- Performing Captivity, Performing Escape: Cabarets and Plays from the Terezín-Theresienstadt Ghetto ed. by Lisa Peschel
The title of this book may perhaps require a little explanation. To be sure, it signals a welcome English language contribution to the corpus of knowledge about the Holocaust, much of which hitherto has been preserved in German, Czech, or French. More particularly it adds to our knowledge about the role of the performing arts in providing tools for survival in the desperate circumstances of a concentration camp, or, in this case, a ghetto constructed by the Nazis to house largely German and Czech Jews in a ‘model’ institution. Theresienstadt (Terezín in Czech) had been an Austrian garrison town since the 1780s. From 1941 to 1945, it would be identified as a Jewish ghetto that might hold up to 53,000 internees at any given time. Though not labeled a concentration camp, the Jews deported from Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, and later Holland and Denmark, entered the ghetto through a gateway that bore the ominous sign “Arbeit macht Frei.” They trudged into captivity from which there would be no escape: illness, malnutrition, or deportation to Auschwitz claimed many lives. Yet what would make Theresienstadt especially noteworthy were the numbers of creative artists who were caught up in the various deportations: actors, scenographers, directors, musicians, and playwrights. They would realize the survival strategies needed to make the intolerable situation at least comprehensible. They would not only “perform captivity” but also provide the safety valve that would allow themselves and their audiences to “escape,” not [End Page 106] physically but rather psychologically into a world validated by memory of the past or a future that would palliate and make tolerable the excruciating circumstances of the present. Thus Peschel’s title suggests an omnibus that encompasses both the past and present through performance.
The book is an English version, slightly expanded, of Peschel’s Divadelní texty z terezinskelo ghetta/Theatertexte aus dem Ghetto Theresienstadt 1941-1945 (2008). It forms part of an ongoing series, In Performance, under the general editorship of Carol Martin. This volume preserves the binary of Czech and German theatre documents, reflecting the fact that Czech and German speakers formed the majority of internees at any one time. Some of the texts have been previously published in English, for example in Rovit and Goldfarb’s Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs (1999). This edition, however, includes newly translated texts like The Radio Show by Felix Prokeš and Pavel Stránský, the symbolist inspired dramatic poem, The Death of Orpheus, by Georg Kafka, and examples of music from cabarets that had been so much a feature of German language theatre during the Weimar Republic and into the 1930s.
It is not surprising that variety in its European guise as cabaret should prove popular and enduring in the claustrophobic environment of Theresienstadt. In fact, in its English form it was equally popular in military prisoner-of-war camps from the German Stalags to Changi in Singapore. The form was above all a flexible one that could be tailored to available talents and was able to accommodate changes in personnel. Yet as Peschel ably demonstrates, the range of cultural activities that took place from the beginning of 1943 until the end of 1944 was astounding. She lists a sample of performances that took place in February 1943, ranging from Jewish liturgical music and Verdi’s Rigoletto, to evenings of comic songs, Cocteau’s The Human Voice, and the Austrian Adolf Schütz’s 1930s comedy, The Dictatorship of Women. Such a snapshot reflects the cultural diversity of the ghetto and the opportunities it gave the internees to resist the feelings of fear and helplessness that could emanate from the powerlessness that they felt. Probably as significant was the agency in the cultural life of the ghetto exercised by the artists and creators, and their ability to conjure up memories of home with a concomitant belief that they and their audiences would...