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Moshe Pintschewski: "I Am Living"

Pintschewski, Moshe Ich Leb play 1946
US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Yad Vashem
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tags: Displaced Persons ghettos theater

type: Play

Jews in displaced persons' (DP) camps set out to rebuild—and reformulate—the meaning of Jewish culture in the wake of profound tragedy. As they worked to promote cultural life in the camps, Jewish writers, artists, thespians, and musicians also sought to give expression to emerging postwar identities. Taken together, their endeavors offer a unique perspective on both the continuities and ruptures with pre-war Jewish life, exploring the landscape of Jewish tradition while taking stock of the Holocaust. Far from uniform, these works serve to integrate larger narratives of the Jewish experience with the experiences of genocide and total war.

The diversity of perspectives presented in DP culture raises questions about the nature and purpose of life in DP communities: how did the camps both limit and expand the imaginative boundaries of a "life reborn"? What types of artistic expressions and "moral messages" should be deemed appropriate? What forms of representation lie "beyond the pale?" How did the intended audience for a composition or performance impact its content and its form?

DP theatre productions, popular from the first months following liberation, represented a robust format for examining these questions. Performances began at Föhrenwald in summer of 1945, and Sami Feder initiated the so-called KZ-theater shortly thereafter in Bergen-Belsen.1 In spring of 1946, the Musical Yiddish Cabaret Theater (MIKT), originally based in Poland, came to the DP camps of Germany, and shortly thereafter, several actors broke away from this group to form the Munich Yiddish Art Theater (MIT). Most often performed in Yiddish, these productions ranged widely in topic and perspective. Plays were put on by the religious and secular, by the Bundists and the Zionists. They included dramatizations of pre-war literature, such as the work of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, staples of Yiddish theater, and original pieces that directly reflected Holocaust themes and scenarios. These representations often toed a difficult line between memorializing the past and encouraging a future.  

This tension becomes evident in the interpretations of the past that some of these dramatic performances presented. The play synopsis featured here, Ikh Leb ("I Am Living"), spurred significant debate among the Jewish DP population.2 The play dramatized the conflict between ghetto leaders and partisan fighters, presenting ghetto leaders as weak intellectuals, cast against  partisan fighters who are brave, self-sacrificing martyrs. The play valorized armed resistance over and above all other forms of response, which garnered a fair degree of criticism from DP newspapers such as Yudishe Tsaytung ("Jewish News"), Undzer Hofenung ("Our Hope"), and Ibergang ("Transition"). Others pointed out that the playwright, Moshe Pintschewski, who had written the play while in wartime exile, did not possess the requisite personal experience to speak authentically on the subject matter. The director, Israel Segall, countered critics' comments by framing the play in terms of a greater call for remembrance.

Like other plays of its kind Ikh Leb often experimented with the boundaries of Holocaust representation: whose story should be staged, and how? What values should be transmitted to the DP audience, and to the wider Jewish world? Should plays portray the struggle for immigration to Palestine, and if so, how? Were certain costumes, set-designs, scenery, and themes too graphic? There was little agreement among a diverse DP population regarding these portrayals. Rather, these discussions revealed—both onstage and off—the production of memory in which Jewish DPs were actively engaged.3

For more about Sami Feder’s theater company, see Sophie Fetthauer, "The Katset-teater and the development of Yiddish theater in the DP camp Bergen-Belsen," in Tina Frühauf and Lily E. Hirsch, eds., Dislocated Memories: Jews, Music, and Postwar German Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 97-120.

The play was first performed on November 6, 1946, by the MIT.

For more information about this specific production, as well as dramatic performance in the displaced persons camps in general, see Margarete Myers Feinstein, "Re-imagining the unimaginable: theater, memory, and rehabilitation in the Displaced Persons camps," in David Cesarani and Eric J. Sundquist, eds., After the Holocaust: challenging the myth of silence (New York: Routledge, 2012), 39-54. 

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I am living

M. Pintschewski

1st Act

A collective camp on a cemetery. The Jews driven together are extremely despaired. Will their pain and torture take an end? Is there any hope? They expect the answer for these burning questions from Prof. Zalel Shafer, the most respected and learned men among them. Now he is a prisoner of the camp.

Schafer, however, has no answer for the questions. But this is coming from the part of another Jew, Levi Stelmach, "Don’t despair, we must fight."

The sick Benjamin Pawes sets an example of courage and iron will. He organizes an underground movement which he has to pay with his young life.

His fiancée, Miryam, Zalel Schafer’s daughter, helped him in his activity. She is sacrificing and brave and comforted the prisoners, "to endure until our will come."

Miryam disguised herself as an old woman in order to evade the eager eyes of the Ukrainian camp police.

Levi Stelmach does not find a possibility to get in contact with the partisans, and he agrees with other Jews to declare him dead. Thus he will be carried out from the camp together with the other dead. At this time the partisans make a sudden attack upon the camp and take Stelmach along with themselves. The partisans are thrown back by the Germans and Benjamin Pawes falls into German captivity. In connection herewith Zalel Schafer is called to the Gestapo boss.

Miryam is sought by the Gestapo, but in vain. All investigations remain without success, as the Jews declare that Miryam is dead.

2nd Act

Johann von Kitel, Gestapo boss orders to evacuate the camp on account of the approaching enemy.

The staff-officer Dr. Georg Deber is harassed by the front-news. He sees that the situation in which they are, is critical. Deber’s excitement increases, he is depressed and despairing for the enemy is approaching ever more. They are surrounded. He expresses his doubts toward the Gestapo boss, explains to him that their situation is hopeless, and a fight with the Jews ridiculous. Zalel Schafer becomes the senior of the Jews. His task is to bind Jews for "government purposes." This, however, is only a pretext by which the arrested Jews are totally demoralized.

Paul, an interior to Kitel, brings the report after unsuccessful investigations, that Miryam has died. Kitel, however, does not believe this and orders to arrest a group of Jews as hostages, among them also the old woman with the glasses who had attracted his attention at his last inspection in the camp. Von Kitel incites the arrested Jews against Schafer and hopes to learn thus the whereabouts of Schafer’s daughter Miryam. But nobody discloses the secret, though their despair is very great.

Now Kitel has Zalel Schafer brought forward and orders him to call over the list of Jews who are to be evacuated. After the call, Schafer is marched off by order of the most furious Kitel.

Miryam, who is overwhelmed by grief, calls her father by name and so reveals herself. All Jews are marched off; only Miryam remains with the Gestapo boss. This one forces Miryam to work as person of confidence of the Gestapo, remarking that her father as well abide by the order and is even disposed to comply with the desires of the Gestapo boss, hoping thus to be able to save her father.

The maid-servant Maryanke, who serves the officers, is the secret liaison man between the partisans within and outside of the camp. She succeeds in handing out a false pass to Miryam with which she can leave the camp. Miryam kills von Kitel and flees into the woods.

Zalel Schafer and Herschele the violinist get liberated by Deber who despairing at his situation intends thus to sue for friends among the prisoners. He releases them, saying that they might think of him with gratitude if another time should come once.

Zalele Schafer and Herschele flee into the woods.

3rd Act

Zalel Schafer and Herschele lost each other in the woods. Up to now Zalel has not yet any news about Miryam. Incidentally Schafer and Herschele meet again. Maryanke, too, meets with them in the woods. She hurries to town with important news and a summons to the partisans. She is surprised by Paul, is involved in a fight with him and kills him, together with Zalel Schafer who comes to help her.

Now Maryanke calls together all the partisans. Among them is Levi Stelmach, too, who informed Zalel that Miryam stays with them.

Zalel and Herschele join the partisans.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Yad Vashem
RG Number 68.097M
Date Created
1946 to 1947
Author / Creator
Pintschewski, Moshe
Munich, Germany
Document Type Play
How to Cite Museum Materials

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