The situation was particularly desperate for the elderly. The Jewish Council of Elders, also known as the Jewish Self-Administration, was a group of prisoners compelled by the Nazis to run the internal affairs of the camp. Adolf Eichmann himself chose the heads of the Council. The Council organized the work in the kitchens, hospitals and schools for children under the age of 15. In order to have enough food to keep the children and workers alive, the Council had to further limit the already inadequate rations for those too old to work, causing many of the elderly to die in Terezín of starvation. The Council was also forced by the Gestapo to compile the deportation lists to the east. “They had to play God,” stated Edgar Krasa, a survivor who worked as a cook in Terezín. Despite meager rations, exhaustion and illness, camp inmates were forced to work long hours every day of the week. Some were assigned to assembly lines producing items deemed essential to the German war effort; others did the jobs necessary to keep the camp functioning.
Many draftsmen, designers, artists and accountants worked on reports for the SS, who required everything under their control to be recorded with graphs, detailed statistics, surveys and lavishly illustrated documents. Each camp inmate was registered in at least 17 files. This work was fraught with tension. Mistakes as simple as a typographical or clerical error led to drastic punishment, even death. And yet the artists who worked there endangered their lives to steal paper, pencil stubs, colored chalks and other art supplies to document in secret the horrors and atrocities in the camp, and to provide supplies for the children’s art classes.
Staging Productions in Terezín
Plays, cabarets, operas, solo performances and concerts involved careful preparation. “The staging of every single piece was accompanied by immense difficulties resulting from the camp’s conditions. At every turn it was necessary to get over new obstacles: the acquiring of dramatic texts, night rehearsals, seeking for convenient rooms for staging and rehearsing. The theatre ensembles used to rehearse in various garrets, cellars, in cold, dark lofts without light…
“František Zelenka, an architect and a renowned scenographer in Prague, managed to create even in the environment and conditions of Terezín, many original theatrical scenes as well as costumes full of imagination, metaphor and poetry. It was unbelievable how much he was able to get out of the minimum material at his disposal” (Arts in Terezín 1941-1945). Zelenka worked wonders with bedsheets, torn pieces of paper, bits of clothing and whatever other scraps were available to him. In Zelenka’s 15 months in Terezín, he designed sets and costumes for 30 productions including The Last Cyclist and the set for the children’s opera Brundibar. He was murdered in Auschwitz in October 1944.
In such an environment, what would under normal conditions be insignificant assumed overwhelming importance: breaking a shoelace or losing a spoon was nearly catastrophic. In this way, Terezín was like the other camps.
Yet Terezín was unique. Much of the intellectual Jewish elite of Western and Central Europe – painters, writers, composers, musicians, scholars and their families – passed through the camp, and most of them contributed in one way or another to the extraordinary flourishing of culture in this most unlikely of places. In the bizarre environment of the concentration camp, in the constant presence of death, they managed to have “an artistic and intellectual life so fierce, so determined, so vibrant, so fertile as to be almost unimaginable” (Cara de Silva, In Memory’s Kitchen). There was a lending library at Terezín with more than 60,000 books, brought by prisoners as part of the 20 kilos of luggage they were permitted to take with them when they were deported.
The SS didn’t care what went on in the camp so long as it didn’t involve overt acts of subversion or sabotage. So “the supreme irony of Terezín is that within its walls it was artistically the freest place in occupied Europe. Elsewhere Jewish music was forbidden, so-called ‘degenerate music’ and jazz were banned, but in Terezín they played Mendelssohn, Offenbach and the works of the composers incarcerated in the ghetto. Most of these works would have failed the degeneracy test as well as the racial one” (Simon Broughton, BBC Music Magazine). A Czech theater director who was deported to Terezín in August 1943 and survived the war, expressed it this way: “If Terezín was not hell itself, like Auschwitz, it was the anteroom to hell” (Norbert Frýd). Cultural and educational activities, secret archives, hidden synagogues and clandestine religious observances reaffirmed a sense of Jewish community, history and civilization in the face of physical and spiritual degradation (and, ultimately annihilation, although that was unimaginable to the Jews incarcerated in Terezín). They refused to allow their spirit to be broken even under profoundly dehumanizing circumstances (adapted from a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum pamphlet).
“It defies our understanding to imagine concentration camp inmates singing, playing classical music, and dancing on makeshift stages or in crowded barracks at the same time that cattle cars transported their fellow inmates toward Auschwitz. The grotesquerie of such events suggests frivolity and even sacrilege. If people could act in plays and create art while facing death, that would have to mean that life in the camps could not have been so desperate. But the inmates knew that the camps were evil. And we know that they were very evil. And we now know that people sang and danced in spite of and because of the Nazi hell and the murderous ‘Final Solution’ ” (Rebecca Rovit, Theatrical Performance During the Holocaust).
As Jana Šedová wrote, “Hardly anywhere in the world was there such a grateful audience as in the attics of Terezín. Hardly a single actor anywhere else has ever been rewarded for his endeavors by such love from his public. … a great hunger for culture in a place where there was not even enough bread to eat.”
Viktor Ullmann, a noted composer, conductor, pianist and music critic before the war, was among the most famous prisoners in Terezín. His most important composition in the camp was the opera, The Emperor of Atlantis. It and The Last Cyclist were the only two works banned by the Jewish Council of Elders. Ullmann died in Auschwitz in October 1944.
While in Terezín, Ullmann wrote: “The will to create is the same as the will to live.”
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.
THE RED CROSS VISIT: JUNE 1944
Although at first the plays, concerts, lectures and paintings were done in secret, the Nazis ultimately cynically exploited these cultural and artistic activities to serve their own purposes. The notorious Red Cross visit was a particularly egregious example. The Danish government, which pressured the Germans on behalf of some 470 Danish Jewish citizens interned in Terezín, succeeded in 1944 in arranging for a visit to the camp under the auspices of the International Red Cross. The SS undertook a vast, months-long “beautification” campaign which involved a physical upgrading of the facilities that the delegation would be taken to see – removing the third tier of bunks on the ground floor of the barracks to be visited, the creation of cafes, a soccer match, a bandstand, a merry-go-round, a performance of the Verdi Requiem – and even the printing of fake currency, as well as the deportation of 7,503 people, largely the sick and elderly, to reduce overcrowding and increase the “healthy appearance” of the prisoners who would become performers in this Potemkin village-like travesty.
The members of the delegation were so thoroughly deceived that they decided not to go on to inspect Auschwitz, which had been part of their original plan. Whether or not the Nazis would have allowed such a visit, given that Auschwitz was one of the death camps, is another matter. And yet, a member of that delegation, Swiss doctor Maurice Rossel, later claimed that he did visit Auschwitz and had tea with the director of the camp, but that he did not see any other part of Auschwitz itself or Birkenau. (From an interview with him by Claude Lanzmann in Lanzmann’s 1999 film, “A Visitor from the Living.”)
The Red Cross visit was followed by the creation of a propaganda film. Kurt Gerron, a brilliant filmmaker from Berlin, was forced to be its director. The film came to be called “The Führer Gives the Jews a Town.” It presented a totally fraudulent portrait of the camp and hid its deplorable conditions. Gerron and virtually everyone else involved in producing, directing, filming and acting in the movie was deported immediately afterward to Auschwitz. Only a fragment of the film remains; it is preserved in the archives of the Ghetto Museum at Terezín.