I checked here in LA and its on KCET at 10 pm on Wednesday April 15th.
Thanks for tuning in...
M.L.I.T is going to be on many local PBS TV station across the country over the next few months. Please check your local listings to see when it is on in your 'hood.
I checked here in LA and its on KCET at 10 pm on Wednesday April 15th.
Thanks for tuning in...
SURVIVOR STORY: PAVEL STRÁNSKÝ
HERE IS THE COMPLETE TEXT OF ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING INTERVIEWS I'VE EVER DONE...
Pavel was the first of the survivors I met on the Making Light in Terezín journey. Born in 1921, Pavel was an only child. After the Nazi occupation of Prague in 1940, his father committed suicide. Then, his mother was sent to her death in a gas chamber in Treblinka.
At the age of twenty, Pavel was shipped to Terezín Ghetto in Prague.
In the face of such hardships, Pavel could well have been bitter, but when he speaks of his time in Terezín, he doesn't curse the Nazis. Instead, he focuses on how, as a twenty-year-old, he fell in love with his bride-to-be, Vera. His face always lights up as he tells of their great love.
I believe Pavel embodies the spirit and epitomizes the heart and soul of the whole experience of what these prisoners did at Terezín. Additionally, Pavel is the only remaining one of the cabaret's original writers—the last living link from that experience. It was a pivotal interview for this project, and it was a groundbreaking, amazing moment in my life to sit with him. Pavel Stránský captured my heart, and the responses I've heard from those who have seen the documentary mirror that sentiment.
We all long for love and connection. Pavel offers an attitude and message of hope that this can happen for anyone in any situation. And that's not a bad way to begin the story of Making Light in Terezín.
SURVIVOR STORY: PAVEL STRÁNSKÝ
Pavel Stránský: I am Pavel Stránský. I'm a survivor of the Holocaust.
Richard Krevolin: So you were in Terezín from when to when?
Pavel: I was in Terezín from December 1, '41 'til December 15-16, '43. So approximately two years. And then I was sent from Terezín, or from Theresienstadt— Terezín is the Czech name for Theresienstadt—I was sent to Auschwitz into the so-called "Czech Family Camp." The SS [Schutzstaffel, the elite corps of the Nazi Party] wanted to have also a camp to be able to show to a delegation of the International Red Cross. So they founded, in September '43, in Auschwitz—in Birkenau, which was an affiliated camp of Auschwitz—the so-called "Czech Family Camp," in which all families were together. Naturally, men and women and children in separate wooden blocks.
The SS wanted to send all still living from this camp—after their stay of six months—to extermination camps and bring new prisoners in order to be always able to show to a delegation of the International Red Cross that the prisoners were in a relatively normal health state. I was the only child, and my father committed suicide already in Prague, in 1940, after the Nazi occupation and after the assassination of Heydrich.
I don't know whether I should tell something about Heydrich. He was assassinated by two paratroopers. One was Czech and the other was Slovak. Toward the end of May '42, here in Prague—I was already in Theresienstadt at the time—the SS sent a punishment Jewish transport directly to the east of Poland . . . with my mother in this transport . . . about which I didn't know because I was already in Theresienstadt. And the whole transport perished in gas chambers, probably in Treblinka.
In Theresienstadt was also my fiancée. We knew each other from the time before the Holocaust—from the year '38. She was also the only child, like myself, and her father died in Theresienstadt. When I was put into a transport, directly to the east, not knowing that our destination was Auschwitz, better called Auschwitz-Birkenau, the two ladies [my fiancée and her mother] wanted to go with me on their free will on the same transport, and there was only one possibility how to do it: We married. Our honeymoon trip was to the largest extermination camp.
We stayed in this Czech Family Camp seven months, and then there was a selection. The SS have changed their minds. They didn't put all of us in gas chambers, only some. They selected . . . Dr. Mengele, you surely know who Dr. Mengele was, selected one thousand young men and one thousand young women able to labor, and we were sent to different concentration camps. And after more than one year, [we] came again together. So the mother of my fiancée—of my wife already—has been put in a gas chamber after our stay of seven months in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Then, we were selected to live . . . one thousand young men, one thousand young women. And after the war, after the end of World War II, we met again here in Prague. So from Auschwitz-Birkenau I was sent to a small camp in Germany called Schwarzheide, where we removed the ruins from a factory producing gas from lignite, bombarded many times by the allies. In April '45, we have already the approaching front, and on April 18th, '45, the SS Commander forced us to start a death march. So we marched from Schwarzheide again to Theresienstadt.
So I started my Holocaust story in Theresienstadt and ended in there as well. My wife was in many concentration camps all over Germany. Her last one was Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British. So she came to Prague two months later than myself, on July 19, '45, on the happiest day of my life. So this is, in short, my Holocaust story.
Richard: So it's a love story. Pavel: It's a love story, yes.
Richard: And the beautiful woman on your book cover, that is her? Pavel: It's her.
Richard: Do you think that having your wife, being in love, helped you survive?
Richard: Can you talk about the role of love in your ability to survive?
Pavel: I've written a book about my Holocaust story, and I lecture regularly—in Germany, Austria, Finland, California. And when I lecture in schools or in some churches, as well, in some Jewish communities, I always begin my story talking to the children to make it easier for them. That my Holocaust story is also laughter.
Richard: The fact that you survived . . . some of that seemed like God . . . how do you determine why some people lived and some people didn't?
Pavel: I don't know . . . I don't know. It's coincidence. I am not a believer.
Richard: You don't believe in God? Pavel: No. Not after the Holocaust.
Richard: But yet you identify yourself very strongly as being Jewish.
Pavel: I am Jewish. Of course, of course. I was born Jewish. I will die Jewish. But I am not a believer. The second thing which helped me to survive . . . in this Czech Family Camp there was the so-called "Children's Block," which is something which existed only in this camp. All the day there were children, and I was one of the teachers of the children, so it helped me because I had no hard labor, only for Sunday, for the first days after our arrival.
Richard: That was in Auschwitz?
Pavel: This was in Birkenau, which was [an] affiliated camp of Auschwitz.
Richard: Did you ever have any contact with [Josef] Mengele? Pavel: I saw him every Wednesday. Richard: Wow.
Pavel: In this Children's Block, we organized competitions of creativity for children. They wrote little poems and drew little pictures on scraps of paper they had found in dust bins in the morning. They wrote with some pieces of wood, burnt on the end, because there were no pencils in the camp, and we teachers taught our group of children some little poems or some little recitals. Every Wednesday there was a competition of creativity, and Mengele came to see it with other officers. And imagine, [he] took little children on his knees, carried their hats, and told them, "Call me uncle." Then, the "nice uncle" sent all of them to gas chambers without hesitating a split of a second. It's unbelievable, but it's true.
Richard: I'd love for you to talk about cabaret and theater and culture in Terezín, and your role in it and what role it played.
Pavel: I've written a book about it. I can show it to you. So this is what I wrote—about love . . .
Richard: Oh, is that you?
Pavel: Yes, me and my wife.
Richard: I love that picture. Beautiful.
Pavel: So, you see, art is mental resistance. Art helps, helps to survive.
Richard: Was there any fear that the work you were doing might lead to problems with the Nazis?
Pavel: It was, but not in Theresienstadt.
In Theresienstadt, it was tolerated by the Nazis because they wanted to show the place like a spa, like a town given to the Jews by Hitler. So it was not only tolerated, it was modulated by them. They wanted art to be in Theresienstadt.
I don't know whether you know the story of Theresienstadt or how much you know about the story. I am a guide to Theresienstadt. I go many times with American tourists—not only, but mostly. Also with German children and Finnish children and so on. And so I say always, there are two quite different periods of the Theresienstadt ghetto. In the first one, the Jewish prisoners lived only in evacuated barracks, because after the Nazi occupation, soldiers were immediately dismissed and sent home. Civilians stayed in the town, so Jewish prisoners lived only in evacuated barracks, and in this first period, almost everything was prohibited. So there was not one cultural event.
Then, the number of the prisoners was . . . has so increased that it was no more possible to accommodate all of them in evacuated barracks. So the SS ordered civilian inhabitants to move out from the town, and then Jewish prisoners lived in the whole town. Then art developed much more than in the rest of the country, because in the ghetto there assembled outstanding personalities from the fields of culture, science, and political life. So the art was great in the second period.
Richard: So talk about the cabaret that we love so much. How much do you remember writing that?
Pavel: I do not remember enough, you see, because what happened after Theresienstadt was so horrible that I wanted to forget, and I forgot many things. I had forgotten about the cabaret. I didn't know about it. Then, I met Lisa [Dr. Lisa Peschel, who discovered the "lost" cabaret created in Terezín, for which Pavel wrote the lyrics], and she remembered me and brought me the text. I have totally forgotten. When she phoned me for the first time, she asked me whether I remembered. I did not. Then she brought me the text, and I know now.
Richard: The song—you wrote some of the words?
Pavel: I wrote the lyrics. I wrote the lyrics, yes. We were good friends with Dr. Porges (Dr. Felix Prokeš, née Porges) who wrote . . . who composed the music.
Richard: Do you have any memory of the performance in the attic?
Pavel: I have a bit, of course, but I really, for a long time, I have totally forgotten. Because I wanted to forget . . . which is not possible.
Richard: Hmmm . . .
Pavel: I don't know whether happily or unhappily enough.
Richard: And have you been involved with the arts since then?
Pavel: No, no . . . well, in a certain way, yes. I've translated books, also.
I worked in a great publishing company, and I was the business director. So I had always something to do with culture, with books, but not with theater. I only loved theater.
Richard: Even if you don't remember specifically, can you talk about the
theater in Terezín? How people would go every . . . once a week? . . . How would that work?
Pavel: It was not a rule. There was in Terezín—it was like a small state, but not a normal one because it was a prison or a camp. It was officially [a] ghetto, but in reality, a transit concentration camp. It was not the tickets— they were free of charge—but it was not enough for everybody, so one had to have some connection to get a ticket. So I performed in this cabaret, but only once I was in another cabaret because I had not the connections. You must imagine that in Terezín the highest number of prisoners [at any one time] was almost 60,000 in a town for 7,000. It's unbelievable.
Richard: And so about 150,000 Jews came through? And how many perished while there?
Pavel: 35,000 perished in Terezín, and 87,000 were sent from Theresienstadt to extermination camps, successively.
Richard: Of those 35,000, how many of them perished by natural causes? Pavel: Many. The so-called natural case . . . old age, starvation, epidemics. . . From Germany came mostly old people, and they perished prematurely.
They would have lived longer, of course. It was not enough to eat, of course, and the living conditions were horrible. It was no privacy. Health care was limited, of course.
(Numbers from the Beit Terezín website indicate that Terezín's military barracks and civilian houses could normally accommodate 7,000 people. At the time of the worst overcrowding, the Nazis imprisoned 58,491 prisoners in the Terezín ghetto. Out of 160,000 prisoners from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, Holland, Denmark, and other countries who passed through Theresienstadt between 1941 and 1945, 35,409 died there from hunger or disease and 88,129 were deported from Terezín to extermination camps. Out of those sent to extermination camps, 4,136 survived. Of the 12,171 Jewish children born between 1928 and 1945 and sent to Ghetto Theresienstadt, 9,001 were deported to extermination camps in the east, of
which 325 survived.)
Richard: I've been watching the film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City, several times. Do you remember them coming in to film that? Was that done while you were there?
Pavel: I was already in Auschwitz. When the delegation from the International Red Cross came to Terezín, I was already in Auschwitz. They came in '44, and I came to Auschwitz in December '43.
Richard: That film is very upsetting to see. . . .2
Pavel: And do you know that Maurice Rossel, who was the head of the delegation, the International Red Cross delegation, a young Swiss physician, he wrote . . . The delegation consisted of three: The head of the delegation was Maurice Rossel, this young Swiss physician, and the two other members were Danes. They stayed only one day and [spent] most of the day eating a big lunch. And then they saw the performance of the children's opera Brundibár and Mozart's Requiem and wrote a fifteen- page-long report in French. I have translated it some years ago already, and I always say they saw what they wanted to see. They wrote three big lies in this report. They wrote that every prisoner in Theresienstadt is being paid by ghetto money—they issue ghetto money. This was the first lie. Then came the second lie: Every prisoner has an account in the ghetto bank. Then came the truth: Ghetto money is a very stable currency. It always equaled nil, but it was stable. Maurice Rossel has been interviewed some years ago after the Holocaust, and he was quoted to say he didn't want to lose his faith. So he insisted he still believes that everything they were presented with was true . . . that Theresienstadt was a VIP ghetto.
Richard: The biggest worry I have with this documentary, because we're focusing on the cabaret and the cultural life, is that people who don't want to believe in the horror of the Holocaust will look at it and say, "Oh, look, they laughed . . . they did theater. It must have been a nice life." I want to make sure they don't misinterpret that. So perhaps you can talk about the role of theater . . . but that the truth of living in Terezín wasn't laughter and theater. I don't want to write words for you, but if you could talk about the truth of existence there and the role of theater within that.
Pavel: You see, I came to Terezín when I was twenty and my wife, my fiancée at that time, was nineteen. So we were young people and we believed in love. We loved each other. It was mine and her first love, and we lived then together many years. Hope dies last. We always hoped to survive, and it was possible to survive in Theresienstadt for young people, for young and healthy people. For older and ill people, it was not so easy; it was rather not possible to survive.
Richard: So, when people see the theater that . . . you talk about the role within the larger Terezín, the role that comedy, laughter, and theater played in the life . . .
Pavel: Art helped to survive . . . helped to live and helped to survive.
Richard: The research I've done shows that you did very little tragedies, mostly comedies. That makes sense, obviously, but can you talk about that?
Pavel: I think to live you must have an idea—a hope. You must eat, you must drink, you must love . . . and you must laugh, as well. Without love, the life would be so sad. The life is limited. When one is young, one doesn't think about the death. I'm ninety. I am thinking about dying, of course. But I know that it is normal. It is the end of the life, but until . . . you must not only eat and drink but also do something, so have an inner-life as well.
Richard: Did SS ever show up at the theater to see what the shows were like?
Pavel: I was only once in this cabaret. I am sure there were no SS. But in Birkenau, in the affiliated camp of Auschwitz, came SS officers to the performances of the children because they had nothing to do in the camp, either violence . . . so they looked for art, for something, something different, not only for drinking.
Richard: What have your experiences been now when you lecture to people? What do they ask? How has that been for you, to talk all over the world?
Pavel: For many years, my wife never talked about it. She couldn't. She belonged to the people who are not able to talk about it. For many years, I didn't. And then a Jewish professor from Germany came to Prague—it was in 1997—and I interpreted his lectures here. I had at the time only a long article about the Holocaust, written in Czech and in German, and he read it and told me, "I like this article. It is well-written. Just add something before the war and something after the war." So I sat down and wrote this book in German—so it was written first in German—and sent it to him, and he published it. He found a publisher and published it.
He was a great friend, an excellent man, but not a good businessman. I began to guide at that time, and I told him: "If you want, send the rest of the edition to me, and I shall try to sell it." And I have sold it. Then he made a second edition, and I sold the second edition for him, as well.
Then, he didn't want to make the third one. And I have written him:
"Hello, I would like to make the third edition myself, because I didn't get anything for the edition." He said: "Yes, you can do it." So I did it, and I have already published ten German editions. I have both German and English editions.
In 1999, I guided an American family to Theresienstadt with their son, and he was around twenty and studied German in Germany. I've shown them the German edition, and they bought one copy and asked me, "Can our son make the English translation as his diploma work?" He studied in Heidelberg in Germany. And I said, "Yes, he can." I liked the translation
and paid him his fee, which was he wanted to have fifty books free of charge, which is good for him and for me, as well. This edition is the tenth one, as well. So I've published already twice—ten editions of German and English.
Richard: Do you want to talk about that poem, "Nights in Andalucia," you wrote in the cabaret?
Pavel: It was very romantic, you see, and I always liked the Spanish language. It was so romantic. It was so . . . something about love. They always talk about love--amor, amor. I was a young man, much in love. Love over my ears . . . so . . .
Richard: It's wonderful.
Pavel: Now, it's a bit . . . I can laugh about it. Without love, you can't live.
When I end my lecture in Germany, I always ask about questions and they ask many questions. And then, if they have no more questions, so I tell the children: "Can I have also a question to you? What is in your opinion is the most important in life?" And then they begin to say "family," "health," "good eating," "much money" . . . and then somebody says "love," and this is the word I'm waiting for. Then, I read from my book a sentence about love, and this is always a very nice end of the lecture.
Richard: That's nice.
Derrick Sims: Were you twenty when you were married?
Pavel: When we married—I was . . . born '21, and we married in '43—so
I was twenty-two. My wife was twenty-one. She was one year and one week younger than myself. I was born on the wedding day of her parents, which is interesting.
Richard: What's it like to give tours there today, in Terezín?
Pavel: Well, I tell them part of my story, and I talk about this children's block. I show them the photo of the man who persuaded Mengele to allow this children's block—Fredy Hirsch. Have you seen the ghetto museum? Have you been? So there is a photo of him and there are the two big maps. So close to the maps is his photo.
The name of Fredy Hirsch is inseparably connected with the education of children and young people in the Terezín ghetto and, finally, in the family camp at Birkenau. In particular, the children's block, established on Hirsch's initiative in the BIIb section of the Birkenau camp, was a remarkable attempt to create a small oasis within the death camp. Its main purpose was to ensure that Auschwitz's youngest prisoners had, at least for a short while, a more tolerable environment in which they would be isolated from the tragic reality around them.
Richard: Is there anything else you just want to make sure the world knows . . . that you want to share?
Pavel: I think that the sentence I wrote into the book can be the end of my interview, if you prefer. I make it now so that I ask somebody of the children to be as kind as to read it to the other. Because this is better if a young boy or a young girl does it with other. So the sentence I think is quite good:
"The most important thing in life is love. It has as many appearances as there are facets on an artistically shaped diamond. Without love— love between men and women, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, love of God—one only vegetates. The faces of love also include friendship, understanding, tolerance, self-denial, self-sacrifice, and many others."
This is a big month for me and for MLIT. The film will be screened in San Jose, LA and New Haven this month and it comes out on video
on Demand on Itunes and Amazon, as a book on Nook and Kindle and Kobo and as a physical DVD on Amazon.
And we are in negotiations to get it on PBS next year.
In the meantime, my dream is that the film will be seen by many people of all religions and will inspire them to believe in the power of creativity to transform and save lives!
"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
In the summer of 2011, I lived and slept for a week in one of the barracks in the Terezin Concentration Camp. I was there to make a documentary film now called, Making Light in Terezín. This film and the companion book came about as a result of a miracle. Please note, I don't use the term "miracle" very often or bandy it about lightly. In fact, I say it with a certain degree of trepidation because, well, up until now, I didn't use to believe in miracles.
Okay, let me explain a little bit more. Sure, I live in Southern California
and sometimes I do hot yoga, but still, I often question the existence of God or an all-powerful creative force, especially when claims are made that they altered the course of a sporting event. However, in this case with this project, way too many events coalesced and way too many stars aligned for me not to give credit to some sort of bigger, more powerful, God-like force in the universe that allowed it all to happen.
You see, for over twenty years I've been writing plays and movies
and books, and only a few of them have seen the light of day. I've written numerous projects that have almost gone forward, but for some reason or another, stalled and ended up on my shelf in a dusty pile that seems to only grow bigger and bigger over time. But this film and book project—this one happened too smoothly, too fast, too easily for some force more powerful than me not to be involved.
Okay, ye of little faith, let's start at the beginning, and I'll show you what I mean. . . .
I'm an American Jewish kid who grew up loving American Jewish comedians and personally experiencing the positive impact of humor. You see, instead of worshipping at the feet of the great rabbis, I worshipped at the feet of the great funny men—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Groucho Marx . . .
Many of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent laughing
with my little brother and my father as we watched the Marx Brothers on TV or listened to comedy albums like The 2000 Year Old Man. The goal was always nothing less than to laugh so hard we cried and maybe, if wewere lucky, even wet ourselves. The joy of those moments spent together laughing along with the great comedians was something I loved and will never forget.
My career path had been carved out for me during those laughter-filled days as a kid. And as I grew older, I knew what I really wanted to do with my life: dedicate my life to writing comedy and making people laugh— and if I were lucky, maybe even wet themselves.
So I went to grad school for writing. I wrote funny plays, but after years of struggling as a playwright, it all sort of, well, just seemed like I was wasting my life. The vast majority of all that I wrote would just sit on my shelf. Occasionally, if I were lucky, I would receive a small production somewhere (for which my airfare would cost more than the total royalties earned). Sure, there was a wonderful sense of community in the theater, but I yearned for something more.
After twenty years of failing to make a living as a playwright and feeling as if the comedies I wrote were having very little effect on others, I began to wonder what I was doing with my life. I was at a crossroads.
And then a serendipitous event occurred. A few weeks after 9/11, I heard a rabbi speak at the biggest talent agency in Los Angeles. For an hour, the words of this man captivated the hearts and minds of some of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry, offering hope and light in a dark time. After the lecture, I waited in a long line to meet this charismatic speaker. After we shook hands, I handed him my card and said that I'd be honored if he'd contact me next time he was in LA.
I assumed I would never hear from Rabbi Irwin Kula, but just a few months later, he reached out to me and said that he had two free hours before he got on a plane at LAX. We arranged to take a walk along the beach to chat about our lives and our dreams. I mentioned that I'd always yearned to write a comedic love story about a rabbi and a gospel singer. Irwin was intrigued by the idea. I asked him to send me some of his sermons, and a partnership was born. After a year of meetings in LA, New York, and my father's law office in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, we had a first draft of The Gospel According to Jerry.
I sent it to everyone I knew, but nobody seemed interested. Irwin and I gave up on the play and forgot about it for years. I got divorced. I grew a bit depressed. Then, out of the blue, I received an email from the artistic director of the Minnesota Jewish Theater.
A year later, the play was produced and was a hit in the Twin Cities.
It was even voted by Graydon Royce, the critic at The Minnesota Star Tribune, as one of the top ten plays in Minnesota in 2011. Royce wrote, "This truly feels like a play that needs to be seen for what it has to say." Yet, there were no further productions, and once again, I felt a bit empty. I had spent years writing this play, yet it ran for something like twelve performances—and then, that was that.
I returned to California, and the questions started haunting me again.
Was doing theater something of value? Did comedy really matter? Was I really doing anything substantial with my life? The comedy I had loved so much as a child—from people like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and the Marx brothers—seemed to give people joy and to make a lasting difference in their lives. But my work didn't seem to be having any impact.
It was at this time that the serendipity began to happen at a more rapid pace.
In a bit of synchronistic timing, I just happened to be talking to the woman who had directed my play in Minnesota. She informed me that she was just weeks away from going to Prague and Terezín to perform a recently rediscovered comedic cabaret that had been written by several Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. They were scheduled to perform the cabaret for the first time in almost seventy years at Terezín, the same concentration camp where the show had been created and originally presented.
This came at a time when it became clear to me that I needed to make a decision. I was getting older and needed to be more fiscally responsible. So I did what all fiscally responsible people do: I made a feature-length documentary film with what little money I had left after my divorce.
Yep, I decided to go along with the Minnesota acting company and document their story. I flew to Prague with a camera man and spent a week in Prague and then a week in a concentration camp. This, I thought, is the perfect summer vacation for a Jew. And you know what? It was.
The serendipity continued when I returned home with over forty hours of footage to whittle down to eighty-seven minutes and with having spent my life savings on the filming. I took a few weeks off from working on the film and looked around for a job to bring in some money. It just so happened that I was asked to teach a class in Brazil, where I met a talented editor who volunteered to spend a year of his life doing eighteen edits of the film—for free, because he loved the idea of the project so much. He wasn't Jewish; he was just a good guy who saw the relevance of this story for all people and felt strongly that it needed to be shared, and he had the skill to help make that happen.
Then, when we needed to do post-production, which would've cost approximately $20,000 in LA (which was $20,000 more than we had left in the budget), my editor connected us to people down in Sao Paolo, who all volunteered their time and talents to help finish the project.
We even had one of the best Brazilian sound editors on board, but when he had to take another job, we were stuck! But then we discovered that the owner of the biggest sound house in Sao Paulo, A Voz do Brasil, was Jewish, and he put all of his people on the project pro bono, because he, too, wanted to help. Now, there aren't a lot of Jews in Brazil, but when I needed one to help finish the film, Voz appeared.
All in all, there were just too many coincidences, too many fortuitous events, for me to ignore them and not wonder if some force somewhere in the cosmos wanted this story to be told and to be heard. We all know about the horrors of the Holocaust, but most of us aren't aware of the other stories—those filled with laughter and song and dance and grace.
Most people, myself included, didn't know that around the same time that the Jews in Warsaw were beginning to rise up, there were other different kinds of resistance movements occurring throughout Europe. I am talking about acts of resistance that didn't include guns, but instead, included prisoners in the most dire of circumstances celebrating the human spirit through music, dance, and comedy.
And now I'm proud and happy and grateful to be able to be the one to share this story with you. I make no claims to be a Holocaust scholar, and this isn't an academic treatise. It's simply a story about a journey to a dark time in humanity, out of which emerged some light. It is a story of how the arts and comedy offered a few of the individual moments of comfort, escape, and hope that are essential for survival in the worst of circumstances.
By meeting survivors of this little-known chapter in my people's history, I felt transformed. I was inspired and moved by their stories of how they made light of a horrible situation, one that is beyond what any of us could imagine, and how, in doing so, they filled their empty stomachs with laughter and love.
By chronicling this wonderful comedic play written by four twenty-
year-old Jewish prisoners in a dark ghetto in 1943, I felt healed and able to create again, grateful, and much more appreciative of all that I had. In hearing the survivor's stories, I gained a renewed sense that comedy and the arts can—and do—make a positive difference in people's lives, even amidst the darkest of situations and even if only for mere moments. This experience has inspired me to honor those who died and those who survived such trying circumstances by renewing my commitment to create humor and trusting that it can make a difference.
And so it is my hope and my prayer that the film or book will bring you healing, inspiration, laughter, and maybe even a miracle or two to your own life. I know it did for me.
"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.