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Alive by a thread

TARPON SPRINGS -- Lisl Bogart was 13 when the Germans invaded her hometown of Prague. ¶ The next morning when she went to school, her teacher confronted her, called her a filthy Jew, spit at her and slammed the classroom door in her face. She never was allowed back.

Two years later, the Nazis took her and her terrified family to a holding cell where they stayed for two and a half days living on a slice of bread each. From there, they were crammed into a cattle car and transported to a ghetto called Terezin in Czechoslovakia.

Bogart suffered there for three years. Every day she wore a cardboard pendent etched with an identification number she will never forget: AAR395. If the pendent's string broke, she said, she had to repair it fast. Any prisoner caught without ID was shot immediately.

At 18, she contracted typhoid fever.

She was lying on a mat in an isolation area where she and others were left to die. On May 8, 1945, she was unconscious, corpses all around her.

She was in a nightmarish haze between life and death and didn't understand when her best friend appeared at the window waving a slice of bread in her hand, shouting "We are free!''

"I couldn't hear her,'' Bogart said.

The Russians had liberated the ghetto.

It was her 19th birthday.

Roughly 33,000 people died at Terezin, which was a transit camp to Auschwitz. Only about 100 children survived.

Tears ran down the faces of some in the audience at Tarpon Springs High School who listened to Bogart's story Friday.

Two people in the crowd had faded numbers inked into their forearms like so many Holocaust victims.

Billy Vasilakis' was 080490.

Kaitlin Weber's was 010890.

But Vasilakis and Weber are not Holocaust victims. They are teens who are involved in a Tarpon Springs High production about Terezin called I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Celeste Raspanti.

The two students wrote the numbers — their birthdays — in permanent ink on their forearms to find out what it felt like to be concentration camp victims.

A sign on the stage read "Work Makes You Free'' in German, the same words that were displayed at the camps.

"It was a lie,'' said Vasilakis. "Trains would come and they would be shipped off to the death camps.''

Both Vasilakis and Weber said it was an honor to meet a woman who endured so much torture at the hands of the Nazis.

"I was almost weak in the knees (when I heard her speak),'' Weber said. "I could never possibly understand what she went through living in Palm Harbor, Fla. That's a chapter of life I'll never know. When we eat a piece of bread, we can taste it and we can rub off these tattoos because we are free.''

During the program, Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris presented Bogart with a key to the city.

At 81, Bogart is a tiny woman with a kind smile and bright outlook on life. She emigrated to the United States in 1946 and has lived in Delray Beach for the past nine years with her husband Hank, 87, who was born in Austria.

Bogart said she was overwhelmed by the affectionate reception she received by the students and faculty of Tarpon Springs High.

"The children were wonderful,'' she said. "They were so warm. They had good questions.''

The play's director, drama teacher Sara Buckley, 36, said she was inspired to produce the play when she saw the drawings and poems in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly.

"Art is how many of them survived,'' said Buckley, who is also an opera singer. "If, God forbid, I was ever imprisoned, it is my art that would help me survive.''

After the event, the Bogarts, Buckley and Billiris all had lunch at Mykonos restaurant on the Sponge Docks.

The lunch rush was on. The restaurant was bustling. There was a basket of bread in the center of the table.

Bogart didn't touch it. She waited for her chicken instead.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

>>fast facts

If you go

The Tarpon Springs High School Drama Department will present I Never Saw Another Butterfly at 8 p.m. today at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, 324 Pine St. Tickets are $15. Call (727) 942-5605.

Alive by a thread 03/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 5:21pm]
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