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Rediscovered plays from the Holocaust to be launched in New York

Posted on 16 October 2013

Plays first performed in a Jewish concentration camp and ghetto over 60 years ago are to be staged again for modern-day audiences in New York, thanks to literary detective work by a UK-based academic from the University of York.

Performing Captivity, Performing Escape: Cabarets and Plays from the Terezín/Theresienstadt Ghetto is a collection of twelve theatrical texts including cabaret songs, sketches, historical and verse dramas and puppet plays.


Actors Jason Ryall and Andrina Carroll take part in a recent TFTV performance of The Smoke of Home, one of the plays from the anthology Performing Captivity, Performing Escape due to be launched in New York on Sunday

The scripts were written and performed by Czech and Austrian Jews imprisoned at Terezín, also known as Theresienstadt, a former garrison town near Prague taken over by the Nazis during the occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Staged readings of scenes and songs from the plays will be performed at the launch of the anthology at the Center for Jewish History in New York on Sunday October 20, hosted by the Leo Baeck Institute.

The scripts were discovered by Dr Lisa Peschel, a lecturer in the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television, during interviews with some of the camp survivors.

Dr Peschel explained: “Terezín was a site of great suffering and deprivation but remarkably, in the midst of the fear and death, a thriving and vibrant cultural life arose. Scholars believed that most of traces of the prisoners’ theatrical work had been lost but during my research, I was put in touch with survivors of the ghetto and their relatives who had scripts of cabarets and plays that had not been performed since the war.

“Terezín is different from many camps and ghettos in that the prisoners weren’t forced to perform the plays for the entertainment of their guards. These scripts were part of the cultural life of the camp that was generated by the prisoners themselves as a way of coping with the conditions of their captivity,” explained Dr Peschel.

"Even though the Nazis eventually took advantage of the cultural life in order to present Terezín as a 'model ghetto' to a visiting Red Cross commission in June of 1944, the prisoners still felt a strong sense of ownership of their artistic endeavours." 

These scripts were part of the cultural life of the camp that was generated by the prisoners themselves as a way of coping with the conditions of their captivity

Dr Lisa Peschel

The prisoners were involved in the administration of the camp and this gave them access to the typewriters used to type the scripts. “In one case, chillingly, the same typewriter was also used to type the lists of prisoners to be transported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps,” said Dr Peschel.

The anthology opens with a preface by novelist Ivan Klíma who was interned in the ghetto as a child. The epilogue, a sketch written by a former Terezín prisoner in a Nazi slave labour camp, reveals a darkly humorous view of the most wretched conditions. The anthology also includes an introduction by Dr Peschel about the circumstances that inspired the theatre of the ghetto.

“The scripts are incredibly diverse. Each group in the ghetto, including left-leaning young Czech Jews, Austrian Jews nostalgic for Vienna and Zionists looking forward to post-war life in Palestine drew on their own cultural traditions within the texts. There are some concealed gestures of resistance in the scripts but generally, we don't find much criticism of the Nazi regime. Instead, the plays are full of darkly comic descriptions of camp conditions and events in the ghetto," said Dr Peschel. 

“The performances were a public way of working through the appalling situation they were in, but instead of representing it realistically the prisoners created a story about it that they could cope with, often by converting it into comedy.”

At the launch event, Edward Einhorn, Artistic Director of Untitled Theater Company #61 (presenter of the Jewish Theater Festival and the Vaclav Havel Festival) will direct five actors in a staged reading of scenes and songs from the scripts. Dr Peschel will outline how the plays came to light and their role in helping the prisoners deal with life in the ghetto.

Notes to editors:

  • The reading will take place at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011 on Sunday 20 October from 3 to 4pm. The event is hosted by the Leo Baeck Institute. Tickets are free. Reservations and further information
  • Rabbi Leo Baeck, namesake of the Leo Baeck Institute, was a leading figure in the cultural life of the Terezín ghetto where he was deported at the age of 70 after refusing many opportunities to emigrate. He taught at the camp holding lectures on philosophy and religion
  • Terezín, also known as Theresienstadt, was established by the SS during World War II as a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp. Over 150,000 Jews, including 15,000 children, were sent toTerezín.  Around 33,000 died in the ghetto as a result of malnutrition and disease. A further 88,000 prisoners were deported from Terezín to Auschwitz and other slave labour and extermination camps
  • Find out more about the Department of Theatre, Film and Television
  • Watch a short excerpt from one of the plays “The Smoke of Home” performed by actors in a filmed performance at the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York
  • Copies of Performing Captivity, Performing Escape: Cabarets and Plays from the Terezín /Theresienstadt Ghetto can be ordered from The University of Chicago Press 

Contact details

Sheila Perry
Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322029

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