“I’ve heard it is really depressing”….

is the report I got just before sitting down to view the Belfry Theatre’s production of “The Children’s Republic” by Hannah Moscovitch.

Certainly, it is not hard to imagine that a play about the horrifying reality of life for Jewish orphans living in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland from 1940 to 1942, even under the kindly care of Dr. Janusz Korczak, might be “really depressing”. Starvation and disease were never far from the door. Violence, prejudice, and hatred haunted the streets around Korczak’s orphanage. Ultimately, death awaited all these unfortunate children and those entrusted with their care.

But somehow, while not shying away from the horror of the Warsaw ghetto, Moscovitch manages to navigate the delicate territory between deeply and authentically sad and hopelessly and darkly depressing. She manages to infuse streaks of light into the bleak shadow land that was life for the children of the ghetto.

Perhaps some of the credit is due to Janusz Korczak, the central character in the play. By all accounts Korczak was a remarkable man. He was a Polish-Jewish physician, progressive educator, famous writer, and the director of an orphanage in Warsaw that was home to nearly 200 orphans.

After he and his orphans were confined behind the wall dividing Jews from non-Jews in Warsaw, Korczak was repeatedly urged by friends and colleagues to flee the ghetto. He was offered safe passage to the non-Jewish part of Warsaw and promised refuge where he could safely wait out the war. But Korczak refused to abandon his 192 orphans and dozens of staff members and instead accompanied them as they were transported to Treblinka extermination camp where they were all gassed.

Moscovitch offers a portrait of Korczak as a man of deep compassion, humanity, gentleness, and wisdom. He is portrayed as caring  passionately for the children for whom he feels the responsibility of the parents they have all lost. There is something about this true story that rises above the crushing devastation of the Nazi reign of terror during the Second World War in Poland and much of Europe.

But Janusz Korczak’s is not the only heroic story to emerge from the conflagration that enveloped Europe between 1939 and 1945. There were countless nameless people throughout Europe who, like Korczak, refused to be crushed by the Nazi terror machine. For each famous account of heroism and courage in the face of danger and death, there are numerous unnoticed stories of people who found within themselves a strength and nobility that horror and even death could not destroy.

This is the ultimate hope Moscovitch captures in her play. It is a hope that prevents her account of a desperately sad story from being in the end “really depressing.” There is an enduring invisible quality in the human spirit that has the capacity to rise up in the face of even the greatest and most destructive horror. Again and again, history bears testimony to the ultimate power of light and love to outlast the destructive force of darkness and hate.

Whether we name it this way or not, this is the Gospel (“Good News”) that lies at the heart of Christian faith. When the most powerful forces of betrayal, injustice, and violence were brought to bear against a man named Jesus, they could not prevail. The might of the Roman Empire, the power of the religious establishment of ancient Palestine, even the failure and betrayal of his closest friends, could not defeat the transcendent love, goodness, hope, and truth that Jesus embodied.

As frightening and chaotic as it may at times appear, the universe is not ultimately dominated by darkness and violence. Death does not have the final word. There is light even in the most broken, tragic, and destructive realities of life.

“The Children’s Republic” bears testimony to the deep inner spirit of love and goodness that the most powerful forces on earth can never defeat. How could such testimony ever be “really depressing”?