Topic: Artistic Resistance
Max Ehrlich and his Theater Group performing in Westerbork camp, Netherlands, 1943.
Victims of the Nazi regime who were confined in ghettos or concentration camps had very limited means of resisting. Since armed resistance was close to impossible, intellectual and artistic solutions were developed in order to cope with the situation. This attitude is certainly not unique to Nazi concentration camps, since similar examples can be found in prisons, dictatorial regimes and other oppressive contexts.
During World War II, some people found strength in religious practice. Others turned to artistic creations: secret writing, sharing and recitation of stories and poems.
In the first years of Nazi persecution, Jews faced censorship and banishment from the workplace. For artists, accepting never to play or sing again is to silence culture, which was exactly what Goebbels had intended. They thus created Jewish cultural centers and underground meeting places in order to maintain Jewish performance, from theater to song, from poetry to music. These modest artistic venues offered work for the unemployed Jewish artists and distraction to a public already stuck in a trap.
This mode of artistic resistance went on in ghettos and Nazi camps. In Westerbork (Netherlands) or Theresienstadt (Czechoslovakia), theater groups and orchestras continued to compose, rehearse, perform, and improvise.
While imprisoned in the Theresienstadt ghetto, Hans Krasa composed the children's opera Brundibar (Czech slang for Bumblebee). There were other composers in this camp, such as Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann.
In Westerbork, where the best actors, musicians and stage artists from the Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam scene were deported, a Theater Group was formed in 1942 under the leadership of Max Ehrlich, one of the stars of Berlin cabaret. They turned laughter into a form of spiritual resistance, and used the illusion of a show to survive for as long as possible. At this stage of the persecution, the prisoners were unarmed and slowly getting physically weaker. The only thing they had left was moral resistance. Facing death, they chose not to give up, or commit suicide, but rather to deliver the ultimate opposition - intellectual, spiritual, artistic - the only response to barbarism left to them.
Louis de Wijze was one of the handful survivors of the Theatergroup Westerbork, for which he designed and painted the sets. Years later, he remembered the songs from the shows produced in the camp. Listen to When a Parcel Arrives, a bittersweet song of hope:
When a little parcel arrives, big and small are happy,
When a little parcel arrives the sun shines, despite the rain.
A well tied-up little package, totally free of charge,
One cannot be quick enough to undo its knot,
When a little parcel arrives, whoever is ill no longer feels sick,
And you write a little card to say 'Thank You.'
Of course, it's a pity if the butter is missing in the parcel,
And you accept, for lack of choice, a little jar of marmalade.
The most important, however, is that you're often sent
A roll of soft toilet paper.
Artists and intellectuals tapped into their imaginative and creative resources in order to preserve their moral and physical integrity. Some found support in a diary, such as Etty Hillesum (Westerbork), Anne Frank (Amsterdam), Adam Czerniakow (Warsaw), Dawid Sierakowiak (Lodz ghetto). Others turned to drawing and painting, such as David Olere, a member of the Sonderkommando who visually documented every aspect of the camps, from arrivals to mistreatments, from forced labor to extermination.
Numerous detainees in other camps also survived thanks to the arts, as Jean Clair reports in his biography of the painter Zoran Music, who was deported to Dachau in 1944: "One knows that memory and culture, two things which are more or less synonymous, played a major part in the destiny of those who were deported. Those who could remember could hope to survive. He who kept within himself a trace of the cultivated world could hope to resist death. What is in one's mind is the one thing that nobody can take away from you. It is the last vestige of identity when everything else, down to your own personal identity, has been taken away from you. To know a poem off by heart can save you from disaster. To bring forth in yourself the echo of what used to be your spiritual heritage is a last sacrament, equivalent to the host in the eyes of a believer."
Some intellectuals reverted to mental exercises, like Primo Levi, who spent his time in Auschwitz recalling passages from Dante's Divine Comedy; David Rousset who, in Buchenwald, organized a series of talks on history and geography, François Le Lionnais who at Dora catalogued the great works in the history of art. In his novella The Royal Game, Stefan Zweig tells the story of an inmate who survives by playing mental chess games in confinement. The memory of texts read, or activities performed in peaceful days enabled them to preserve their human dignity and resist behind barbed wire.
Questions for discussion
1. Read the poem When a Parcel Arrives and analyze the nuances of the tone. How does it reflect the situation and the mood of the prisoners?
2. How does the issue of censorship and of an audience composed of fellow resistants and/or oppressors alter humor, creation and reception? (Think of different degrees of humor, understatements and other rhetorical/theatrical means, for example).
3. Some of the Jewish prisoners in Westerbork disaproved of the theatrical performances. One of them, Philip Mechanicus, writes in his diary that "The show was a mixture of antiquated sketches and mild ridicule of the conditions and circumstances prevailing at the camp. Not a single sharp word, not a single harsh word, but a little gentle irony in the passing, avoiding the main issues. A compromise. The Commandant was enjoying himself like a schoolboy...blessed are the poor in spirit... All of us here are sitting up to our necks in dirt and yet we go on chirping. A psychological mystery. Light music beside an open grave, It should have been classical music, with the stirring funeral march of Chopin to end up with." Think of the differences and the ambiguity between survival and compromise in the various actions mentioned above (praying, performing, writing, remembering...). Where do you draw the line?
4. Consider the fate of such performances/artworks after the historical event is over. Should they die along with the victims, be forgotten with the crimes? Should they be included in an art museum? A heritage museum? Should they be performed again in a contemporary repertoire, or remain untouched as an archive of the Holocaust?
5. Artists such as Max Ehrlich or Gideon Klein had tremendous careers in their countries before they were deported and murdered. What is remembered of them today, and how? Why is there more emphasis on death rather than life? Compare with contemporary examples (Magic Johnson, Christopher Reeves, and others).