Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council
Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council
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Lisa Hurd & Fabian O'Keefe -
Lisa's Story: Wartime experiences of a little Austrian Jewish girl

Locations: St. John's, Torbay, Mobile, Avondale, Ferryland, Mount Carmel, Bay Roberts, Carbonear, Bell Island,
St. Mary's, Placentia, Clarenville, Hickman's Harbour, Gander, Glenwood, Gambo, Lewisporte, Glovertown, Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishop's Falls, and Botwood, NL
NLAC Program Funded Under: School Touring Program
Amount Funded: $15,000

Young Lisa Hurd

A young Lisa Hurd (click to see collage)

Dates: September 21, 2015 to May 20, 2016
Project Facebook Page:
Project Contact: Fabian O'Keefe
Contact E-mail:

Finding the opportunity to hear first-hand experiences from the Second World War is becoming rarer over time, especially in-person. Despite that, Lisa Hurd never thought people would be interested in her personal history from that time. Hurd was born the same year that Hitler came to power, on November 15, 1933 in Vienna, Austria. She lived in a small two-bedroom flat with her parents and her mother’s parents until 1939. That was the year Hitler announced his intentions to wipe out the entire Jewish population of Europe.

Hurd’s family had a plan in place to get to safety, though. One of her Uncle’s knew a British politician in London by the name of George Lansbury, the grandfather of actress Angela Lansbury. His son-in-law was in need of housekeepers, and through that job opening, Lisa and her family found their way to London.

Though she was young at the time, she still recalls how daily life changed. Lisa remembers the days of calm beforehand the outbreak of war; her mother’s love for the opera house, the beautiful Schoenbrunn Palace’s architecture and vast gardens, the Austrian countryside with the Blue Danube flowing through.

Lisa Hurd sharing her storyLisa Hurd sharing her story

But Lisa also recalls how the Nazi troops encroached on her hometown, how they took control of Austria, and how in a few days over 70,000 Jews, Romanians, and other non-Germans were arrested – destined for jails, or worse, concentration camps. Lisa also remembers how the yellow Star of David had to be on the doorway of their home, signifying it was a Jewish home and the possibility that she and her family could be torn from it at any given second.

Working with drama teacher and theatre director Fabian O’Keefe, Lisa’s experiences have been developed into a series of classroom presentations, activities, and exercises involving students. O’Keefe does preliminary work with students to create the relative associations between the history and upcoming narrative to their current learning objectives. Then in the afternoon Hurd, who is herself a professional actress, performs a monologue and presentation that zeros in on the intimate nature of a single story. Through her story, students can gain a deeper understanding about an entire period of history and huge population of people.

Q and A with Fabian O'Keefe...

ArtsNL: How long did it take to develop this workshop with Lisa?

Lisa Hurd's parentsLisa Hurd's parents

Fabian:  Lisa and I started working on the material in the summer of 2014. She had a story that she felt that she had waited long enough to tell. I was fortunate enough to be the person that she felt confident enough to work with on it.

ArtsNL: How did you and Lisa initially connect, and when/how was the concept for this conceived?

Fabian: Lisa and I first worked together in 1983 when we both performed in The St. John’s Players’ production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. We’ve worked together on dozens of things since. The concept for her show came from two things – her touring show of Aviva Ravel’s Dance Like Butterfly and the realization that she had been sitting on her own story - or that of her parents – for most of her life. Very few of us who had worked with her for decades knew the depth and richness of this personal narrative that would become Lisa’s Story.

ArtsNL: What kind of support did you receive while developing the workshop?

Lisa Hurd's grandparents

Lisa Hurd's grandparents

Fabian: We tested the material last November for school Remembrance Day assemblies in the St. John’s metro area. Teachers from all the schools we visited were generous in their praise and wrote wonderfully supportive letters of commendation for us. Then in April, the Jewish Community Havura of Newfoundland and Labrador had Lisa as the keynote speaker for the Yom Hashoah 2015 Holocaust Memorial Day Observances in St. John’s.

ArtsNL: Why is doing a workshop like this important?

Fabian: The school tour offers an opportunity for students to learn about aspects of world history, engage in relevant exercises, view a performance, meet the performer, and get immediate feedback from the teacher-facilitator. This project gives teachers the opportunity to enhance the curriculum through artistic activities linked to educational outcomes via a multi-modal approach to the arts. The focus in Language Arts is to have students speak, listen, read, view, and respond. One of the purposes of education is to have students grow as appraisers. Our goal is to have students eager and prepared to meet Lisa Hurd and hear her story.  We have constructed the workshops for Lisa’s Story so that teachers can encourage students to reflect and construct meaning through active participation in addition to viewing Lisa’s performance. We have spent considerable time making sure that our workshop activities are relevant and that they directly meet Department of Education outcomes.

ArtsNL: What are some of the ways that the school curriculum is creatively built into the workshop activities, etc?

Lisa Hurd at BeaconsfieldLisa at Beaconsfield Junior High

Fabian: Besides following the Department of Education outcomes, we try to meet with teachers prior to us coming into the classroom. We want to know what the students are currently studying and how that work can be integrated into our workshops. For example, before we went to Beaconsfield Junior High in early November, we met with their Social Studies and English teachers. The students we were to work with had just completed work on the Syrian refugee crisis in Social Studies and they were doing poetry about loss and the emotional costs of war in their English classes.

ArtsNL: How do students react to Lisa’s story specifically? And, to the other aspects that get covered in the workshop?

Fabian: Stalin said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” When you explore one story, you gain a small understanding of millions of other stories. In the workshops, we are trying to have students explore one story. Students connect with Lisa because she tells the story from the point of view of her pre-teen self. It allows students to deal with the emotional weight of the narrative. They are enthralled by her story of hope. It is a story that ends happily and has a lesson that is relevant today. The aim is to raise student awareness and acceptance of cultural diversity. Students may gain a little more understanding of the consequences of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping in society. Certainly, the niqab debate has come up in discussions. We feel that it is important to underline the fact that Lisa’s story is not the distant past. Her family relationships were real and her loss is real. The choices that governments made almost eighty years ago still resonate with her and her off-spring.

ArtsNL: Aside from our brief summary introduction, can you share a few more interesting details or highlights from Lisa’s story?

Fabian: Lisa’s story is about what parents will sacrifice for their children and how luck shouldn’t be underrated! There are so many times Lisa’s parents timing was miraculous. They decided to train for employment opportunities and apply for immigrate to England allowing them to enter the U.K. just after the programs against Jews began in Austria and just before the war broke out in Europe and all of the borders closed. Her Uncle Bruno was a friend of a British politician George Lansbury – grandfather of Angela Lansbury. It was Mr. Lansbury’s son-in-law who sponsored Lisa and her parents which allowed them to go to England. On her way onto the ship that would bring them to England, Lisa took a nasty fall off the gangplank and was saved by a complete stranger who grabbed her in mid-air.

ArtsNL: Does Lisa find it difficult to relive her past through telling the story, or did she initially?

Fabian: Yes. Lisa was reluctant to share this story for most of her life. Only her family and a few of her closest friends knew the whole story. She is moved each time she tells it. Not only does she have the emotional connection, she bears the responsibility to respectfully carry the memory of those family members who were unable to escape and who ultimately perished.

ArtsNL: How does one even go about developing a workshop like this? Any advice you could give to those who might like to try?

Fabian: First of all, it helps me to have been a teacher for thirty years - so I know the curriculum, the Department of Education outcomes, and the ways to integrate the workshops into the curriculum. Secondly, it helps me to have pre-workshop conversations with teachers about the general needs of the classes and the specific needs of the students. This is important because it helps to know the audience and it helps to be prepared to modify the workshops. Finally, I find it helpful to have a variety of workshops with different degrees of difficulty.

ArtsNL: What kind of challenges did you and Lisa face as this project was planned and prepared? How did you overcome them?

Fabian: The greatest challenge with going into schools, after all is prepared, is scheduling. Teachers are stressed when it comes to covering the curriculum, and they are sometimes unable to commit to a specific date.  Next week is fine, but two or three months away is a challenge for them to commit to.

ArtsNL: How does the ArtsNL funding from the School Touring Program help?

Fabian: The funding helps in several ways. First of all, it legitimizes the project. Teachers are constantly facing a barrage of self-interest groups who want to have access to students.  A project that has been vetted by ArtsNL has already been deemed to have value for schools. Secondly, it provides funding to smaller schools that might not be able to afford the costs of a project to visit them.