Theatrical productions during and immediately after the war constituted the most public form of artistic response to the Holocaust. Performed in a variety of contexts and circumstances, these productions both directly and indirectly reflected upon the genocide of European Jewry as it was occurring. Theater during the war thus comprises a number of different subjects and circumstances:
Ghetto theater: Theatrical productions occurred through organized cultural auspices in some of the larger ghettos of Eastern Europe. Cities like Warsaw, Vilna, and Łódź had cabarets, readings, stage productions and reviews. Many of these ghettos had their own official departments of culture. Productions might take place in Polish, Yiddish, or Hebrew, and encompass a broad range of topics. The specific subjects of these performances varied. As "official" (or at the very least, public) performances, they rarely addressed the Holocaust directly. They included musical reviews of songs from before the war or other culturally Jewish songs, theatrical performances on both Jewish and secular themes, and in some cases, somewhat thinly veiled commentary on the current situation of confinement. Survivor Robert Ness speaks extensively about his experience watching theatrical performances in the Vilna Ghetto. The play composed by Łódź resident, Natan Rotenberg. While very likely never performed, Rotenberg's play (about the mythical Republic of Utopia) contains a bevy of allusions to catastrophe.
Theresienstadt cultural activities: The Theresienstadt ghetto had an extensive (and now much documented) cultural life, from children's newspapers and artwork, to theatrical performances (including the children's opera, Brundibar), to other cultural events organized by the Freizeitgestaltung, or "leisure activity" department. Several of these activities were featured in a Nazi propaganda film and Red Cross visit in June of 1944. Filled with prominent Czech, German, Dutch, and Danish Jews, the ghetto served as a "model" ghetto that belied its far more sinister purpose as both a way station to Auschwitz, and a place of extreme deprivation, starvation, and overcrowding.
Concentration camp performances: Theatrical performances from inside concentration or transit camps would seem to present the ultimate contradiction. How and why—in the midst of the ultimate deprivation—could any form of public (or semi-public) performance be possible? The answer reveals a complex interplay of clandestine activity, Nazi-sponsored (and forced) performances, and Jewish subversion. While rare, clandestine performances in individual blocks occurred, even at Auschwitz. Yiddish actor Yonas Turkov recalled such a performance: "Instead of a stage a table was used, on which both actors stood and gave their recitals. The program consisted of songs and recitations...and humorous sketches by A. Sternberg and Moishe Nadir. These performers also presented recitals in the infirmary and Block 13. Their presentations were enormously successful."1 Transit camps such as Westerbork in the Netherlands had a more public cultural life, including a cabaret and other musical reviews.2
DP camp productions: After the war, dramatic productions shifted to include direct reflections on the Holocaust experience. Often performed in displaced person's camps, these plays spoke to an emerging memory of events that were still in the process of being understood. These performances ranged from original productions about the Holocaust itself to Yiddish classics to Yiddish and Hebrew translations of western opera, theater, or reviews. These plays often revealed a conflict amongst Jewish DPs about their own emerging (and very recent) history.