Book Review: Making Light in Terezin

by Helen Grant

No doubt there exists a form of Holocaust fatigue in the world. And in some ways it is understandable. It’s an unpleasant truth in a time of many unpleasant truths. Here we are 68 years after WWII. Amid the many historical tactical and political accounts of this time period, there are not as many personable narratives. The ones that connect you to an individual who was just trying to live their life, doing their best not to lose their humanity, and hopefully survive to see the end of the war.

Enter the documentary and book “Making Light in Terezin.”  I watched the documentary at deadCENTER Film Festival in OKC this past weekend and read the book shortly thereafter. I was surprised to learn that deadCENTER is only the third location this documentary has screened. But given the audience’s reception of the subject, I’m sure it will go on to be seen elsewhere. I also know a 53 min PBS version is in the works. But in the meantime, if you want to catch the full interviews, than the book, “Making Light in Terezin: The Show Helps Us Go On” is your ticket.

The book tells the unedited story of Jewish concentration camp prisoners in Terezin (Czech Republic) who use humor and art to survive an otherwise hellish existence. They create cabarets, operas, and plays to entertain other prisoners, and in a sense use theater to transport themselves from their reality, even if only for a few hours, into a place where they can escape the traumas of camp life. After the war the survivors are reticent to talk about their time in the camps, but when an old script is given new life they come around to sharing their stories of what it was like to live, work, and perform at this dark time in history.

Compared to the documentary, the book functions as an unabridged transcript of these conversations between Richard Krevolin, author and director, and the interviewees. Since interviews were edited down to tell a story in the documentary, such are the demands of that format, I am glad Krevolin decided to put the full interviews into as a book. It gives context to what was said by each party and it provides an alternate view of how each interviewee responded to the questions. There are several times when questions are asked, but skirted around by the survivors. Rather than press for exact answers to the specific question, Krevolin lets them recount the memories they are willing to share and often that brings about surprising information, sometimes more potent, than what the original question had posed.

There’s also a chapter devoted to scientific research. An interview with Glen Fox, a PhD Candidate, examines how natural opiates and other chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, in the brain help reduce the effects of constant stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Cox has conducted studies on how emotional gratitude can influence physical health. In juxtaposition we have the stories from survivors who explain how the plays and cultural events helped to take their mind of their extreme hunger and fears. On the flip side, the Nazis did not waste the opportunity to exploit what the prisoners were doing by making propaganda about it. The irony being that the Nazis took the concept of theater a few steps further by embellishing aspects of Terezin so that it appeared to be a “model” camp, which was then shown off to a delegate of International Red Cross officers. Later the Nazis filmed a propaganda piece in Terezin called “The City Hilter Gave the Jews.”

The book also functions as a small diary with a few entries from the author. Krevolin started his journey with a question in mind: can theater make a difference and is this art a worthwhile endeavor? It must be understood this doubt came at a point in his life where he questioned the choice to work as a playwright. There are chapters where he works out the answers to this question and then there are other chapters where he is seeking historical context for some of the practices, like wearing the Star of David, or why there existed in Europe a strong anti-Semite mindset. Some of which goes back as far the Middle Ages, particularly laws on segregation and the anti-Semitic folklore that persisted throughout the later ages, even in the era of the Enlightenment. Interspersed between paragraphs are pictures, some are stills from the documentary and others are exclusive to the book. There are quotes from great artists, thinkers, and spiritual leaders on the nature of humanity, the arts, and keeping a sense of agency, no matter how small, in handling one’s fate. Other parts of the book not found in the documentary are various asides from the author, insight into a way of thinking about the broader cultural perspective of the Holocaust, information boxes about conditions of the time, along with footnotes containing links to online references.

Then there is tackling the dominate narrative of the Holocaust: primarily how it is portrayed as unimaginable horror and suffering. Often how people coped with this war torn world is eclipsed by brutality of what was systematically inflicted. Sufficed to say, it is the observation of more than one interviewee that to deny that people tried to make the best with what little was afforded to them is to deny them their full humanity. Or to paraphrase one interviewee: it’s either they were brave and fought their oppressors or were helplessly victimized. It is a narrow perspective considering that the use of humor and art under the shadows of death and oppression is not just unique to the Jewish experience, one might easily look to slavery or soldiers on front lines to see a similar coping strategies in the face of abject horror and trauma. We wouldn’t have terms like “gallows humor” if we couldn’t find a coping mechanism to deal with our emotions in extremely stressful situations. Still it’s suggested been more than once throughout this book that people might think examining the humor could potentially lessen the tragedy of what occurred. Or worse, be used support claims that arrogantly deny the Holocaust ever happened or had been as bad as it really was.  That concern ultimately led me to this thought: there has to be a point where we step back and recognize there will be those elements in society who rather deny a great evil than own up to its reality. Even so, this is a story that deserves to be told.

Overall I thought it was a great read. I’m not Jewish, and as is mentioned more than once in the book, terrible brutality happened elsewhere in the world. I also spent three years of pre-adolescence living in Germany and I still have vivid memories of the places I visited, and kids’ books I’d read about the Holocaust.

Going one step further, I remember being taken on a walk during a visit with my French cousins in a rural town in France and having a mile marker pointed out to me where it is believed a cousin, who fought in the French resistance, was executed. They never recovered his body. And as long as we lived in Germany his brother, also in the resistance, would not visit us. I found out much later he’d been tortured by the SS in Germany and vowed never to return to the country. So as a reader, for me at least, it’s a subject that wasn’t hard to connect to, rather, it caused me to wonder what my extended family must have done to cope with what was going on at the time. Because WWII was a global conflict, it also makes me wonder about my Pacific family too. The grandmother I’m named after had older sisters who had to hide in the jungles of Guam so as not to be raped and brutalized by the occupying Japanese forces. What did these Great Aunts did to fill their time, I wish I knew. I was told they’d hid out in that jungle for years. I can honestly say before reading about the experiences of the Terezin survivors, humor and art never entered the picture. I had a very narrow view of what it must have been like to be in these situations, and it consisted of: resist by fighting, evade and survive, or be captured and tortured, and potentially perish.

In many ways this perspective led me to sympathize even more with the children of survivors, because much of this information about my own family was not often discussed and only as I got older did I hear of these situations. The Prokes brothers, the sons of an original cabaret writer and performer, talk about how their parents were very tight lipped about their time in Terezin. Rather than dredge up stories of his past, their father would suggest books about the Holocaust for them to read. Only after their mother had passed away that their father began to share a few memories of their experiences during the war. When the cabaret the sons helped to revive was performed in Terezin, the three brothers: Zdenek, Miroslav, and Jan, felt that seeing the actors who portrayed their parents on stage was therapeutic. In turn Krevolin writes of this experience, “…healing can happen in ways, and at times, we don’t always expect.”

And there are many times in this book where someone mentions that the phrase “Never Again” needs to be adapted into “Never Again For Anyone.”  I think this broadens the view. I thought it was interesting that one of the rabbis interviewed for his spiritual perspective, Irwin Kula, said, more or less, memory is an act of construction, it is not passive, so you have to be conscious about what you choose to remember, and he exactly said “…Jews as a people take the evil that is perpetrated on them, try not to become bitter, try not to fundamentally mistrust the world, and recognize that out of bitterness has to come a deeper commitment to repair the world.” I think that could apply to any number of groups who’ve been historically ostracized. One only need to look across history to see when people remain separate, either by choice and/or by law, and are not afforded the ability to understand the belief systems of others and undo the damage of stereotypes, like the mythic Jew of Medieval folklore, as well as never having the opportunity to celebrate the diversity in their communities, then the cultural divisions between groups widen and often from that segregation arises the many causes that contribute to human conflict and human suffering.

I think the wonderful thing about “Making Light in Terezin” is that it acknowledges the importance of having a cultural life even in the most adverse conditions. And that even amid all the suffering people were actively trying to make things better, to help others survive. And since it was just not Jews in the concentration camps, it points to a inclusion of all imprisoned people being involved in some way or another with these community theaters. When the arts in education and civic life are being slashed by government budget cuts, and you see stories of art and culture in the face of uncertainty and death, that it serves as an important reminder that these human qualities are not worthless endeavors. While some artistic endeavors may not prove to be lucrative, it seems it is very much worthwhile even if the rewards don’t come with a fat bank roll. Again, looking back at the research of emotional gratitude and brain chemistry, the positives it brings can help undo the effects of a negative environment. And in the case of the prisoners of Terezin, I think these were quite brave and courageous acts of creativity on the part of the people imprisoned there. To be under such stress and uncertainty, and yet still dig deep within yourself to find a way to entertain others and lighten the mental and physical burdens of all, one can only imagine what kind of reserve and resourcefulness it must have taken.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been moved by non-fiction book. But I really feel this one has provided insight not only into the Holocaust, but into the therapeutic nature of art and culture itself.  It’s here that I’ll end off on a few favorite quotes from the book.

“Hope dies last.” – Pavel Stransky, survivor

“If somebody asked if we were good or bad, which of course was a bad question, but I ask it myself, I don’t know if our theater was good or bad from today’s perspective. From the perspective of that time, it was brilliant. Because it fit the time and the situation. And even the smallest hopes that people had were fulfilled: art vs death.” – Jan Fischer, survivor

“I think we do the prisoners a historical injustice if all we talk about is their suffering. If it makes us uncomfortable to acknowledge the fact that through their own creativity, through their own efforts, through their own desire to help each other, they experienced pleasure, then…I find this difficult to put into words: Why do we not acknowledge that? Why can we not be glad for them that they had these few moments of escape and release in the ghetto? I think it’s tremendously important to acknowledge that as an accomplishment and not as something that ‘we shouldn’t talk about that because it might undermine the Holocaust.’

The narratives are not contradictory. These narratives co-exist. This is a part of the story that doesn’t necessarily get told. But if we’re going to look at the prisoners as human beings and not just symbols of a much greater event, then we need to look at what they did for themselves, not just what was done to them by their oppressors.” – Dr. Lisa Peschel, who undertook the project of bringing the cabaret back to audiences.

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