Erika Mandler could not believe her eyes.
For 14 years, ever since her husband George died, she had devoted her life to sharing the painful memories of surviving a Nazi concentration camp in Slovakia. Of seeing her first true love and husband of less than one year sent to die at Auschwitz. Of giving birth to a child who died after just two days because of malnourishment from spending months hiding in mountain bunkers.
Now those stories had come to life, captured with heartfelt accuracy by dozens of teenagers in the rural Missouri town she calls home. Teens who for the most part had never even met a Jew and some of whose closest relatives insist the Holocaust is pure fiction.
Tears of joy filled Mandler’s eyes as she sat center stage after the first performance of the play Courage and Love: The George and Erika Mandler Story.
More than 50 student performers from Chillicothe High School surrounded the frail, 85-year-old woman. In the audience, nearly 800 students and teachers offered a standing ovation.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” she said.
The play was written and directed by Lisa Rule, a Chillicothe High English and drama teacher and evangelical Christian who first met Erika Mandler a decade ago when Rule was invited to her home to light Hanukkah candles. From there, a friendship was born.
The teacher asked Mandler several years ago to share her World War II story with at-risk middle school students in Carrollton. The students were mesmerized.
“I had 100 eighth-graders who never met a Jewish lady before,” Rule said.
“They sat entranced. They thought that their lives are so awful. And when they finally see somebody who has had genuine deprivation, it strikes them as something very real,” she said.
After joining the high school faculty last year, Rule was tasked with reviving a moribund drama program. She quickly decided to honor Mandler with an original play.
Hannah Morgan, 16, portrayed the young Mandler — known then as Erika Raab — from the carefree days as a well-to-do teenager in Vienna and Czechoslovakia to the two years in the Novaky concentration camp and the five months hiding from German soldiers in the mountains.
Morgan, the daughter of a Baptist preacher whose only previous acting experience came in church holiday pageants, said Mandler’s story has awakened many of her classmates. Gone are the stereotypes of an unfamiliar people — Jews are smart, cheap, good with money. In their place is understanding and compassion.
“It’s not just a story in a textbook. They’re not just pictures with faces,” she said.
The Mandlers came to Chillicothe, a town of roughly 8,700 residents, in 1951 after brief stops in New York and Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. George Mandler, a physician before the war broke out, had already earned his medical license in the two Eastern states.
Mandler had his sights set on a loftier position at a Cleveland medical clinic. But when he arrived in Ohio for an interview, he was met with the same antisemitism that nearly cost him his life overseas. There would be no job for him in Cleveland, the clinic’s chief of staff said. The German doctors on the staff had no need for a Jew in their midst.
“George was absolutely crushed,” his wife recalled. “He said, ‘Why did we come to this country, to hear this again, the hatred?’”
The couple settled on Chillicothe, a railroad town 130km northeast of Kansas City. George Mandler left nothing to chance this time. His letter of inquiry began: “Dear doctor. I am a Jew.”