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FOREWORD

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

-Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning


In the 1940s in Terezín, in the shadow of extraordinary evil, four young Czech Jews chose their own way. Refusing to give horror, tragedy, and death the final say, Dr. Felix Porges, Vítězslav "Pidla" Horpatzky, Pavel Weisskopf, and Pavel Stránský wrote and performed a cabaret of music, comedy, song, and dance called Laugh With Us. To the world, Terezín was a "model ghetto," but in reality Theresienstadt, as it is known in German, was a Potemkin village designed as a way station to the chimneys of the death camps. There were no gas chambers at Terezín, but Jews were killed there by other methods. Of the 150,000 people imprisoned in Terezín, 33,000 died in the ghetto, 88,000 were deported to death camps, and only 3,520 survived. What were these young artists thinking in the midst of such uncertainty, darkness, and hopelessness as they engaged in all the elements of theatre?

At the center of our moral life and of our moral imagination are the great models of resistance—people who have said "No!" to perpetrators of hate and oppression. Too often, however, especially when thinking about the Holocaust, our models of resistance are limited to those who, like the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, fought the Nazis with physical power. We divide the world between victims who went passively to their deaths and those who, however limited their means, courageously fought and killed the enemy. But in learning about the artists and musicians and the playwrights and comics of Terezín who created a vibrant cultural life, a comedic cabaret, a living theatre in the midst of the Kingdom of Night,
and in reflecting about the audiences who came and were entertained, our understanding of the very meaning of resistance and courage is transformed. We begin to realize that to unleash one's creativity, to marshal one's imagination, and to use one's gifts and talents to edify, enlighten, and entertain represents a powerful rebellion against despair, a courageous resistance to cynicism and withdrawal, and a profound expression of the desire for freedom and autonomy. This is more than simply psychological
 resistance. This is using creativity to assert humanity and to affirm life.

The moral imperatives imposed by the slaughter of six million Jews are captured in the commandments "Never again" and "Never forget," which mean that the story of the Holocaust must be repeated again and again and again, as the sheer scale of the atrocity makes understanding, no matter how scrupulous and exhaustive, necessarily partial and inadequate. This book offers, in narrative and direct testimony, a story about how, in the midst of suffering and death, people can choose life in the most surprising way.

Thanks to Dr. Lisa Peschel, a theater studies professor who, in 2005, discovered the cabaret Laugh With Us. And thanks to Los Angelino playwright Rich Krevolin, who had the vision to follow and film a modern- day theater group from Minnesota as they traveled to the Czech Republic to perform the cabaret piece and who had the wisdom to document moving interviews with survivors who remembered the original theatrical performances. Because of those choices, we are invited to see a different sort of heroism. Revealed to us are people's capacity and strength to be free not from the brutal conditions that could not be escaped but free to define their own identity, to interpret their own experiences, to resist fear, to establish a sense of control over fundamental aspects of their lives, and to fight for life. Composers, performers, and their audiences "worked through" the traumatic events of the ghetto even while they were still taking place. They were in the ghetto but not of the ghetto.

This is heroism and courage as imagination demanding its rights: to impress, to move, to feel, to heighten, to interpret, and to transmute. No wonder so many of the few who survived Terezín claim that the theatrical performances actually helped them to endure.

Nothing can mitigate the horror of the Kingdom of Night and the loss of six million Jews—more than a million of whom were children. But the fact that the script of Laugh With Us was found and that it was performed again nearly seventy years after it was written and first performed does, in some profound sense, offer at least a hope that we can give life to the dead, compassion to the living, and with fierce grace, preserve our humanity and faith that, ultimately, life and good will prevail, even if only by a hair's breadth.

May this film and book penetrate your heart, pierce your soul, and inspire you to remember. And may it be a blessing to the sacred ones.

Rabbi Irwin Kula


 


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