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"For I can see in the midst of death, life persists,in the midst of untruth, truth persists,in the midst of darkness, light persists.” -- Mohandas K. Gandhi

“More light. More light.” -- Goethe’s last words on his deathbed

Even in the darkest places on earth, such as prison camps, there is always the need for light, for laughter. This documentary explores the little-known role that theater, cabaret and comedy played in improving and even saving the lives of some of the Jews who lived in the Terezin ghetto in WWII. It does this by following a modern day theater group from Minnesota that performed a cabaret piece in Terezin last year, almost 70 years after it was written, by interviewing survivors who witnessed the performance, and also telling of my own personal journey.

The German words above the entrance to the small fortress of Terezin proclaims, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free). However, for some of the Jewish prisoners in Terezin, it should’ve read, “Lachen Macht Frei,” (Laughter Sets You Free). For these prisoners did the extraordinary - in a small attic theater, they made light of their situation by writing and performing a comedic cabaret piece. This documentary tells their remarkable story…

And yes, many have argued that the flourishing arts culture in Terezin was a carefully planned deception designed by the Nazis to convince the Red Cross inspectors and the world that the Jews were really being treated well, but the survivors interviewed for this documentary make it clear -- the arts were much more than that. Cultural events like the 2nd Czech Cabaret gave them agency; it empowered them, vastly enriching their lives. These events filled their souls with laughter and gave them something to live for.

More specifically, “Making Light in Terezin” follows a Theater Studies Prof., Dr. Lisa Peschel, who recently discovered a comedy cabaret play from Terezin in 1943. In addition, the documentary tells the story of a Minnesota based theater company as they journey to the Terezin “model” ghetto/ concentration camp outside of Prague on June 15, 2011 to perform this piece again in the exact same theater it was first performed in almost 70 years ago. This theater company, Step In Time Theater Co. from Minneapolis, MN, while in the Czech Republic, even stayed in the same ghetto barracks that the original performers lived in during the war and our cameras captured them throughout this journey.

On a more personal note, as a playwright, I have written many plays, but all of them seem essentially meaningless and trifling compared to these newly discovered performance pieces written in the face of Nazi occupation and the death camps.

So, upon learning about this performance in the Czech Republic, I decided to take some time off from playwriting, pick up a video camera, hire a crew and record this extraordinary event. Besides merely documenting the performance both in Terezin and Prague,I also interviewed survivors from Terezin and documented their experiences and feelings as they watched this play for the first time since 1943.
As a playwright who has written many Jewish comedies that have been performed all over the country in two at the Minnesota Jewish Theater, I believe I bring a special range of knowledge and sensitivity to this material that a documentary filmmaker without theater training might not bring to the table.

In covering this material, I attempted to explore the connection between art/theater and life/meaning, as well as the role that theater played in lives of people on the brink of death. In essence, when confronted with the prospect of the death camps, why did the Terezin ghetto prisoners feel the need to put on theatrical performances? Were they an act of spiritual resistance? And what was the role of laughter in helping some of them survive? And in such inhumane conditions, how did the performance space give them back their humanity?

Furthermore, I also interviewed famous Jewish scholars such as Rabbi Joel Rembaum, Rabbi Irwin Kula, and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of the book, “Jewish Humor.”

Historically speaking, Terezin was a ghetto, a prison as opposed to the concentration and death camps such as Auschwitz. Terezin was a collection point where the Jews of Central Europe were gathered before being transported to the death camps. This destination was concealed from the prisoners.

Yet, within the ghetto walls was a remarkably vibrant artistic life. Prof. Peschel spent nearly 11 years gathering scripts and cabarets performed at Terezin. She interviewed over 70 survivors and in doing so, made a remarkable discovery. This piece, also known as the Second Czech Cabaret, was given to Dr. Peschel on two separate occasions by survivors or relatives of survivors. She spent years translating it and tracking down all the references, so that the jokes make sense.

For Prof. Peschel, it really comes down the question "How do you define resistance?"  Many people talk of theater and comedy as spiritual resistance, but she feels it’s more than that. In fact, her fundamental argument against that word, “Spiritual Resistance” is that people usually think of it as some kind of engaged resistance, like satire against the Nazis.  But that ties the prisoners to their oppressors -- as if nothing they do is significant unless it's about the Nazis. Her view is different. She says, “Why should we expect their art, as well as their lives, to be dominated by the Nazis?  The prisoners have other things to think about; why shouldn't we admire their use of the theatrical space as the place where they did everything they couldn't do in the ghetto? Go home... predict their own futures... philosophize... make each other laugh… think about questions of life and death larger than their daily worries of  "Will I get enough to eat? Will I be put on a transport?"  This was a space where they could CHOOSE to engage with the Nazis or to ignore them.”

When asked what drew her to this topic, Prof. Peschel answers, “It's not because of family connections -- I'm not Jewish, I'm not Czech -- I was drawn to Terezin and to the survivors because I love theater, and this is the most remarkable use of it that I have ever seen. When I first found out about the ghetto and its cultural life in 1992, my question from the very beginning was, "Why are they doing this?  Why are they confronting imprisonment in the ghetto with … theater?"  And when I first started talking with survivors in 1998, the question evolved into, "Why do so many of them claim that theatrical performance actually helped them survive?"

“Making Light in Terezin” shows that the Terezin prisoners, with theatrical performance, were quite literally performing these three steps -- in effect, working through traumatic events in the ghetto as they were taking place. However, there was one crucial difference:  instead of mourning the loss of their prewar world, they refused to acknowledge even the possibility that that world could be lost to them -- instead, they used performance to establish an incredible degree of continuity with their prewar lives.

Dr. Peschel helped us locate and film all of the remaining survivors in the Czech Republic who either had a hand in creating this performance piece or witnessed it being performed while they were prisoners in Terezin. The combination of their stories, Dr. Peschel’s story, the footage of the play itself and then the stories of the present day actors from Minnesota portraying these courageous prisoners/performers is what makes this documentary stand out from the other Holocaust documentaries that have already been made.

This documentary has a light, fast-paced aesthetic. Our goal in this film was to embody the iconoclastic feel of the original comic cabaret in which the Jewish prisoners chose to embrace the comedic instead of the tragic. In interviewing the survivors, it became clear to me that they survived because of their ability to laugh and thus, for this message to reach the world, I tried to make sure that this documentary never got bogged down in preachiness or solemnity…

In a nutshell, this film is NOT just another Holocaust documentary that people feel they should see -- but in fact, really dread watching. Instead, this doc is an exploration and celebration of a whole new aspect of the Holocaust that most of the world is unaware of.

Yes, the Jews in Terezin were facing death, and yes, in Warsaw, they rebelled. But in a way, “Making Light in Terezin” will show that every theater performance in Terezin, every comedic moment onstage, represents a small rebellion, a small articulation of these Jewish performers’ desire for freedom and autonomy.
This is a story that needs to be told and I think that by showing historical footage from WWII, interviews of survivors and experts today, as well as footage of the play itself being performed, we really bring this important and little known episode of WWII history to life.

 


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