“Only Miracles,” a new immersive Holocaust theater experience, debuts at Touro

Photos by Bruce France

A very unusual story of survival during the Holocaust, told in an innovative fashion, is making its debut in New Orleans this month with “Only Miracles.”

The interactive event will be in the Touro Synagogue sanctuary from April 13 to 15, where groups of 10 audience members will go into the room every 10 minutes for an immersive experience. “It’s theater, but it is also educational,” said playwright, director and producer Dodd Loomis.

Loomis is working on his master’s in fine arts and is production manager for Tulane’s department of theatre and dance. He likes to take different disciplines and put them together, and this is an example of that.

“A lot of the work I have created over the last 20 years, I’m always interested in blurring the lines between audience and performer,” he said. In designing “Only Miracles,” he asked, “can it be possible to have the audience be the main character?”

The story itself is very personal, as it is the experiences of his wife’s grandparents.

Ed Lefkowitz was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1920. He escaped the Nazi occupation, only to wind up in a Russian slave labor camp in Siberia while most of his family was murdered in the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz. While in the labor camp, he met Helen, who was from Alexandrow, Poland. She lost most of her family in the Holocaust, but managed to escape over the border to Russia, and wound up in the same labor camp.

In 1944, their daughter, Rose, was born in the camp. Loomis said “it’s a miracle they survived — and had a baby.”

After the war, they spent three years in a displaced persons camp in Backnang, Germany, then went to the United States, where two of Ed’s surviving brothers were, in 1949.

The show begins with events of August 1939 and goes through May 1949.

The first section is based on two interviews the Lefkowitzes did in 1995 with the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Audience members will wear synchronized headphones, where a voiceover will guide them, along with actors and theatrical facilitators throughout the sanctuary. Participants will assume roles and be guided through vignettes from their lives.

“A cast takes an audience through, and then they come back to the next audience,” Loomis explained. “There’s multiple audiences and multiple paths at any given point,” and the story layers upon itself. “At some point in the show, you advance 8 years in your story, and you’ll hear parts from your life from five years ago.”

Loomis said that a lot of Holocaust education is informational or academic. “Embodiment of a story is so impactful,” and that is how theater operates. “Create a situation where the audience embodies the story… they will feel things and take ownership in ways they never have before.”

Once an audience member can put themselves in the center of a story, “it stops being about those people over there, or back then.”

The second part of the experience is a 10-minute multi-media museum experience. Also taking footage from the 1995 interviews, the section relies on 20-foot projection screens surrounding the audience, with large-scale maps and timelines, calendars, photographs and ticket stubs chronicling their 7,000 mile journey of survival.

The third part is an optional reflective space, where trained volunteers can facilitate group discussions. Audience members can opt to journal on a public display board, or share their thoughts in a “confession booth” video interview space. Water, tea and snacks will be provided.

While those attending “Only Miracles” will play the roles of the Lefkowitzes, there is one person who embodies the story — the miracle daughter, Rose Lefkowitz Rosenkranz, now 80. “She is flying in for the show,” Loomis said.

On one of the days, she will be part of a group playing her father, accompanied by three generations of her family. The next day, she will take on her mother’s role, with additional grandchildren who are coming to town for the show.

At one point in the show, Ed and Helen meet and marry, then Helen is given her baby. So as Rosenkranz goes through the show as her mother, “Rose will be handed herself,” Loomis said.

While she is in town, he said, he wants to “make sure Rosie touches as many people’s lives as possible,” so she will be doing many appearances at schools, from the Touro Sunday School to Country Day.

She is also giving a talk at the Grant Center for the American Jewish Experience at Tulane’s Diboll Gallery on April 10. Joining her for the 6:30 p.m. program are Golan Moskowitz, Tulane School of Liberal Arts assistant professor of Jewish Studies and Katherine and Henry J. Gaisman Faculty Fellow; and Kenneth Hoffman, executive director of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience. The talk sold out almost immediately.

For many years, Loomis had tried to get his wife, Alix, to write a show about her grandparents and use her singing talent. But, he figured, she is too close to the subject, where he had a bit of detachment — doing this show was his way of “meeting” them, which he never had the opportunity to do in real life, as Helen died in 2003 and Ed died in 2010.

He said that relatives of Holocaust survivors generally have a box of artifacts. Obviously, one does not want to discard them, but often nobody wants to read them. “Where is the weird box of cassette tapes that have been in the back of the closet,” he mused.

“I had heard a lot of the stories,” he said, and he needed to figure out how the pieces fit together. “The story was Swiss cheese,” and he had holes to fill. He did a deep dive into World War II history, when borders changed. He went through photos, many of which were dated, and “became fascinated with the research component.” At one point he had an Excel sheet with 10,000 cells intertwined.

He marveled at the human component of the story — “just incredible fortitude.”

After doing the research, he worked on the technical component. He wanted to experiment with sound design, and as part of his master’s program, built an independent study on sound design software and how sound can be a major driver of a story.

He recently did a test run of the show with experts in numerous fields, from Jewish studies to Holocaust educators, documentary theater, sound design, a rabbi, directors of Jewish grant organizations and children of Holocaust survivors. “I really wanted to get feedback from leaders in each individual discipline and field, to get the best possible information back to make it as good as possible,” he said.

At the test run, he reflected that “It’s been just a bunch of ideas in my brain… to send an audience though it was very exciting.”

He took the feedback and, with just a couple weeks before the first performances, incorporated many of the suggestions.

Golan Moskowitz, a Ph.D. in Judaic studies who specializes in post-Holocaust family and memory, saw the preview and highly recommends the show, calling it “an incredibly powerful and innovative production of immersive theater rooted in Holocaust survivor testimony.”

“Only Miracles” also shines a light on a little-taught aspect of the Holocaust. So much of Holocaust education is Germany and Poland, he said. “It’s really only half the story. There’s a whole other thing once you cross into the Russian border.”

In Russia, there were over 400 labor camps. They weren’t extermination camps like in Poland, but the idea as that the humans used for labor were “completely expendable. You could survive 30 days, 90 days, they didn’t care.”

A huge percentage of Russia’s mineral resources was gathered by slave labor in the gulag camps, “and they are absolutely horrific.” By 1957, over 20 million prisoners had moved through the gulags. “That is beyond massive… and most Americans don’t know anything about it.”

After the Touro run, he hopes it can be replicated elsewhere, especially because the difficult part of getting the show written and running has now happened. He designed the show to be very portable — “It’s a pretty minimal show to tour,” he said. “And it doesn’t tour with actors. It tours with hard drives.”

He figures it would be easy to collaborate with Jewish Community Centers or synagogues, and easily adapt the show to available spaces. He’d tell a local community that they need a certain number of volunteers, a number of actors, perhaps four days to rehearse — and the experience is just as educational for the cast as it is for those who come to the show.

Loomis’s work has toured over 35 countries across five continents. Two of his previous plays were also rooted in the principles of Documentary Theatre and toured the globe for over 7 years. In addition to his role at TUTD, he is a professor in the Department of Digital Media Practices. “Only Miracles” is the final showing for his MFA in Interdisciplinary Studies of the Performing Arts.

The performances at Touro will run from 6 to 9 p.m. on April 13, 1 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. on April 14, and 1 to 4 p.m. on April 15. New groups of 10 will enter every 10 minutes.

As of the end of March, the run was almost completely sold out.