It began with a small box of letters — a handful of letters, written in German, that had not been read for 50 years.
Susan Prinz Shear’s mother unearthed the box eight years ago after her daughter developed an interest in the Holocaust.
“We sat on her bed reading them and we both cried,” Shear says. “It was a crystallizing moment in time.
“As an educator I knew the importance of first-hand documentation. On a personal level, it seemed that in reading the letters and hearing the voice in the moment, I crossed some boundary of history. The past just grabbed me.”
Thus began an “accidental journey” that has led Shear to the first formal production of her biographical play, “No Way Out,” in Boulder on Nov. 2.
“I didn’t plan any step along the way,” she says of the decade-long project. “One step just led to another.”
The first step took place in 1993, when Shear’s husband “decided he’d had enough of working in a big pressure law firm in Silicone Valley” and the couple moved back to Boulder, where they had lived in the ’70s.
“When we came back I had to reinvent myself,” says Shear, an educator who had worked in children’s theater in California and taught drama in private schools. Shear jumped into action by creating a children’s theater program that is still operating in Northglenn.
“Around that time I decided that I needed to know more about the Holocaust, so I started reading more about it and realized that it raised incredible issues of human behavior.
“It was a watershed moment in history that had enormous educational value as well as great personal interest for me.”
Shear became involved with the Holocaust Awareness Institute in Denver, where she now serves as education specialist, and trained as an interviewer of Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Today Shear teaches at DU, works with Regis University and conducts presentations, workshops and trainings for teachers and students regionally and nationally.
Shear was visiting her mother in St. Louis eight years ago when her mother asked if she might be interested in looking at some old letters. Shear brought the letters back to Boulder and decided to have them translated, so her children could read them.
She approached her uncle, who was not only willing to translate them but had quite a few letters of his own.
Shear soon had 75 letters. Just before leaving to study at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies in Israel and Poland, she printed the letters, put them in a booklet and threw them in her suitcase.
At Yad Vashem, she shared the booklet of letters with another educator.
“It got passed around and everyone asked me if I realized how important this was,” Shear recalls.
Upon her return, Shear found a relative living in Munich whose name was on one of her letters. He not only had his own treasure trove of letters but his uncle’s complete legal file.
Shear discovered that her grandfather, “being German,” had made carbon copies of every letter he sent to his daughter in Germany.
Soon letters were coming in from family members around the world.
“They kept sending and I kept typing,” says Shear, who eventually put 500 letters in chronological order.
“A detailed story unfolded with all the little pieces, historical and personal, with the amazing mixed with the ordinary. The weather, birthdays and recipes were mixed with desperate news.”
The story is a gripping drama documenting the family’s immigration struggles. By 1939, Shear’s mother, two uncles and her grandparents had emigrated from Germany. Only Shear’s aunt Gerda remained behind. Her grandparents took comfort in the fact that Gerda had recently married the son of a very wealthy Jewish family.
From America, the family engaged in a desperate attempt to bring Gerda, her husband and young child to safety.
“People had mentioned that the letters could be turned into a play,” Shear says of the material’s evolution.
When she was asked by a professor at Regis College to present a Holocaust workshop in a more compressed time frame than she was accustomed to, she decided to try the play format.
With some students, professors and Shear reading, “No Way Out” had its debut in a Regis College classroom.
“I had resisted the idea, but it worked,” Shear says.
She went home and revised and expanded the script, which is available as a readers’ theatre play and a student-teacher workshop and curriculum.
Both formats use segments of about 60 letters, photographs and documents juxtaposed against Nazi anti-Jewish laws and world.
“No Way Out” has been presented in teachers’ conferences around the country, including a reading at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
After a staged reading last year at Denver’s Stories on Stage, with New York and local actors, Shear was contacted by Audrey Fishman Franklin.
Franklin, a board member of Mountain States ADL and co-chair of the Boulder ADL steering committee, wanted to stage a full-scale production of “No Way Out” to Boulder.
“It was such a moving portrayal of the Holocaust,” Franklin says. “It was a non-violent, sweet story, a story I had never heard about the immigration process and a story of family that has a big historical component.
“I wanted as many students to see it as possible,” Franklin says. “It was written by Susan, who lives here, and I felt it was important for the Boulder community to know her story.
“The ADL has wanted to create a presence in Boulder and this was wonderful vehicle to begin that process,” Franklin adds. “It’s such a strong, good piece, especially for families to see together.”
Shear adds that the message of the play, the loss of civil rights, is closely aligned with the ADL’s mission.
With the ADL’s sponsorship, a professional theater director was hired, costumes and sets designed and local actors cast.
By coincidence, Erwin Deutsch, the uncle who translated the letters and collaborated with Shear on workshops, has a granddaughter who is an actress. Tamara Braun plays Carly on ABC’s “General Hospital.”
Braun eagerly agreed to play Shear’s Aunt Gerda in the Boulder production.
“This is so exciting for me,” Shear says. “Tamara, who is the same age as Gerda was at the time, is playing her, while her grandfather, who will be here, watches.
“The story hits audiences because it is a real story about real people,” Shear notes. “I still find it all very painful and moving.”
“When I stop finding it painful and moving, that will be the end of the journey for ‘No Way Out.’”
“No Way Out” will be presented Sunday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. at Boulder High School Auditorium, 1604 Arapahoe.
There will be a discussion with the author and cast following the production.
Information: (303) 830-7177.
The Holocaust Awareness Institite at DU’s Center for Judaic Studies will commemorate Kristallnacht (“Night of the Broken Glass”), when German businesses and synagogues were destroyed by the Nazis, with a performance of “No Way Out.”
The public performance will be presented by community member on Monday, Nov. 10, 7 p.m. at Lindsay Auditorium.
Information: (303) 871-3013.