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Play shows Nazis couldn’t kill truth

Updated April 22, 2017 - 1:53 pm

The elderly man with the shock of white hair stands at the back of the Durango High School theater stage and remembers what happened more than 70 years ago, not long after he arrived by train at the Auschwitz concentration camp as a 13-year-old boy.

After a Nazi soldier rips his aunt’s baby from her breast, she screams, raking her fingernails over his face. His sliced cheeks bleed. Another Nazi smashes a handgun over his aunt’s head… Slumping to the ground, she moans her last words: “Please, let me have my baby. Give him to me.”

With his face a bloody mess, the Nazi holding the baby throws the child into the air and catches him by his feet. He swings the baby above his head and then smashes the little one’s head against the boxcar…

“Unfortunately, I sometimes relive what happened as we rehearse my play,” the 86-year-old Stephen Nasser said with a sigh.

In his shaking left hand, the Las Vegan holds the script to the play he wrote with Ann Tane Raskin, “Not Yet, Pista.” The burgundy shirt he wears, identifying him as “Stephen Nasser Holocaust Survivor,” carries a message: “NEVER AGAIN.”

The proud Jewish octogenarian’s eyes glisten with tears as he runs his right hand through his thick white mane and talks about the Holocaust, the annihilation of millions of European Jews by Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945.

While the theatrical scenes involving Nasser’s family remain powerful — he’s on- and off-stage as a narrative voice, but Durango students carry the production — he’s thankful what happens can’t be as graphic as what appears in his mind’s eye.

“Sometimes I wish my memory wasn’t so good.”

A few days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is Monday, Nasser talked about his play — directed by his longtime friend Tobias Torres and opening Thursday at Durango High — he notes “Pista” is a nickname for Stephen in his native Hungary.

And he points out that the title of the play revolves around a hallucination he had as he lay near death. As he began to regain consciousness at a hospital — liberating Americans discovered him alive in a boxcar under 64 dead bodies — he cried out to his dead brother, Andris, that he wanted to be with him.

“And then I remember my dear brother calling to me, ‘Not yet, Pista. Remember, you made a promise to me.’”

That promise — made as Andris died of starvation in Nasser’s arms while the pair was at the Muhldorf hard labor camp —was to go public with what their family experienced under the Nazis. They thought they might survive after being shipped from Auschwitz to Muhldorf.

Yet Nasser, too, almost died from starvation at Muhldorf, where he secretly wrote diary entries that are the basis of the play. He was 5 foot 10 inches tall and just 72 pounds when Americans found him in the box car.

The play is yet another way Nasser, a retired restaurateur, keeps his promise to his brother. He’s written two books, “My Brother’s Voice” and “Journey to Freedom,” and delivered more than 1,000 lectures to schools and community groups.

Of the 21 members in Nasser’s Hungarian family deported to Germany — his father died prior to Hungary being overtaken by the Nazis, and his mother died of pneumonia while in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp — he’s the only survivor.

Nasser, who says reminding people of the Holocaust helps prevent such savagery from happening again, can’t hold back the tears as he thinks about what happened to his family.

“It is too awful.”

Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday and Tuesday in the Nevada section and Monday in the Health section. Contact him at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter

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