“I love to approach a story from several different angles” - David Vaughan on his new series No Night So Dark

Alex Went as Rudolf Wels, Oliver Paul Dubsky as Martin Wels, sound engineer Jiří Matějček, photo: David Vaughan

No Night So Dark is a new radio series set to premiere this Saturday. It tells the story of the Wels family, which lived in Western Bohemia and later Prague. Their past has since been brought back into memory thanks to the discovery of their archives, which shed remarkable light on what life was like in a Czech-Jewish family during the interwar period. To find out more, I spoke to the series creator David Vaughan, who has played an instrumental role in retelling the Wels family story through several formats. I began by asking him what format he chose for the seven part series.

“It is in part a documentary telling the story of a family for a period of nearly 200 years, but there is such a wealth of material, which comes from the family archives that survived in a box in a house in Oxford, that I was able to bring the story to life through the families own words.

"I could do this, because there are two rather wonderful books preserved in the box. One is called Sancta Familia which is a set of scenes from the daily life of the family written by the two teenage boys - Martin and Tomáš - in 1938. The other is the book U Bernatů, which was written by their grandfather in 1919. In it he describes his life as a rural shopkeeper.

"These two books are so wonderfully alive and vivid that you can bring the family to life. I did that working with actors, who enact the scenes from these books, as well as with the help of other materials, such as letters which survive from the archive.”

You went into this series with quite a bit of experience, having created several other documentaries for Czech Radio in the past. How useful was this experience and did you experiment in any way with this series?

“A central part of the story is therefore Colin finding his family archive in a box in the back of a cupboard and gradually rediscovering this past”

“I experimented a lot, because I wanted to combine documentary with drama. That said, I am also a little allergic to the docu-drama format. I find it can be a bit stilted and I didn’t want that to happen with this project. Therefore, I was very careful not to change what people say in the sources. What you hear is genuinely what was written or said by the members of the family. I have worked in the past with this form of radio that lies in-between documentary and drama. I know it can be extremely hard, so I hope I did get it right.

“I also chose not to tell the story chronologically. I thought that one of the things which are so fascinating when venturing into the past of a family, indeed, when exploring the past as a historian at all, is that the many threads which tie the different elements together are not necessarily chronological. In this case you also have different events being interpreted by various people over the years.

"For example, the book written by grandfather Šimon Wels was also read by his son, grandson and great-grandson. All of them have their own relationship to that book. If I just told the story from the beginning to the end, I would not be able to make all the different connections. I hope I haven’t made it too complicated, but I did try to ensure that it flows well and that one does not get lost as events unfold.”

One thing that struck me when I was looking at the photographs of the recording process is that the series was recorded in you flat in Holešovice. I imagine that must have been quite fun. Do you think it also helped atmospherically?

David Vaughan,  photo: Pavla Horáková

“The scenes which are acted, nearly all of them, were recorded in my flat. There are two reasons for this. One is that if you are in a rather sterile environment like a studio, it is difficult to be natural. You tend to change the way you behave for the microphone. I therefore wanted to create as natural an environment as possible for the actors to work in.

“The second reason for this was that the Wels family lived just a few hundred yards away from where I live today in Holešovice. This is also one of the reasons why I am so interested in their story. I could identify very closely with the environment they lived in and describe in the book written by the two boys in 1938. I felt that, by using this location, I could recreate the atmosphere of a real flat and also recreate sounds which one would normally hear inside.

“One more reason is that my flat just happens to overlook the station from where the transports taking people to the Terezín Ghetto were sent. I find it very moving. I am reminded of it every time I go outside - that this is something that happened here, that there was a crime committed, and we should not forget.”

Artistically, how did you recreate that moment when the family was detained before being sent to Terezín?

“The Wels family lived just a few hundred yards away from where I live today in Holešovice. That proximity to what happened is also one of the reasons why I am so interested in their story.”

“We have no records from the family when they were kept close to the station for two or three days in the so-called radio market where Jews were made to assemble.

“Instead of making it up, or finding some artistic way of recreating what must have been an incredible shock for the family, I chose to go to the Hagibor Jewish retirement home in Prague. There, I spoke to a woman who was actually in the same transport as the Wels family. She was nearly 100 years old. I spoke to her about what she experienced back then and was lucky enough that, just at that moment, there was another old lady sharing the room with her who was in the previous transport. I saw them comparing their experiences and even disagreeing.

“That is another interesting thing about history of course. These memories are very real to the people who experienced them, but everyone has their own memories. That is how I recreated that moment.

"There are letters from the Wels family once they got to Terezín. There is also the yearbook from the barracks where Ida Wels was kept. These describe closely the sort of life they were leading at that time, trying to keep a sense of normality.”

You have a lot of contemporary voices in the series too, whether it is yourself, descendants of the Wels family, or those two ladies you were just talking about. How did you tie them into the tale?

Colin Wels,  photo: David Vaughan

“A key figure in this story is Colin Wels, who is the son of Tomáš Wels, the grandson of Rudolf Wels and the great-grandson of Šimon Wels, some of the key figures in this story. Born after the Second World War, he knew nothing about his past. As tends to be the case in these situations, his father never told him what happened and his life before 1939 when he escaped.

“A central part of the story is therefore Colin finding his family archive in a box in the back of a cupboard and gradually rediscovering this past. That is of course a very complicated, indeed painful, process for him, because he cannot completely relate to this past. He does not speak the language. He has lived his whole life in Britain and does not know the context of Prague and the former Czechoslovakia. That comes in again and again.

“In the course of the series, when we go back to the material and try and bring it to life, I very often portray how Colin himself is finding it. How he experiences going to the village where his great-grandfather lived in West Bohemia and how he feels a sense of going back to his family's past, all the while having that painful feeling that it is not really his own history.

“That is another interesting thing about history of course that these memories are very real to the people who experienced them, but everyone also has their own recollections.”

“I think that this is a very complex thing. We have all the documents, which give us the dates and tell us exactly what happened and when. But then we also have the personal experiences of witnesses who went through those times. In a sense, these are less reliable than the sources with the dates. However, they are ultimately far more important, because, in the time of the Holocaust, those who provided the records were the Nazis. They were very efficient and kept records. What is more important? To know exactly who and when, or to talk to a survivor? I think the answer to the question is always to talk to a survivor.

“What is more, these survivors will not be here forever. The documents on the other hand will. I like that tension between two very different approaches to history, both of which you need. You need to know what happened when, but, at the same time, you really do need to talk to those people while they are still there. When they recall different versions of an event, it does not mean that they somebody is distorting the past or is lying, it is how they have processed those events. This, I think, is very important when we are talking about stories from the past.”

Clearly you are very excited about this project. Are you always this passionate about what you are working on?

Martin and Tomáš Wels,  phhoto: archive of Wels family

“The way I tend to work is that I will go into a story I find interesting and will do something relatively short and straightforward about it. However, there is always something bothering me at the back of my mind, telling me that there is a far more complicated story behind this.

“I have had the luxury over recent years to follow several projects through. For example, I was very interested in the role of radio propaganda in the run up to the Second World War. I was given the opportunity to write a book about it, particularly in connection to the run up to the so-called 1938 Munich Crisis. Then I was given the chance to do several radio documentaries and a series based on the archival sounds. Again, you get that interesting tension there between the various sources, which I love.

“Above all, it is a celebration of the achievements of a really remarkable family.”

“I guess I would say that it is the way I work and, when I am given the chance, I love to approach a story from several different angles. That is certainly what I did with the story of the Wels family, because I also organised an exhibition about them. That is of course the exact opposite of a radio series. It is based around a visual presentation rather than audio.

"8Another thing I have done is manage to work with the Prague publisher Triáda to bring out a trilingual Czech-English-German edition of Sancta Familia, the wonderful book written and illustrated by the two Wels boys (Šimon and Tomáš) in 1938, which really does take us back to the world of 1930s Prague.”

Do you have any recommendations for listeners about how to approach your series?

“I would recommend that people go in without straight out expectations that what they are going to listen to is a pure form of documentary, drama, or docudrama. I think those expectations might be turned upside down in the course of listening to the series.

Photo: archive of Wels family

“As I said before, I am not telling the story chronologically, so there are jumps in time. I hope that people will be able to orientate themselves as this takes place. I have used music in the series to make such transitions more clear.

“I would also say that, if people do get a bit confused, they can check out the website where we have a list of all of the different characters, members of the family, when they were born and short biographical details.

“I hope that people will enjoy it. It is not just a Holocaust story. Above all, it is a celebration of the achievements of a really remarkable family.”

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  • No Night So Dark

    How a family rediscovered its past in defiance of those who tried to wipe out memory.