'This is not my America, I can't believe it's happening here'

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A production still from 'Little Bits of Light,' which will be shown at RPAC beginning Friday. (Courtesy photo/HSC)

BARNSTEAD - Kati Preston remembers as vividly as yesterday the day she heard the solders coming in the barn looking for her.

Growing up half Jewish in Nazi Germany, Preston's Catholic mother had arranged for her to be hidden at a nearby dairy farm, where she had stayed cooped up for three months never going outside.

But now it looked like someone somewhere had ratted her out, probably after being tortured by the Gestapo, she said.

"I was 5 years old, and my mom said they (the Nazis) would kill me, so I hid in the hay. They told me if they came, to get under the hay and get small, so I got small; my heart was beating so hard I thought they could hear it," said Preston. "They stuck bayonets into the hay. One came an inch from my check and stuck in wood; it made a noise. To me it was the sound of death."

Kati Preston holds a copy of her book Holocaust to Healing: Closing the Circle (Anura Guruge photo)

To this day, she's surprised she didn't yell out in terror.

"I was too frightened to scream," she added.

The soldiers left that day without finding her, and she and her mom reunited after the war. Her Jewish father and 28 others from her family weren't as lucky. They all died in concentration camps.

Today, Preston, who is the founder of the Hampstead Stage Company, tours the country talking about the Holocaust and organizing productions that speak to tolerance for all people.

She will bring her acting troupe to Rochester next weekend for a weeklong run of a production titled, "Little Bits of Light," which tells the tale of Terezin, a German-run concentration camp in which the Jews were treated humanely as part of a propaganda ploy.

The camp, which allowed Jewish self-rule within its confines, also encouraged its population to create poetry and plays and to show them off in front of Red Cross officials who inspected Jewish internment camps routinely.

Preston said the camp was a bitter ruse for those held there.

"The kids would perform theater like for the Red Cross, and after the show they would be taken to other (concentration) camps and gassed," Preston said. "The poems from the children, they would be full of hope."

Preston, 80, says performing works like "Little Bits of Light" are more important now than ever as acts of anti-Semitism are on the rise in America. She said bias and discrimination can be a fatal flaw for any society.

"Prejudice can lead to death and bullying can lead to death," she said. "This new generation is more compassionate and more informed," Preston said adding an anti-bigotry message resonates with them. "They don't think it's all about money and success, they worry about the environment. They are very optimistic."

Preston, who is one of the few remaining who can still bring oral history to one of the darkest of times, speaks all over the country about the dangers of bigotry, racism and hate.

She said she and her mom immigrated to the United States 40 years ago, settling in Barnstead. Besides founding the HSC, Preston has written a book titled, Holocaust to Healing: Closing the Circle, as well as worked as a fashion designer, model and journalist.

Asked about the rising tide of bias, specifically against Jews, she says, "It's dreadful, it's one of the reasons why I have to keep on talking.

"This is not my America, I can't believe it's happening here. Most Americans are very good, but this has to stop."

Preston said she was recently frustrated after anti-Semitic comments by Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar's drew only a watered-down resolution condemning "all hate speech" that didn't even name the freshman rep.

"I was very disappointed in that," she said in a phone interview on Friday. "It seems no one has the courage anymore; sometimes you have to upset somebody to do the right thing."

One of the highlights of the weeklong showing of "Little Bits of Light" will be on April 12 when Preston will host a talkback.

"Little Bits of Light" is best suited for audiences ages 10 and up.

It will be performed at the Rochester Performance and Arts Center beginning on Friday. The Rochester Performance and Arts Center is located at 32 North Main St., Rochester.

For more info contact HSC at 1(800)619-5302 or for more information.

Theater times are as follows:

Friday April 12th at 7:30 pm

Sat. April 13th at 2 pm & 7:30 pm

Sun. April 15th at 2 pm

Friday April 19th at 7:30 pm

Sat. April 20th at 2 pm & 7:30 pm

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