. Ponczak, who is Jewish, was taken to Soviet Russia. He spent the remainder of World War II in a Siberian labor camp with his parents. His story is a mixture of his early memories and family accounts.
A Columbia resident, Ponczak, 69, shared his story and answered questions from cast and audience members Saturday afternoon after a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank at Hammond High School.
"We really tried as a cast and crew to understand what was going on at this time," said theater teacher and director Lauren Tobiason, who began preparing for the production during the summer, rereading Frank's diary and books by and about Holocaust survivors.
She said of Ponczak's visit: "To actually have a piece of living history with us was a great honor."
In October, Tobiason and several members of the cast and crew visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"I wanted them to have historical context for the show and to also understand the gravity of what it is they have the honor of performing," Tobiason said.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a dramatization of Anne Frank's diary. It tells the story of the Frank family's 25 months hiding in the attic rooms of an Amsterdam office building. Eight people shared the space, staying perfectly quiet during work hours to avoid discovery. Of the eight, only Frank's father, Otto survived the war. Anne died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the age of 15.
Senior Shannon Nabors, 16, played Edith, Anne Frank's mother. She said Tobiason "provided a lot of information for us on who our characters were in real life."
"I've never met anyone who survived the Holocaust," Nabors added. "When you go to a museum, you have the words there and videos of people telling you their experiences, but there's something different about actually meeting someone who's been through all of that."
Nabors read Frank's diary in middle school. "This play has helped me put myself in their shoes. ... When you're on stage performing as that person, you get more into the mindset of someone who has to stay cooped up in hiding for such a long amount of time," she said.
Sophomore Kyla Sokoll-Ward, 15, played the role of Anne Frank. "I think it's cool that this show gives entertainment as well as historical background," she said. "While we [were] rehearsing, it occurred to me that these are real people. They're not just characters."
Although the play is a serious drama, Sokoll-Ward said that Anne Frank's personality adds humor to the script. "Anne Frank is optimistic and lighthearted. It's just fun to see the contrast" between the family situation and Anne's character, she said.
Ponczak said, "As you have seen in the play ... everybody was starving, suffering; kindness was a rare commodity. There were many Polish people who saved Jewish families ... at the risk of their own lives. ... That's kindness."
Ponczak lost most of his family to the Holocaust and the war. He and his mother were nearly caught traveling by train out of Poland. "We were saved by a couple of priests who stood in front of us and made sure my mother's armband wasn't visible" when Jews were removed from the train, he said.
Ponczak was not the only person who shared memories of World War II. Audience member Dr. John Vandenberge was a child in Holland during the 1940s. He told students that he remembered Nazi soldiers going through his family's apartment, searching for Jews. "When these four Nazi soldiers walked onstage [during the play], it just grabbed me," he said.
Vandenberge's son, Hammond Assistant Principal Martin Vandenberge, invited his father to the performance. Dr. Vandenberge said his son knew he would be interested in watching a play about the history he lived. He said the play, "brought a lot of memories for me. It was a reflection of what really happened."
Dr. Vandenberge said his father and uncle hid 25 Jews under a church pulpit during the war. All of them survived. After the play, he spoke to Ponczak about including his family's story in Holocaust records.
As historical records continue to be released, Ponczak plans to work with the Holocaust Museum, translating documents that will help people trace their family members.
Ponczak said his experiences "taught me there's got to be hope. ... I see hope in this group of kids that were willing to take this difficult play and do it."