Theatre scripts from the heart of the Holocaust

The World War II Jewish ghetto at Terezín/Theresienstadt was a place of great suffering and deprivation, yet prisoners developed a vibrant cultural life including theatrical performances, comedy and music.

The traditional star of David stands over the memorial graveyard at the Little fortress in Terezin (or Theresianstadt) in the Czech Republic to commemorate the thousands of Jews who died at the Prison camp in World War II (© istock.com/searagen)

Theatre historian Dr Lisa Peschel turned detective to track down many previously unseen scripts from Terezín in interviews with camp survivors. The result of her remarkable research is an anthology of 12 theatrical texts including cabaret songs, sketches, dramas and puppet plays all written and performed by prisoners in the midst of the most desperate circumstances.

The book, Performing Captivity, Performing Escape: Cabarets and Plays from the Terezín /Theresienstadt Ghetto speaks to us from the heart of the Holocaust, says Dr Peschel, a lecturer in our Department of Theatre, Film and Television.

Survivors

“Scholars believed that most traces of the prisoner’s 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.

“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,” she said.

The anthology includes cabaret songs, sketches, historical and verse dramas and puppet plays, all written and performed by Czech and Austrian Jews who were imprisoned in the former garrison town taken over by the Nazis during the occupation of Czechoslovakia.

The camp was the final stop for over 30,000 Central and Western European Jews mostly from Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany who perished within its walls. Thousands more were transported from Terezín to slave-labour and death camps.

In the book, Dr Peschel highlights the testimony of one survivor who wrote: “In spite of all the harassment, dirt, ugliness and horror, or exactly because of them, we all sought stimulus through which it would be possible to live and draw hope. It was in the cabaret…that we forgot about the powerlessness of our daily lives.”

New life

The book has breathed new life into the scripts which, since their publication, have been performed in staged readings in New York, Prague, Terezín itself, and as part of the Festival of Ideas at York. Students from York and UCL are to perform a selection of songs, scenes and one-act plays at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and our students will perform some of the works at an event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day in York.

Dr Peschel is to continue her research with the help of funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. As a co-investigator on the £1.5 million project ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’, she will broaden her search for texts and engage in reconstruction projects, including work with students from the Department of Theatre, Film and Television to improvise text for the missing sections of a fragmentary script.

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It was in the cabaret… that we forgot about the powerlessness of our daily lives.”
A survivor of the World War II Jewish ghetto at Terezín/Theresienstadt
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Dr Lisa Peschel

Dr Lisa Peschel

Lecturer in Theatre at the Department of Theatre, Film and Television

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