Comedy in a Concentration Camp

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Comedy in a Concentration Camp

Leo Doulton reports on a collection of newly discovered cabarets that will be performed at the Bloomsbury later this week

“Though we feared catastrophe
It passed without calamity”

As people across the world marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last week, many will have heard quotes written during the Holocaust. These quotes remind us of the tragedy and warn us ‘Never Again’. And yet the above quote is also a part of the Holocaust. For in the Theresienstadt ghetto, the inmates wrote dozens of comedies that have only recently come to light. Prior to their first London performance – and in some cases, their first performance since 1945 – it seems appropriate to offer a brief history of the cabarets of Theresienstadt.

Jews were brought from across central Europe to Theresienstadt (also known as Terezín) where tens of thousands lived and died. But amazingly, amid the suffering of the ghetto, the prisoners wrote and performed operas, songs, sketches and plays.

What did they write?

Almost anything. The best-known works are those that have clear allegories of resistance to the Nazis. But this ignores many other aspects – nostalgia for home and self-parody about their lives in the ghetto. Much of the humour is very dark. When a fashionista lists the inmates’ small rations, she adds, “weight loss… is dead certain.” Others exchange painful puns, quip about their pre-war worlds, and mock the absurdities of ghetto life. The humour, like the prisoners, is breathtakingly diverse and, to me, extremely funny.

So why did they write it?

Some survivors caution against depicting them as heroes. The Holocaust has often been used for political point scoring and too often people have ignored the bits that don’t fit a narrative of brave resistance to the Nazis.

The theatre was also a place of escapism, where the past could be remembered, the present mocked, and a future hoped for. Many performers had been among the leading lights of European cabaret before the war – is it so surprising that they continued to create superb comedy in the ghetto? They were all different and all individuals – saying that they were not heroes doesn’t diminish their work. It merely acknowledges the true range of both it and its creators.

Can we perform this now? And should we?

Some of it cannot make sense to those without detailed knowledge of Terezín. For example, to understand the joke “I drove two gruff old Jews/They were harnessed to my wagon”, one must know of the carts inmates were forced to pull, and the popular Viennese song Fiakerlied about the city’s horse-drawn cabs, to which the words are set.

Some people find the humour too dark, too frivolous, or too crass. But the real challenge is the traditions that have accumulated around the Holocaust. It is difficult for some to accept that many inmates saw themselves as Czech or Viennese before Jewish. People from different nationalities read different things into the texts depending on their country’s traditions. Others attempt to find a deeper meaning to everything to avoid the possibility of the inmates displaying an apparently distasteful levity.

In many ways this answers the second part of the question. By challenging our ideas of the Holocaust, and reminding us that this was not a monolithic collection of identical sombre-faced people, but instead a diverse group, vaguely similar in only one regard – in a way that made no difference to who they were except in the eyes of their captors – these works bring home two crucial ideas. The Holocaust was a tragedy of individuals, and anybody attempting to use the Holocaust to make a simplistic point is underestimating the range of the victims and of their responses.

This is, of course, my own belief. It is one based on weeks of rehearsal and detailed engagement with these works with a fine group of actors from UCL and beyond. We hope to do justice to these texts by ensuring that, whether you come because you like comedy, drama, or history, or wish to take part in a unique act of remembrance, you enjoy them as much as those who first heard them so long ago. Or, to quote one of the works,

“In a hundred years we’ll bet
When the whole world reads of it
All they’ll do is laugh!”

Theatre in the Theresienstadt Ghetto: Newly Discovered Works is on at the Bloomsbury Theatre on Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th February. Buy tickets here.

The cast performing the

The cast of the Theresienstadt Cabarets , performing in the Bloomsbury Theatre this week.

Featured image credit: Godot13

Comedy in a Concentration Camp Reviewed by on February 2, 2015 .

Leo Doulton reports on a collection of newly discovered cabarets that will be performed at the Bloomsbury later this week

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