Theatre Art

The production of theatre art continues under the most severe circumstances, even under dictatorships.  After the Nazi Party gained power in Germany and established its Third Reich (1933-1945), amateur and professional theatre artists maintained their stagecraft skills as best they could.  Not only did German non-Jewish actors continue to work in their professions, but Jewish-born theatre practitioners in Germany also found creative niches for their art-making. The Nazis imposed censorship laws and stipulations on cultural activity, especially by Jews, in Germany and occupied Europe during the Holocaust years. Nonetheless, a wealth of cultural production persisted, even in places one may think impossible for any kind of creativity.  Forms of theatre and related musical events endured in a cultural organisation solely for Jews until 1941 – the Jewish Kulturbund theatre in Nazi Germany; in early concentration camps for political prisoners; in transit and internment camps across Western Europe like Westerbork (the Netherlands); in such enclosed ghettos as Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków and Vilna; at the model ghetto known as Theresienstadt  and in concentration camps and killing centres like Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Even after World War II ended, actor-inmates organised Yiddish-language performances in Displaced Persons’ Camps like Bergen-Belsen.

Definition of Theatre Art

Theatrical activity, then, did not cease after Hitler took power.  It is vital, however, when considering theatre performance by Jews during the Shoah to use a broad definition of 'theatrical activity', given the repressive German state policy which turned to genocide against the Jews.  The term 'theatre' implies the presence of an audience in addition to a performer.  'Theatre art' involves the process by which such scripts as opera libretti and play texts result in the performance of song and dialogue.  The enactment may take place with or without scenery, costumes, and stage props; or actors may read the script out loud without any stage effects.  Puppet theatre, skits (often with music or dance), and the dramatic recitation of poetry, fall under the rubric of theatre art.  All of these aspects were essential to the theatrical revues and cabarets performed in nightclubs throughout European capitals before World War II.  The ghetto revue theatres of Nazi-occupied Europe in the early 1940s employed many of these elements, which evolved from longstanding pre-war European traditions.

Unlike other forms of art, theatre performance is the most transitory; theatre takes place live in the present while we watch.  It exists only in real time.  The audience or 'witnesses' experience stories or a series of images that often touch on something recognisably human.  This allows for some communion among audience members, engaging them in that which is enacted by the performers.  A play’s themes and its spectacle reinforce the communal quality that exists in theatre.  Theatre artists often rely on the natural cross-over among the arts, collaborating with musicians, writers, and applied or visual artists.  A theatre performance, whether in a specifically-designated auditorium, in an outside field or in the corner of a barracks, creates a space in which all present share a bond, however temporary.  The flexibility of theatre as a mode of expression and its reliance on the subjunctive realm of 'if' may have made this art form especially conducive to people incarcerated in ghetto and camp settings during the Holocaust years.

A Theatre Within Nazi Germany: The Jewish Kulturbund

Beginning with the early years in Berlin just months after Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor, Jewish theatre artists and musicians were ousted from cultural venues in Germany.  Their sole cultural outlet became the Kulturbund (Cultural League) of German Jewry, later renamed the Kulturbund for Jews in Germany.  The cultural enterprise was established with the approval of Nazi officials in Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda and Cultural Enlightenment.  Under the directorship of the musicologist Dr Kurt Singer, a network of cultural leagues across Hitler’s Reich, based in Berlin, provided theatres with musical and theatrical events for Jewish subscribers from October 1933 to September 1941.  Only Jews could perform in, attend, and review play productions, operas, cabaret and orchestral concerts at Kulturbund-sponsored theatres.  The dramatic and musical repertoire was limited mainly to works written or composed by non-German Jewish artists, although exceptions did bypass the ubiquitous system of censorship.  A related cultural league, comprised mainly of German-born Jewish émigrés, evolved in the Netherlands at Amsterdam’s Joodsche Schouwbourg during the early 1940s.  The theatre itself was subsequently transformed into a deportation site for transports (July 1942), as Jews were deported to guarded environments like Nazi-run ghettos and camps.  The kind of theatrical activity that developed in those environments differed from that of the Jewish Kulturbund.

Ghetto and camp theatre settings: commanded art versus self-initiated expression

Theatre art during the Holocaust years can be grouped into categories of commanded art and self-initiated expression, depending on the setting in which it occurred.  The various settings in which theatre artists sustained their art represented the increasing trend towards the ghettoization – cultural and geographical – of those groups deemed undesirable within Hitler’s Reich.  The Kulturbund may be considered a legitimate theatre enterprise, condoned by the Nazi leadership, and allowing artists in Germany a creative and economic venue for their skills.  Across Nazi-occupied Europe, however, artists and intellectuals of extraordinary abilities also produced theatre art, as well as professionals and amateurs, including adults and children.  Numerous artists were Jewish-born, many of them imprisoned in ghettos and concentration camps.  Others were non-Jewish political prisoners.

At each ghetto or camp, inmates who had been professional theatre artists and amateur actors gained a special status as entertainers.  They often became ‘privileged’ prisoners; this entitled them to special housing at Westerbork and Theresienstadt   for example, or extra rations, and other goods that they could exchange.  Privileged actors received some protection from guards, kapos, and even SS officers, but their talents also put them at risk: they were subject to censorship and even severe punishment for their art-making.  It depended on whether they received authorisation or an order from an official to perform, or whether they initiated their own performance, which therefore could be secret in nature.  Regardless of the setting in a ghetto or a camp, however, cultural activities and programs evolved – some more loosely organised than others: some were clandestine; some developed with tacit approval from the Jewish Council of Elders (in East European ghettos or Theresienstadt) or Nazi overseers (at transit and concentration camps); other theatrical performances were explicitly approved, encouraged – and in some cases, commanded.  This was true of the Westerbork cabaret troupe, the programs of the organised Freizeitgestaltung (organised leisure time) and theatre performance at Theresienstadt, and at Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps, for instance, when Commanders, kapos, and even room elders demanded entertainment from designated 'entertainers'.

Clandestine attempts at art-making, on the other hand, may be viewed as a protest by prisoners: inmate-artists who initiated unauthorised theatrical performance – a recited poem or a performed skit, for example – subverted repression by openly performing forbidden texts or lyrics.  Karel Švenk of the Czech-language cabaret at Theresienstadt exercised this kind of protest and expression with his sketches, as did political prisoners at Sachsenshausen, Dachau, and Ravensbrück, and night-time performers in the infirmaries of Auschwitz, for example.  The reasons that theatre artists performed under duress are as varied as the kinds of performances themselves; but despite the risks, the artists’ urge to survive often prompted their performances.  They could treat their art as a commodity to be bought for physical well-being, respect, protection, a better barracks, or extra food.  They could also use their art to preserve a sense of self either through spiritual restoration or a temporary escape from an unbearable situation.

General Theatre Repertoire and its Transfer

Popular songs and familiar comic routines of pre-war music halls lived on in the ghettos and in various Nazi-run camps because some of the deported artists – already established in their art – brought their repertoires (preserved in memory), and sometimes a pencil, a book, or a musical instrument with them.  In Nazi Germany and in East European ghettos, Jewish help organisations supplied artistic materials.  In camps, official patrons like commanders often provided these materials for the artists.  Some inmates had access to books.  Inmates also traded or smuggled hand-made books into barracks, as women did in Ravensbrück, for example.  A political prisoner there treasured her bartered copy of a play by the seventeenth-century playwright, Molière; Charlotte Delbo had memorised the dialogue and recited it to herself later to get through morning roll call at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Ghetto and camp inmates composed and scored music for instruments and the voice on site.  Some prisoners recited poetry and sang in camp barracks.  These are some of the ways that actors performed scripted drama and engaged in the dramatic recitation of literary classics.  Relying on the oral tradition, artists passed on the Yiddish-language theatre repertoire of the 'spoken word players', professional orators from such Polish cities as Łódź and Warsaw, to ghetto theatre stages, theatre troupes within the camps, Yiddish theatre ensembles in Displaced Persons’ Camps after 1945, and into the Jewish Diaspora to places like New York City and Melbourne, Australia.  

The performed repertoire at the Jewish Kulturbund and in ghettos and camps included serious drama, comedy, satire, opera, cabaret revues and popular music.  The Kulturbund main theatre repertoire consisted of Western classics like William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Winter’s Tale); Sophocles (Antigone), Henrik Ibsen (Pillars of a Society); Molière (The Imaginary Invalid); drama by German-speaking Jews, imported comedies, and two to three Yiddish-language dramas a year (all in German translation).  Theresienstadt’s separate German and Czech-language theatre troupes performed work by Chekhov (Courtship and The Bear), Gogol (The Marriage), and Jean Cocteau (The Human Voice); and operas like Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Krása’s Brundibár, and Bizet’s Carmen.  German-language play-reading performances at Theresienstadt included classics by Goethe, Lessing and Gerhardt Hauptmann, writers whose work was eventually forbidden to Jews in Nazi Germany.

Ghetto variety revues in Vilna provided spectators with witty insight into their everyday life in 'living newspapers', while Westerbork cabaret skits portrayed camp protocol.  At Theresienstadt, the cabaret poked fun at new inmates, poor food and hygiene, and the ghetto’s elders.  The Czech-language troupes in particular relied on satirical and allegorical dramas, which often bypassed the ghetto censors.  Stefan Zweig’s ‘Jeremiah’ (censored at the Kulturbund), work by Hugo Hofmannthal, and newly written drama was performed for Theresienstadt audiences, who drew direct parallels to the Nazi government. For example, Švenk’s ‘The Last Cyclist’ (1943) turns on the persecution of all cyclists by a government ruled by the 'Rat-dictator'.  The Jewish Council banned the revue because of its anti-Nazi message.  The Jewish Council also banned Viktor Ullmann’s allegorical opera about a dictator, The Emperor of Atlantis (1944), after the dress rehearsal.

Reconstructing Theatre Activities: Documentation and Materials

Even under normal circumstances, theatre performance – like a music concert – is difficult to reconstruct as it was lived.  Traditional performances usually derive from play texts or directors’ notes.  Eyewitness reviews become essential for documenting performance.  Such reviews never existed in many of the settings described.  War and Nazi attempts to destroy Jewish culture, as well as Europe’s post-war division, make it nearly impossible to recreate a performance history of theatre from the Holocaust years.  Some original play scripts, production photographs, theatre memorabilia, and official Nazi correspondence exist from these years, however, particularly from the Jewish Kulturbund.

Polish Jewish newspapers from the early 1940s list the plays performed in the Warsaw ghetto.  Cultural reports and diaries by Jewish ghetto administrators describe entertainments in other ghettos like Vilna and Łódź.  Photographs of 'amusements for the ghetto elite' photographed by German army reporters may be useful to researchers.  Meanwhile, photos documenting Westerbork cabaret revues reveal props, scenery, and costumes; and diary entries and typed programs suggest the content of those revues.  Cabaret critiques written in Theresienstadt survived the war, as did remnants of libretti, music, set designs and costume sketches from the ghetto’s cultural department.  A secretly written opera libretto from Ravensbrück was published six decades after its creation by a prisoner who wrote in a cardboard packing crate, guarded by barracks’ mates.  Arts scholars may examine these varied resources when researching theatre performance during the Holocaust.

Perhaps most compelling are the voices of those performers who created theatre art amid the horrors of deportation and death.  Their motives for creating art were varied.  But their expression of purpose attests to a singular human need to preserve one’s sense of self and to survive.  Dovid Rogow was one of the first actors to organise a touring Yiddish-language theatre troupe for the DP camps at the end of World War II.  He has made it clear that, 'In a terrible time, the actor himself forgets his surroundings and the audience forgets for a half an hour where they are'.  The former master of ceremonies for an authorised cabaret troupe at Auschwitz I speaks about his art-making differently.  Each Sunday afternoon for a month on the top floor of a barracks, Max Rodriquez Garcia performed for an audience of elite prisoners and the SS.  With his quintet of jazz musicians, Garcia told jokes in German and sang songs by Charles Trenet, Maurice Chevalier and Zarah Leander.  Garcia voices the necessity, but also the contradictions, of performing at a camp like Auschwitz:

You have been privileged … Your life is pretty damned good – under the circumstances.  But it is absurd.  Because really what it says in a certain way is you’re ignoring the misery that’s outside.  But then the next question comes, ‘Why would I be involved in it?  Because it’s not yet me who’s there.  I don’t know these people’.  But you’re part of humanity and what you’re doing there is pure self preservation. You sing and dance for the devil because you will not let him kill you.

Performers who lived through the Shoah, like Garcia and Rogow, confirm that the creative process was significant to their survival.  Their testimony demonstrates the need for us to situate the 'cultural heritage' of the Holocaust years within twentieth-century music and theatre history, despite the atrocity that co-existed with this heritage.

By Rebecca Rovit

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