Artistic Portrayals of the Holocaust

Painful shouting about the Holocaust has reverberated in books, exhibitions, films and on the stage ever since the war; as early as 1946, actors portrayed Holocaust victims on the stages of Broadway.

Lital Levin
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Lital Levin

"To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," said the social critic Theodor Adorno in 1949. Some 17 years later, he corrected himself: "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream."

Painful shouting about the Holocaust has reverberated in books, exhibitions, films and on the stage ever since the war. As early as 1946, actors portrayed Holocaust victims on the stages of Broadway, as in the play "A Flag is Born" by Ben Hecht. In it, Marlon Brando played the role of David, an angry young man who survived a concentration camp. Despite the fact that it had all the elements of a Broadway production and was well received by the critics, "A Flag is Born" was not exactly a play and, according to its promotional materials, it had no intention of entertaining people, but rather wanted "to make money to provide ships to get Hebrews to Palestine."

People walk through the gate, with the words "Arbeit macht frei" (Work sets you free), of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.Credit: Reuters

Along with the lack of concrete justification for putting the Holocaust onstage came a flood of questions about whether the subject should be represented there - and in art, in general.

"The feeling was that the subject was too big," says Prof. Shimon Levy of Tel Aviv University's theater department, who has researched plays about the Holocaust. "But soon, people began to try to deal with it [in artistic ways], often out of a feeling that that must be done and that perhaps there was a moral duty to it."

In Israeli theater, "there was elegant side-stepping at first," Levy observes, noting as examples Lea Goldberg's "Lady of the Castle" and Ben-Zion Tomer's "Children of the Shadows." "But then, in the 1980s, when Dudi Maayan did it at the Acco Festival with 'Arbeit Macht Frei' - he went all the way."

Maayan took members of the audience to the Holocaust museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, let them meet survivors and encouraged people to draw a comparison between the contemporary political situation in Israel and the Holocaust.

"Presenting the Holocaust on the stage is an attempt to impose a unity of time, place and plot upon chaos, to give it the false appearance of order," Levy says. "Art always asks how, not what and not about what. There is nothing that art cannot touch - the question is whether it is done in good or bad taste."

But almost every work about the Holocaust sparks differences of opinion. In 1982, the play "The Portage to San Cristobal of Adolf Hitler," based on a book by George Steiner, sparked a huge controversy in London because toward the end of the play, Hitler claims that he saved the Jews since if it were not for him, the State of Israel would not have been established. "Schindler's List," the film by Steven Spielberg, was a magnificent depiction of suffering and humanity in the eyes of many, but in the opinion of others, it was a kitschy tear-jerker. Roberto Begnini's "Life is Beautiful" was received by some with love as a film that promoted awareness of Nazi crimes - while others, such as screenwriter Kobi Niv, saw it as a work that denied the Holocaust.

"Kitsch, and inflating suffering and horror, are the biggest enemies of art about the Holocaust," Levy explains. "No less dangerous is making the suffering exclusive, saying that the Holocaust cannot be compared with the suffering of others."

But still, there are ways to go deeper into the subject, he adds: "When [Joshua] Sobol wrote 'Ghetto,' he looked for the Nazi in the Jew and the Jew in the Nazi. [Hungarian-born playwright] Georg Tabori, considered a writer who dealt well with Holocaust subjects, goes one step further with his 'Mein Kampf' and asks how the character Shlomo Herzl deals with Hitler with such great love even though everyone knows he is disgusting scum."

Until now, Tabori's "Mein Kampf" has never been produced in Israel. This month a version of it will be produced by Israeli director Avishai Milstein - but in German.



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