Comedy isn’t a genre we tend to place alongside art about the Holocaust, but in Theatre in the Theresienstadt Ghetto the two go hand in hand. This collection of plays to be performed in February by students from York University and University College London were written by inhabitants of this Jewish ghetto just outside Prague. Dr Lisa Peschel of York University has been fascinated by the cultural life of this place since 1992 and tells me how “those [plays] that were written in the ghetto were overwhelmingly comic”.
These previously undiscovered plays were unearthed when Peschel was carrying out her PHD study asking the question “how do those who were involved in the cultural life remember it, and what do they say the effects were”?
During interviews Peschel learned that “some survivors had plays still in their own possession.” She admits to being “completely surprised” to learn that adults had been so involved in the cultural life of the ghetto. Drawings done by child inhabitants have previously been discovered and are quite well known, but finding out about these plays was something new.
Peschel thinks people created these plays for two reasons, for people who were artists before the war “you try to keep doing whatever gives your life meaning, because they were in a concentration camp it didn’t mean they stopped. They tried as much as possible to stay engaged in art”. For those who weren’t artists before, “it was both a way to completely forget about the fact that they were in the ghetto for a while, but at the same time it was a way to engage with it and make it more manageable.”
We speak about the comedic tone of most of the work and how often laughter is a very human response to situations we can’t comprehend, or don’t know how to process. “The authors took what would otherwise be very traumatic events and made comic versions of them, in an effort to make them somehow psychologically manageable”. The performance that the students are working on is in two halves “the first half will be a selection of scenes and songs from several different plays and the second half is going to be a one act play, one of the few tragic plays that has come to light from the ghetto”.
Unusually for the plays discovered The Smoke of Home is a historical allegory set in the 30 years war. It’s about four soldiers looking forward to returning to their homes after the war, only to discover at the end of the play that where they are from has been completely destroyed in battle. Speaking with the brother of one of the co-authors of the play Peschel learned there was a very specific reason for them to write it. A lot of people in the camp would talk of returning home after the war “they [the authors] had the foresight to think the war is going to change everything […] we’re going to have to prepare ourselves for the fact that life is going to be very difficult even if we manage to survive”.
This play was never performed as the authors thought it would be “too difficult for the other people in the ghetto to see”. Now Peschel believes all the plays being presented “really deserve to be seen by larger audiences”. She thinks the audience will experience both “appreciation of the humour and discomfort with the humour” because we have the historical knowledge of what happened to these prisoners, “how many of them perished during the war, we can’t watch them with the same eyes the prisoners did”.
Our talk turns to the status of these plays as political theatre, but Peschel finds it difficult “to talk about these plays as political plays”. One of the surprising things about them, she says, “is that there’s very little mention of the Nazis”. It is this that sets these apart from other works of the Theresienstadt theatre that are more well known; for example the children’s opera Brundibár, or the opera the Emperor of Atlantis. Peschel comments “the pieces that are more famous are the ones that seem to have a clearer kind of Hitler figure in them, and the defeat of some kind of Hitler figure”. This is perhaps the narrative we are used to, and expect, from art about the Second World War. The Theresienstadt plays being an exception to this highlight the space in our art for narratives from inside the experience of the camps.
Peschel thinks it’s “important to see how young artists handle these plays, because many of the authors were under 25”. She sees these largely comic plays as “an attempt to create solidarity and try to protect their own identity as a community, that I think is more essential to their survival than attacking the Nazis”. She comments on this space where they were thinking of their own communities, of life after the war as “a kind of freedom in itself, that they created a space where they didn’t have to be controlled by the Nazis”. The Theresienstadt plays are an example of the overwhelming power of art and a statement about how necessary to human life it is.