Dr. Lisa Peschel, University of York – Lost Theatrical Works of the Holocaust

Dec 18, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Lisa Peschel of the University of York discusses the discovery of theatrical works that were only performed in World War II Jewish ghettos. 

Lisa Peschel is a lecturer in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Television at the University of York. Her research interests include theories of affect, identity and subjectivity, as well as understanding trauma, humour, and the role that theatrical performance plays within societies in crisis. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota.

About Dr. Peschel

Dr. Lisa Peschel – Lost Theatrical Works of the Holocaust

During my research on theatrical performance in one of the WWII Jewish ghettos, something completely unexpected happened: several previously unknown scripts written and performed by the prisoners came to light.

The ghetto, which was called Theresienstadt in German, and Terezin in Czech, was located just 40 miles northwest of Prague. It was a site of fear and deprivation, but it was also the site of a desperately vibrant cultural life, initiated by the prisoners themselves. Although most of the artists ultimately perished in the Holocaust, dozens of their musical compositions and hundreds of drawings, including children's drawings, have been preserved. Scholars believed that most traces of theatrical performances in the ghetto had been lost – until very recently. 

Between 2004 and 2008, while I was interviewing survivors and searching in archives in Europe and Israel, scripts began to resurface. 12 of them are now being published in English in an anthology called Performing Captivity, Performing Escape.

So how did these scripts reappear more than 60 years after the war? I'll give you just one example. In the spring of 2005 I went to a reunion of Terezin survivors in Prague and simply asked, does anyone have any scripts? Two women approached me – sisters – and the older sister had been a dancer in Terezin.. She showed me a full-length cabaret for ten performers, that was staged in the ghetto in the spring and summer of 1944. However, it was set in the future, as if all the actors had survived, and returned to Prague and were enjoying fantastic careers -- one had become a singer with the Czech national opera, another was a dancer for a famous theater -- and in this imaginary future, the performers talk about Terezin as if they're looking back on the good old days.

Here's another surprising thing:  ten of the 12 scripts are comedies, and in my latest research I am investigating why the prisoners tried to cope with the often traumatic conditions of their captivity using humor.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.