Within the Displaced Persons (DP) camps, theater became an important way for survivors to begin representing their experiences in the postwar world. DP theater became an integral part of camp life soon after the war. Performances at the Föhrenwald DP camp began in summer 1945, and Sami Feder started the Kazet theater in the DP camp at Bergen-Belsen.1 In spring 1946, the Musical Yiddish Cabaret Theater (originally based in Poland) toured the DP camps in occupied Germany. Usually performed in Yiddish, Jewish theatrical productions ranged widely in topic and perspective. Religious, secular, Bundist, and Zionist groups all put on plays. The productions included staples of Yiddish theater, dramatizations of prewar literature, and original pieces that directly reflected Holocaust themes and scenarios.
Dramatic productions centered on Holocaust experiences spoke to an emerging memory of events that were still in the process of being understood. As one scholar writes,
"These productions enabled DPs to rework their immediate past, to interpret it, and to assert some control over it...DP theaters allowed the survivors to reassert themselves as civilized beings, to demonstrate their connection to their prewar past, to create social memories of the Holocaust, and to imagine a future in Palestine."2
These plays often revealed conflicts among Jewish DPs about their own recent history. Should plays depict armed resistance as the ideal? How should the ghetto and concentration camp experience be depicted? What was the right level of sensitivity for a survivor audience? None of these questions were easily addressed—or easily answered—in this early period of discovery. Indeed, they are questions that continue to haunt Holocaust representations today.
This photo shows a scene from the production, This Is How It Began,3 performed by the Kazet theater in Bergen-Belsen. The performance depicts the early days of Nazi oppression through the perspective of a small Jewish community. The play also represents the struggle between this community and the young partisan fighters who wish to take up arms against Nazi oppression. The production was part of a larger program of scenes, interpretive dances, and music that directly reflected upon the recent past. The photographer is unknown.
Funded by the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone, Feder's group performed a variety of plays, pageants, and interpretive dance pieces in DP camps throughout occupied Germany. This production demonstrates how the very recent experiences of Jewish DPs were being reflected back at them through the words and images of others who had similar experiences.