By Caterina Nonis, Directing Intern at The In[heir]itance Project
The In[heir]itance Project is a national arts organization that practices an open artistic process to create theatre from authentic community dialogue about shared inheritances. The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust was proud to have The In[heir]itance Project as artist in residence in 2019, wherein a new piece of theatre was developed based on the text of testimonials from GIs in WWII. We interviewed Caterina Nonis, artist and The In[heir]itance Project directing intern, on her experience in thinking about the lasting impact of veterans’ Holocaust testimonies in light of Veterans Day 2019.
How did you become involved in The In[heir]itance Project?
I was first introduced to The In[heir]itance Project through the Genesis Plays Festival at the 14th St. Y and officially became the company’s artistic intern in Fall 2018.
What was your initial thought upon learning the project was based on testimonies of American GIs rather than Holocaust survivors? Had you heard GI testimony before?
I was very intrigued right away. My grandfather fought in WWII and I had heard some of his stories from my grandmother, as he passed away before I was old enough to hear them from him directly. I read a lot about the Holocaust and studied it thoroughly in school, but I had never thought about soldiers’ first-hand experiences of World War II. Having a family connection to the topic, I was very curious to look at this historical event from a different point of view. I was also just grateful to learn of these testimonies’ existence and that soldiers’ memories are being preserved too.
Describe some of the testimony you came across. How did it function within the greater framework of your previous understanding of the Holocaust and the history of WWII?
Hearing the testimonies, I was struck by how soldiers’ training didn’t even come close to preparing them for the reality of war – physically but most of all psychologically. Many GIs talked about having no idea of what they were about to encounter in Europe. I think I always assumed that soldiers would have full control of their surroundings. I never thought of what it must have meant for them to enter a concentration camp having no idea of what it was.
I was also struck by the social and racial discrimination some soldiers experienced during their training. Soldiers of color often didn’t know on which side their real enemies were. Jews were discouraged from indicating their religion on their dog tags.
Throughout your working on the project, did your understanding of the Holocaust change in any way?
This project made me think back on my visit to Auschwitz, when I was a junior in high school. I had read many books and watched many films on the subject prior, but the trip made me reframe the Holocaust as no longer a barely fathomable horror, but instead, a very real, physical experience. Being there in January, when the air was so cold that I could hardly look up, brought me to what the practical, physical experience of being in a camp may have been.
In working with GI testimonials now, these feelings intensified; understanding the experiences of the Holocaust and WWII (or of any war) as deeply personal and sensorial.
Part of this residency included sharing the project with West Point cadets with the help of WWII veteran and liberator Alan Moskin. In addition, you also saw Moskin give testimony at the Museum in February 2019. Can you tell as a little more about this experience?
It was a great privilege to be at West Point with WWII vet and liberator Alan Moskin, and to hear his story. I think everyone in the room – the cadets, the faculty, and myself – felt this way. I sensed the cadets’ deep interest in his story; a need to know how to get through an experience like war or liberating a camp. The cadets wanted to know how the events played out during the war, but even more, how Mr. Moskin was able to move on afterwards. One student shared how hearing this story permanently changed his outlook on how to prepare for his job not only physically, but mentally and psychologically. It was an invaluable experience to witness different generations of soldiers discuss what being in the military and going to war means to them.
It is also important for us to reflect on the fact that as we enter further into the twenty-first century, many GIs are no longer going to be with us. What have you learned must continue to be shared of their story?
Every story I heard, every video I watched, was deeply personal and different from the next. That is what makes them so extraordinary. At the same time, each of them expressed one fundamental idea: doing the right thing is always possible, no matter the circumstances. There is always something you can do and you can always be the one who stands up and speaks out against injustice. We as a society cannot ignore this message. With all of the horribly wrong things going on in this country and in the world today, we must remember what these GIs said in taking action against injustice.
Caterina Nonis was born and raised in Milan, Italy and attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Having spent time working primarily on Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she now resides in New York and is focused on directing.