Theater in the Terezín Ghetto

by Lisa Peschel

Theatrical performance, requiring at its most basic level nothing but performers and spectators, took place during the Holocaust even under the most extreme conditions of deprivation.  In the Jewish ghetto at Terezín (in German, Theresienstadt), a unique combination of circumstances allowed an exceptionally rich cultural life to develop. Because Terezín, located just forty miles northwest of Prague, was employed by the Nazis as a “model ghetto” to be displayed to international agencies such as the Red Cross in order to counter reports about the death camps, living conditions in Terezín were not as brutal as in other camps.  The prisoners had not only time and energy but official permission to devote themselves to artistic activities.  Those who had administrative jobs in the ghetto also had access to writing materials and even typewriters; thus several scripts written in the ghetto were preserved.

Other songs and plays were reconstructed by survivors from memory after the war. Among them is one of the most remarkable plays performed in the ghetto:  The Last Cyclist by Karel Švenk, reconstructed by surviving Terezín actress Jana Šedová and now reimagined and adapted by Naomi Patz.

Many of the plays written in the ghetto contain vital clues not only about living conditions in Terezín but also about how prisoners used performance to manipulate their own experience of those conditions. More specifically, they reveal theatrical techniques used by the prisoners to represent ghetto life in ways that made it appear less threatening. For example, by ironically minimizing dangerous occurrences and laughing at hunger, disease, overcrowding and other deprivations, the prisoners “normalized” ghetto conditions by interpreting them in terms of prewar patterns of behavior.

They also attempted to cope with the traumatic experience of ghettoization through satire. In The Last Cyclist, Karel Švenk provides his audience with a happy ending – the defeat of the evil-doers – but also with the anguished cry of the ingénue that “only here on the stage is there a happy ending.”  The ending echoes the theme of a song that Švenk wrote for an earlier Terezín cabaret, now incorporated by Naomi Patz into her adaptation.  Fondly known to the prisoners as the “Terezín Anthem” or “Terezín March,” it mocks hardships in the camp and looks forward with hope to that “tomorrow” when the prisoners will return home and laugh, as Švenk predicted, “on the ruins of the ghetto.”

But neither Švenk nor most of those who saw The Last Cyclist survived.  Mass transports in September and October of 1944 sent over 18,000 Terezín prisoners to Auschwitz; most of them perished. However, hundreds of them left traces of their months or years in the camps, traces that reveal their fight to exert some control over how they experienced their captivity, their efforts to define the terms of their own subjectivity, and above all their desire to live. The oft-repeated phrases regarding art during the Holocaust, “spiritual resistance” and “triumph of the human spirit,” may convey something of our own feelings about such works, but they do not adequately describe their significance for the prisoners themselves. Speaking to us from the very heart of the Holocaust, these works deserve active engagement rather than respectful reverence.

Dr. Lisa Peschel, Lecturer in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York, has been researching theatrical performance in the Terezín Ghetto since 1998.  Her anthology Performing Captivity, Performing Escape:  Cabarets and Plays from the Terezín /Theresienstadt Ghetto was published in Czech and German in 2008; an English translation should be released soon.