I wanted them to suffer as little as possible

John W. ErwinDirectorThe Stories Exchange ProjectNew York
And then there was Ethela Ferkova: sixteen at the beginning of the Stories Exchange Project in 1994. Fiercely bright but shy and giggly, and at first not seeming to take all this seriously. All this delving into the past of her people: hers at that point only in fact, not feeling.
But Ethela went to ask her grandmother to tell her what had happened to her during World War II, which she had never even mentioned before. And Ethela heard her grandmother tell about nearly starving in a Nazi work camp in Slovakia, about having to steal fruit from nearby orchards to stay alive.
And then Ethela had to learn to become her grandmother as a girl not much older than she was, to get inside the skin of her young grandmother, to feel her hunger and prepare to play her stealing fruit, plucking an imaginary apple so clearly – watching her own hand as if in wonder that she was having to do what she was doing – that audiences who,like Ethela not long before, did not know that most Roma in Czechoslovakia were murdered by the Nazis also felt the hunger of the frightened girl who would became Ethela’s grandmother.
And when Ethela made that gesture of plucking the fruit over and over again during weeks of rehearsals and performances, she learned – as she said to me on camera when we made the first video documentary of the Stories Exchange Project – that she was a Rom, and that she was proud to be a Rom.
And then, four years later, Ethela told a Peruvian friend and colleague and myself how she has acted on the pride she learned in performing her grandmother’s Holocaust story by going to England with a Czech friend to try to prepare some of the massive – and still growing – number of Roma in Dover who had applied for asylum in the United Kingdom for the near inevitability of being rejected and sent back to the Czech Republic.
Ethela’s young pride had matured quickly, and buoyantly survived her experiencing the reality of her people’s continuing humiliation. "I wanted to see what I could do to help. I knew that almost all of them would be sent back, but I wanted them to suffer as little as possible.”
Having learned and told with her own attentive body what her grandmother had suffered when she was her age, Ethela will not stand by when Roma are in trouble.
This is what the Stories Exchange Project can do.
[see also on this Web-page under “Performances”: “Dirt and hunger, work camp 1944” and under “Interviews”: both “I can be proud that I am Gypsy” and “Finally she realized that she was Rom.”
And you can find excerpts from the documentary on this Web-page in Videos.]

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