Auschwitz Minus the Men: Feminist Polish Play Imagines War With Just Women

With 'Trash Story,' Polish playwright Magda Fertacz dares to tell a Holocaust story without focusing on men or Jews.

A scene from Magda Fertacz's play "Trash Story."
Bartek Stadnicki

“All I wanted to do was tell my story There’s nothing wrong with thatis there?” a young girl named Ursula asks toward the end of “Trash Story,” an award-winning Polish play that had its New York debut last week at John Jay College’s Black Box Theater. The short answer to that question is “yes.” Women have been told to put up and shut up, particularly when it comes to the Holocaust. Men dominate war and even Holocaust history and literature. Though women were among the first and strongest voices of Holocaust remembrance, they faded into the backdrop. Even a book like Gisella Perl’s memoir “I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz” is now out of print, says Dr. Eva Fogelman, a New York-based psychologist and pioneer in Holocaust trauma. “Before the war, it was rare for a woman to have an advanced education. The war deprived them of that chance,” she says. “And afterward, they were too busy raising children and weren’t given a chance to become writers.” 

In addition, women's narratives have long been occluded by tales of macho ghetto fighters, ghost-like men in striped pajamas, or the Sonderkommando, as in this year's best foreign film hopeful, “Son of Saul,” which barely glimpses the vital role women played in the Auschwitz uprising, adds Stephen Smith, executive director of Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles.

“True, teenage wunderkind Anne Frank, has been iconized the world over for her diary, but she is barely recognized for what happened after the diary ends, the real story of the Holocaust for her," he says. "Even heroic paratrooper Hannah Sennesh who was was captured and killed by the Nazis seems to make the cut because she was a woman in a man's world.”

But playwright Magda Fertacz challenges that notion, salvaging women’s narratives from the scrap heap of history.

“Trash Story” is that all-too-rare glimpse into how conflicts turn women into unwitting victims who remain scarred for generations. But this bracing new production isn’t just a searing theatrical experience. It’s also a bit of a rallying cry for women to break their silence and with it, the toxic cycle of abuse that entraps them. 

A scene from Magda Fertacz's play "Trash Story"
Bartek Stadnicki

The play’s stark minimalist staging by UCLA professor Monica Payne works well to set “Trash Story’s” grim mood and place emphasis on the raw muscularity of each performer. There are no sets or even much light. The action largely unfolds in the dark. As each female lead slowly reveals herself, she sheds her shackles and starts to shine.

But “Trash Story” isn’t meant as a metaphor. The playwright based it on personal research that took her by surprise. 

“I went to Auschwitz to work on a documentary project,” Fertacz explains. “As I sat in the archives to read prisoner testimonies, I came across my aunt's testimony by pure coincidence, if one believes in coincidence. I don't.”

What Fertacz uncovered was a family secret—her aunt had been Jewish and a subject of medical experiments in the Holocaust. Though she begged the Polish doctor conducting the experiments to kill her, he didn’t. After she was liberated from the death camp, she got married and had hoped to start a family. But she was unable to bear children. The experiments had rendered her sterile. She never revealed any of this to Fertacz or her family. 

“I think this story was waiting for me,” says Fertacz, who was shocked by this finding. She also happened upon the story of Ursula, a German girl who fled from a barn in Lubin, Poland, where the wives of Nazi officers hanged themselves together with their children to evade capture by the Russian army.

“I always base my stories on real experiences,” says the Polish playwright who never reveals the religion of her characters in the play. 

“I wanted the story to be universal, beyond religions and nationalities.” And that’s another way “Trash Story” distinguishes itself from other Holocaust-related works. Neither Jews nor men are the central focus. 

“In my play, the world is a world without men, because this is how it is for women during the war,” she says. “Men are the background. Women become victims of conflicts started by men and then become submissive to men even about being victims of war. Military families often cultivate the patriotic myth that soldiers are all heroes and women become part of a mute backdrop.”

By flipping the switch, Fertacz lends voices to the voiceless. And in this production, those voices get a multiethnic spin. There are three different languages spoken—English, German and Polish. And to further compound the universality of the message, Payne cast three women of various ethnic backgrounds to play Ursula-- white, black and Hispanic. Heresy, you say? Perhaps. After all, what’s the Holocaust filtered through something other than a Jewish perspective?

Spoiler alert: It’s an equal opportunity offender. No one is spared from the injustices of war, whether she’s a mother whose son is missing in action, a military wife who weathers her wounded warrior’s PTSD, or a daughter who happens to grow up by a battlefield. 

And that bring us back to Ursula whose poignant question anchors the play. We learn, she’s actually a ghost, who comes back to haunt the barn where her mother, sisters and all the women she knew, hanged themselves. The place is now home to a Polish mother and her daughter-in-law who are locked in the worst type of co-dependency, both indirect victims of two different wars, and unable to break free from a cycle of abuse and self-destruction. 

Of course, as the women confront the reason for their silence, there is resolution. It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending, but there’s a sense of peace. 

“The disclosure of even the darkest secrets causes purification and healing,” says Fertacz, who learned this first hand. Writing “Trash Story” provided her with a therapeutic outlet for processing her aunt’s story and subsequent secrecy.

But, she adds, the play’s resolution is not “happy ever after.” 

“Women and graves—not exactly a happy ending,” says Fertacz.

Nevertheless, “Trash Story” has been something of a sensation in Poland, where it received numerous awards, before hitting cities from Berlin to Moscow, and more recently Los Angeles and New York, produced by Culture.pl, Kulture + Productions and the Consulate General of Poland. Though these U.S. shows marked its English language debut, “Trash Story’s” universal message was not lost in translation.

Follow Marisa on Twitter @Marisafox