- Risking Representation: Performing the Terezín Ghetto in the Czech Republic
Prehistory of the Project: “Staging Terezín”
This article details the last two years of our ongoing performance project based on the representation of Terezín, a World War II Jewish ghetto that was established in an eighteenth-century fortress town located in the present-day Czech Republic.1 Our continuing interest in Terezín stems from its unique position in the history of the Holocaust. From its inception in November 1941 until its liberation in May 1945, Terezín played several roles in the overall program of Nazi genocide.2 It began as a collection point where the Jews of Central Europe—most prisoners were from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria—could be gathered before transport to the death camps. In time, however, the Nazis exploited the ghetto for its propaganda value: it became a “model ghetto,” displayed to organizations such as the International Red Cross to counter evidence of Nazi atrocities. Because of this propaganda function, the Terezín prisoners lived in an environment quite different from that of camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka. Although thousands died here of “natural” causes such as hunger and illness, there were no gas chambers in Terezín; prisoners were not confronted with mechanized mass murder. Moreover, the true nature of the outgoing transports—mostly to Auschwitz—was carefully concealed from the prisoners themselves. Thus, although life in the ghetto was by no means “normal,” some forms and rhythms of normal life were preserved. Cultural activities, for instance, flourished in the camp; both archival evidence and survivor testimony bear witness to large numbers of lectures, concerts, caberets, operas, and theatrical performances produced by prisoners during their internment.
The singular circumstances encountered by the Terezín prisoners pose steep challenges to those who wish to depict their experiences on the stage. Provoked by these challenges, however, we have decided to confront them directly by creating performance projects that attend not only to life in the camp, but also to the difficulties involved in its representation. Spanning a period of four years and produced in both the United States and the Czech Republic, the projects address a series of questions that reflect the shifting nature of our own inquiries. Why do narratives of Terezín life so often provoke shock, disbelief, even outrage when presented to US audiences? How do we weave the multiple and sometimes contradictory voices that emerge from the camp into a single evening of performance? And what emerges from encounters between Czech and US histories of the Holocaust in general, and of Terezín in particular?
A Summary of the Minnesota Project: Lisa’s Account
Alan and I initiated our first collaborative project in the summer of 2003, after discovering a mutual interest in Terezín as a site of performance. His questions had centered around ways the [End Page 161] ghetto itself was performed to bodies such as the International Red Cross as an “independent Jewish settlement.” I was drawn to an aspect that I had previously investigated as a student in the MFA program in playwriting at the University of Texas at Austin: the theatrical performance that took place in the ghetto, and the ways survivors represented it in their testimony. Even though cultural activities in Terezín were eventually exploited by the Nazis as part of their propaganda campaign, they began on the prisoners’ own initiative; during the three-and-a-half-year history of the ghetto, the vast majority of performances were staged by prisoners for prisoners.3 Why had they chosen theatre as a site to exercise the limited agency allowed to them?
The summer 2003 project allowed both of us to revisit questions that remained unanswered, not only about the ghetto itself, but about the reaction of US audiences to the work: what challenges inhere in attempts to represent the Holocaust in performance, and what complications to such attempts are introduced by Terezín? For example, audiences in Austin had reacted with intense discomfort to two aspects of the ghetto represented in the plays I had written: the unique conditions that, because of Terezín’s specific...