The first words of the Holocaust play Dear Esther are some of the most horrible epithets in the English language.
“We are going to teach you that what you hear as a child, you may repeat as an adult and how horrible and evil that can become,” said the play’s narrator.
He then joined two other actors to recite a series of the worst racist and antisemitic names you can think of. It was a jarring way to begin two performances of the play on March 7 and 8 at the Stockton University Performing Arts Center, especially when the audience was nearly 1,000 middle and high school students over two days.
But for Marvin Raab, the son of the play’s namesake Esther Raab, the corrosive effect of hate is the most important message for schoolchildren to hear.
Esther Rabb’s story has been told many times, both in the book Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke and later a TV movie of the same name, about a successful escape by 300 Jews at a Nazi death camp in Poland. After the TV movie version aired on CBS in 1987, Marvin Raab said his mother, who lived in Vineland, received several inquiries from local schools to speak to students. Through those talks, she received hundreds of letters from students of all ages asking to be pen pals and inquiring about her life and her experiences living through the Holocaust.
Marvin Raab spoke on March 8 to groups of students and answered questions about the play and his mother’s amazing story of resistance and survival. The performances were part of the PAC’s educational outreach series called Imagination Station and was put together in collaboration with Stockton’s Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center.
“All those questions that you wouldn’t ask as an adult, these students would ask,” Marvin Raab said.
Esther collected close to 800 letters and suggested to Rashke that he write a play telling her story but integrating the letters she received from students. In the play, an older Esther has a conversation with a younger version of herself as she reveals the atrocities she faced while in Sobibor and her eventual escape.
“It’s an avenue for students to really understand what happened during that time,” Marvin said. “My mother tells them what happened, but on their level.”
And one of the primary messages of Dear Esther is that it can start simple, with just some name calling, perhaps on social media. Students need to understand, Marvin Raab said, that when you look at somebody different and you make a joke about them, it can quickly escalate to something as horrible as murder, simply because they are different.
“Hatred is all around us,” he told a group of students from Belhaven Middle School in Linwood. “I don’t want you to think that it’s only in some distant place in a distant country. It’s around us and you need to be aware of it.”
Marvin Raab, the son of Esther Raab, speaks to a group of students from Belhaven Middle School in Linwood after the students watched the play Dear Esther. PHOTO: Bernard DeLury, Stockton University