Erika Mandler couldn't 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.
Sharing her story
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."
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. "These are actual people."
Rough start in a new land
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 anti-Semitism 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 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 80 miles northeast of Kansas City. George Mandler left nothing to chance this time. His letter of inquiry began, "Dear doctor. I am a Jew."
Over time, Mandler developed a thriving practice in town as an ear, nose and throat specialist. The couple had a daughter, Camilla, in 1954, and quickly became U.S. citizens. They joined the nearest synagogue 75 miles away in St. Joseph, celebrating the major holidays while also commuting each week for Camilla's Sunday school classes.
Signs a cultural rift still exists
The couple became cultural and religious ambassadors, inviting friends and neighbors to light the Sabbath candles, observe the Passover Seder and celebrate other Jewish customs and rituals.
"Chillicothe was for all intents and purposes a great place to grow up," said Camilla Kern, the Mandlers' daughter, now a Kansas City resident. "I felt that my parents were honored and respected."
Yet life as the only Jews in town was not without its difficulties. As a child, Kern was chastised by a third-grade teacher after explaining that she celebrated Hanukkah, not Christmas, and did not pray to Jesus Christ.
Forty-five years later, the cultural chasms can still seem vast, despite the best intentions of Rule and others.
In one particularly poignant scene of "The Mandler Story," Erika witnesses Nazi soldiers cut off and then set on fire the long beard of an observant Jew.
While many in the audience sat rapt, other students laughed loudly.
A similar reaction was heard when the actors recreated a scene in which Erika and her parents are loaded on a cattle car destined for Auschwitz until George Mandler — whose medical skills were coveted by his captors — convinces the guards otherwise. Instead, another Jewish family takes their place.
Mandler would like to believe that the students reacted out of excitement or immaturity, not prejudice. Still, she cannot help but wonder.
"I was stunned," she said. "I was afraid to even admit that I thought they were happy the Jews were being beaten. ... I don't want to admit it."
Nonetheless, many students have realized that what began as a dramatic exercise has instead grown into a life lesson they won't soon forget.
"It's enlarged their world view," Rule said. "They think about how they fit into a larger society ... that what they think is not the only way."