Rashke is the author of “The Killing of Karen Silkwood” and “Escape From Sobibor,” both of which were made into successful films. His work on “Sobibor” brought him in touch with Raab, one of 300 Jews to escape from a Nazi death camp in Poland in 1943.

{mosimage}When a reluctant Raab began talking to schoolchildren in New Jersey about her wartime experience, the students latched onto her almost desperately. “Girls flock to the stage to touch Esther, hold her hand,” Rashke says.

They also wrote Raab hundreds of letters, and that's what really fascinated Rashke. “They start out very simple,” he says. “They say things like 'You move me so much,' and expand to big questions like 'Are you happy?' or 'Do you still believe in God?'”

Rashke decided something was missing in “Sobibor,” an exciting yet conventional prison-escape drama. He crafted a new play, using the students' letters to give audiences, especially children, a clear path in and out of the wilderness of evil.

“We were scared to death the first time we offered this to students,” he goes on. “Without exception, I get the same response from teachers, parents, and actors — I know it's a cliche, but you can hear a pin drop. Then it's standing ovations, with hoots and hollers and whistles.”

So much for the notion that today's kids are self-absorbed history-haters. Rashke says the “anthropological” model of story-telling is the way to go if you want people to care. “You take one subject — a village or a person — and describe it in great detail, and from that you can extrapolate to a universal,” he says.

“Kids can relate to a father being killed, a mother giving herself up to be shot in order to save her children,” Rashke says. “They can relate to fighting back.”

Raab agreed to participate in the project, sharing her letters with Rashke and consulting with him, on the condition that the play be accessible to young people.

“I made a long list of questions kids asked, and there was a lot of duplication,” Rashke said. “Then I sat down with Esther and said, 'How would you answer this for a kid that's in sixth, seventh grade?

Rashke estimates that 40,000 people have seen “Dear Esther” so far, and tales of its life-changing properties are legion.

During one inner-city performance, Rashke recalls, a “race riot” almost broke out. In the opening sequence of the play, adults exchange racial epithets near a group of children, who pick up on the slurs with a vengeance. Older students rose from their seats and shouted in anger when they heard their own race denigrated from the stage, only to calm down when other groups got the same treatment.

“They get it,” Rashke says. “They get the message that if you start using these kinds of [slurs], it eventually leads to action.”

Rashke says the play has been a healing experience for Raab, who likes to call her two children and eight grandchildren her “revenge.” Her two sons, Abe (55) and Marvin (51), will join the company for a talkback at the play's April 23 showing.

The playwright was pleased to learn of a special April 22 show, sponsored by the City of Lansing.

“Abe [Raab] told me the City Council bought out all the tickets for one show in order to make it free,” he said. “Wow. That is really a nice gesture.” (The Bernero administration actually bought the tickets.)

Scores of letters full of perceptive and revealing questions are excerpted in the play, but for those who can't wait, here is Esther Raab's answer to the God question: “God and my mother's boots were the only two thing I had in Sobibor. He didn't let me down when I was there. I won't let Him down now that I'm not there.”

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