Lisa Peschel: rediscovering the forgotten theatre of Terezín

During the Second World War, over 140,000 people were imprisoned in the Terezín ghetto north of Prague. Their only crime was to be Jewish. One in four died in the ghetto itself, and most who survived later perished in other Nazi camps. But despite appalling overcrowding, there was still a semblance of normal life in Terezín. The ghetto’s streets still had names; people would still go to work in the morning, and come home to their cramped barracks at night. And against the odds, Terezín had a thriving cultural life. This included theatre, a fact that gripped the imagination of the American theatrical historian, Lisa Peschel. She has spent years trying to find out more about the texts that were written and performed in the ghetto. Her detective work, in close cooperation with survivors, has yielded an astonishing amount of material, and Lisa has now edited a book that brings some of these texts together. Published in Prague by Akropolis, the book is in Czech and German, but Lisa promises that there will soon be an English edition too. She told me more about her fascinating - and important - research.

“The first few texts turned up almost by coincidence. I went to the yearly meeting of the Terezín Initiative, which is a survivors’ organization, and they gave me a few minutes just to describe my project. I asked if anybody happened to have materials at home, I would love to take a look. And a woman approached me at the end of the meeting and said, ‘You know, I have a small collection if you’d like to come and see it.’ So a few weeks later we got together and she handed me a complete, full-length cabaret text in Czech, which I had never seen before. It turned out no-one had ever seen it before.”

Was this something that she herself had written?

“She was a dancer in the show, so she had received the script for her role. Just a few months after this first copy came to light I was at a lecture in Brno, where Professor Bořivoj Srba was talking about theatrical performance in various concentration camps. Someone in the audience asked a question at the end and said, ‘I’m surprised this phenomenon was so widespread. I knew it existed in Terezín because my parents had a cabaret there.’ So I approached him after the lecture and just asked him to tell me more about this. A few weeks later we met again and he brought me in a blue plastic bag a whole private collection of these plays that had been written and collected by his father in the ghetto.”

What sort of texts are we talking about here generally? You mentioned a cabaret. The first thing that strikes me is that cabaret tends to be a light-hearted form of theatre – in this very dark context.

“A lot of the survivors say there was very little serious, and especially tragic, drama performed in the ghetto just because they couldn’t bear it. What everyone needed was a little bit of escape. So the texts that are in the collection are mostly cabaret-type texts, collections of songs. But there’s also a unique work that turned up again in a surprising way. I was having an interview with Professor Jiří Franěk and he had a friend named Zdeněk Eliáš in the ghetto, who emigrated to the United States after the war and unfortunately passed away about ten years ago. But he said, ‘I know Zdeněk wrote a play in the ghetto with his friend Jirka Stein. Someone has to have this text.’ He described the whole plot to me and said, ‘You know, maybe Zdeněk’s widow in the United States could find it.’ So I called her and she actually found it. It’s a short drama – probably 45 minutes – set in the Thirty Years’ War. Four prisoners are sitting in a cell and talking about what they’ll do when they get home. They’re all from the same area and they’re dreaming about seeing their families, what they’ll eat, what they’ll do. At the very end of the play they find out the area around their home has been completely destroyed, and in that same moment they find out the war is over, the peace has been signed and they’re free to go home – to a home that doesn’t exist any more.”

… when you get to the crossroads at the three fir trees you’ll see a column of smoke rising up from the smouldering ruins, where your town once stood! That’s what remains of your home fires. You want to go home? You fool! The home you left is a thing of the past, lost forever in the sands of time! Now there’s a new world out there, beyond these walls! Do you hear? A new world! Those old days of idle drunkenness that you remember in Waldau are gone for good. There’ll be no time for pious contemplation in a quiet corner of the parsonage garden in Rain, Father Anselm! The romantic scenes that you dreamed of, Christian, will never be played out… There will be no time! You understand? There will be no time!”

This is clearly an allegory in some sense of the situation in which these people found themselves in Terezín.

“This is what kept the prisoners going, these dreams that the war will be over in a few months - we’ll go home and everything will be as it was. And these two young men had the foresight to think that maybe things will be radically different.”

And that is the tragedy of the survivors, that when they did come back they found that they were the only ones, that their families had been wiped out.

“This is part of the story that’s very rarely told – just how many survivors actually committed suicide after returning. They found out that they were the only one from their family that survived, they found out that a loved one or a spouse or a girlfriend or boyfriend they’d longed to see again had in the meantime married somebody else. Or they found out that really the whole social structure, the whole world they had looked forward to returning to just didn’t exist any more.”

You went about gathering all these texts. What was the next step?

“Part of the grant we received included some research money, so I went to Israel, Germany and Austria and started searching in smaller archives. In that way even more unknown texts turned up.”

And how many altogether are there in the final book?

“We have five Czech-language texts and six German-language texts.”

These are theatrical texts. How did you go about getting them performed once again?

“We were very fortunate in that Mr Prokeš, who was the son of one of the authors, has been involved in theatre professionally his whole life, and through his circle of acquaintances we were able to work together with Jitka Jílková, who is manager of the German language theatre festival in Prague, and through her acquaintance with Mr Pařízek at the theatre, Divadlo Komedie, to put on a reading as a kind of experiment, to see how much interest there would be. The director, Michaela Korcová selected scenes from different plays, scenes that would be understandable to an audience today. They put together an evening. We had a full house and found out these texts still worked very well on stage.”

I was lucky enough to be at that performance in the Divadlo Komedie and one text that really stood out was an extraordinary park bench dialogue set in the future, where somebody is talking about the distant past, when there was a fashion that everybody would wear yellow stars on all their clothes, and the other person won’t believe it. I find it quite amazing that this was written at the time.

“Actually I’ve had quite intensive debates about it. Is it true? Is this play really from the ghetto? But two different versions have turned up, and in addition a young man in the ghetto made notes for an article he wanted to write about cabaret in Terezín after the war. He didn’t survive, but his notes do, and in the notes he quotes from this particular cabaret. So it’s really beyond doubt that it was written right in the ghetto.

F. Porges: Excuse me for bothering you, but I’d be really interested to know, what that emblem - or whatever it is you’re wearing - is meant to symbolize.”

P. Horpatzky: Don’t you recognize it?

F. Porges: No, I can’t say I recall ever seeing anything like it.

P. Horpatzky: You’re a lucky fellow, I envy you. You know, it was all the rage at one time, you wouldn’t be seen dead without one, on your coat, your jacket, your trousers, your underwear, you name it…

F. Porges: And what if it didn’t suit you, if that ugly colour didn’t match your skin?

P. Horpatzky: That didn’t make any difference, it was simply what we had to do. It was something to do with who your grandmother was, and that was that. No ifs and buts. A whole lot of us got together at that time. And we all went off together.

F. Porges: You went on tour…?

“This particular scene is part of that very first cabaret to turn up, which is absolutely remarkable because you can see them already thinking their way not only into the next few years post-war, but into a period when the young man who addresses the retiree sitting on the park bench doesn’t even know what the yellow star means.”

This reflects a rather unnerving truth today, doesn’t it? The Holocaust for many younger people is fading into history.

“You know, I’ve heard from people who work here in the Jewish Museum that for a lot of young people it’s so far-fetched that they find it literally unbelievable.”

And how have survivors of Terezín and people who remember these performances from the ghetto responded to your research? Some of them will have also seen the performance you put together for the Divadlo Komedie.

“Sometimes with absolute delight. Some of them have intensely fond memories of the cultural life of the ghetto. I remember one interview in particular. I took this first cabaret text to one survivor, Hana Reinerová, and asked her to read it with me and explain to me some of the jokes. She was, I believe, 85 years old at the time and as she read especially this last park scene that you mentioned she started to laugh harder and harder until she put her head down on the table and had to stop for a minute because she was laughing so hard. I’ve had other survivors start singing along with the text. I’ve had some, especially with The Smoke of Home, the text about the four prisoners, be absolutely startled and say, ‘I never thought I would ever see this again.’”

That reminds me of something that the writer Arnošt Lustig has said about his time in Terezín. If you’re young and with lots of other young people, even in the most inhuman conditions you can later feel a sense of nostalgia. It’s a very strange paradox, isn’t it?

“Very much so, and many of them use this word paradox, because - especially in retrospect - they look at the danger they were in, they think about the family members they lost, and think especially about the plight of the elderly people who were in Terezín, who experienced much harsher conditions. Yet they have these fond memories, especially of the cultural life and especially of the things they did together with their group of friends.”

The bilingual Czech-German collection of theatrical texts from Terezín is entitled Divadelní texty z terezínského ghetta 1941-1945 (ed. Lisa Peschel), published in 2008 by Akropolis.