Performing the Jewish Archive: an international project revives the work of persecuted playwrights and composers

Lisa Peschel, Steve Muir, David Fligg, photo: David Vaughan

Thousands of Jewish writers and musicians found their careers cut short by the Holocaust. Tragically, this was the culmination of a long history of persecution and pogroms in many parts of Europe. Lives were destroyed and in many cases people’s work was lost, forgotten or torn from its cultural and linguistic context. Now a major new project is underway to bring to together some of the shattered fragments of this rich legacy of music and theatre. It will culminate in an international festival, Out of the Shadows, which will take place in several countries. David Vaughan talks to three people behind an ambitious project that spans no less than four continents but has a particular focus on the Czech Republic.

Lisa Peschel,  Steve Muir,  David Fligg,  photo: David Vaughan
When the Nazis forced tens of thousands of European Jews into the cramped conditions of the Terezín Ghetto north of Prague, they inadvertently brought together some of the continent’s most gifted artists, musicians and writers. Despite the most inhospitable conditions, Terezín had a rich cultural life before most of Terezín’s forced inhabitants were sent on to the death camps. Miraculously, a good deal of the work that was written or composed in the ghetto survives and more is coming to light. This has inspired a group of academics in Britain to launch a project that aims to perform some of the best of the theatre and music that came out of Terezín, along with other work produced by persecuted Jewish writers and composers over a period of more than a century. I’m joined by three of the project organizers: theatre historian and project coordinator,Lisa Peschel, musicologist and project leader, Steve Muir, and David Fligg who is a musicologist and project consultant.

I’ll start with Steve, as project leader. Could you tell us a bit more about the project?

Steve Muir: “The project began formally in November 2014, so we’re just over a year in, and it’s really the confluence of several other projects going on: Lisa’s project on theatre from the Terezín Ghetto, my project on music of Jewish composers in Russia who ended up in Southern Africa, David’s work on Gideon Klein who was incarcerated in the Terezín Ghetto, and all sorts of other streams of research going on – all coming together to win a very large grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK. We’ve tasked ourselves with hunting down and bringing back to light music, theatre and sometimes even literature, from artists in times of crisis, as you’ve said. That includes the Terezín Ghetto, but also the time of the Russian pogroms and other times of crisis in Jewish history, from about 1880-1950.“

It seems to be remarkably well timed given that refugees are a subject that we are talking about a great deal at the moment.

Steve Muir: “That’s absolutely right. Only today we were talking to some of our partners and one of them remarked that we often don’t know who these current refugees are. Among them there could be some of the great musicians, the great playwrights, the great historians or the great physicists of Syria or Iraq. We simply don’t know. They are fleeing for their lives and it’s a similar situation in many ways.”

Terezín,  photo: archive of Czech Government
Lisa, we interviewed you for Radio Prague some eight years ago and that was in connection with something that is very closely related to this project. You were collecting theatre from the Terezín Ghetto because despite the dreadful conditions people did manage to produce and perform theatre, concerts and even opera there, and you had managed to find a good many texts from the ghetto that had been forgotten. Since that time it seems that you’ve carried on your research…

Lisa Peschel: “I have. A lot of the work that I’ve been doing has been based on those Czech and German texts that we spoke about eight years ago, but I’ve continued to look for additional works, and also I’ve continued to try to find ways to bring these works to the stage, because many of them are so intensely connected with the specifics of life in the ghetto, that the question is – how do you make them understandable for an audience today?”

You mean things like the cabarets, which are full of in-jokes from the 30s and 40s…

Lisa Peschel: “Exactly, and absolutely obscure jokes about minutiae of daily life in the ghetto. Once you find a survivor to explain them, these jokes are hilarious, but without that explanation they’re meaningless. So, we’re trying to find a way to perform these pieces in a way that integrates that information into the performance.”

What about the music?

David Fligg: “The music is of a remarkable quality. My area of research is the composer and pianist, Gideon Klein and he was one of a number of immensely talented and highly respected composers and musicians. In Terezín alone, in addition to Klein, there were composers such as Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Hans Krása, who had worldwide reputations. Their music was being performed in Europe and beyond. Of course, what the Holocaust did was to fracture that. In many ways it was heartbreaking as well because the composers were relatively young; Gideon Klein was in his mid-20s when he was murdered, the other composers I mentioned were not yet 50. So it is tragic, and one of the things that we’re doing is to reanimate this music. But we’re also repositioning it so that it shouldn’t be seen just within the context of Holocaust music – in other words of music written by dead Jewish composers – but we also want this music to stand alongside the other European and modernist and avant-garde repertoire of the time.”

David Fligg,  photo: David Vaughan
What about the festival itself – Out of the Shadows – it’s not happening just here in the Czech Republic. It has its roots in the north of England, in Yorkshire.

Steve Muir: “I guess the core team of the project are from the University of Leeds, where I’m based, and the University of York, where Lisa is based, but we also have colleagues in the University of Madison, Wisconsin, in the United States and in the University of Sydney, Australia, and we have lots of partners in all sorts of other places, but most notably in Cape Town in South Africa. So in a sense we’re taking the festival on the road. We start in May this year, 2016, with a five-day festival in Madison, Wisconsin with some of the same repertoire – plays, cabarets, music – as will be performed in Prague and Plzeň and Terezín, but some differences as well. Then, in June 2016, we go back home to Leeds and York, where we’ll have a 23-day festival with about 17 performances. And then in September we come to Prague, Plzeň and Terezín. Then next year we’ll be in Cape Town and Sydney. So it’s a very exciting worldwide dissemination of this information and the material.”

You’ve got great music and great texts, so the obvious next question is – who is going to perform them? And how do you solve the problem of the different languages?

Lisa Peschel: “We’re looking for local performers in each of the countries. Four of our festivals are in English-speaking countries, so the language-barrier is not an issue. All the texts have been translated into English. Actually, one of the pieces, discovered by our colleague Simo Muir, is in Yiddish and we’re hoping to perform at least part of that in the original Yiddish.”

And what sort of texts are we talking about? I know that there were so many people in Terezín that you have a bit of everything, but you must have made a choice.

Lisa Peschel: “Yes. I’ll talk about one piece that we’ll be performing in York and Leeds – also in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a play called Comedy about a Trap and it was written in Czech. It was inspired by Karel Čapek's play Lásky hra osudná (The Fateful Game of Love), which is a commedia dell’arte style play. So, it takes that style and combines it with communist rhetoric to create a very rousing piece of agitprop that was performed in the ghetto. We’re developing a version of this in English, based on a translation of the fragments of the script that we have, and then working with student actors to bridge the gaps in the script, to improvise pieces, to fill those gaps, to create songs to go with them, but then also to include our own reactions to the piece: what does this political stance mean to us today?”

And it occurs to me that because it was originally performed within the context of a prison – of the ghetto – the performers could probably get away with more, in a sense, than if they had been in the outside world. Is that the case?

Lisa Peschel,  photo: David Vaughan
Lisa Peschel: “That is absolutely the case. There was a freer cultural environment in Terezín than there was anywhere else in Nazi-occupied Europe during this period, because apparently the Nazi stance was – we expect all these people to die, so as long as this keeps them busy and keeps them from an uprising, why should we do anything against it? So, especially the Czech-language theatre in Terezín is incredibly adventurous.”

I’d like to ask the same question as far as the music is concerned. Who is going to be performing and what will they perform?

David Fligg: “For our festival we’ve got some really interesting musicians who are going to perform for us. There are going to be performances of Gideon Klein’s String Trio, for example, and other works by him. And David Danel of the Prague Modern Ensemble is sourcing our musicians for us, so we’ve got some of Prague’s leading musicians who will be taking part in the festival. Also, at our opening concert, we will have students from HAMU (Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts) who will be performing for us. So, we’ve the younger generation as well as professionals. As far as language is concerned – that was a topic you raised a few moments ago – there are obviously some challenges for us coming from the UK, dealing with texts which were written in Czech. I had them translated into English and now we’re taking them back into the original Czech. There’s one piece of music by Gideon Klein, which will be receiving its premiere at our opening concert, called the Poplar Tree. I had the text translated. We weren’t able to determine who wrote the text and my translator and I came to the conclusion that in all likelihood the text is by Gideon Klein himself. It’s in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style. Now, when we perform it here in Prague, it will be in the original Czech. If and when we perform it at our other festivals, the question is – will it be in the original Czech or shall we have it translated and then run the risk of spoiling the impact of this rather abstract but nonetheless interesting poem that Klein wrote.”

You’ve talked about classical music, but there were many different types of music coming from Terezín. Are you focusing only on the classical music?

David Fligg: “We have to be aware of the fact that in Terezín there was music composed in all styles, as you said. It wasn’t just specific to what you’d call concert music or classical music, and even in the realm of classical music it ranged from works which were very accessible and tonal and tuneful, to works by Haas and Klein and Ullmann and Krása, which really were very modernist and experimental. So, the music coming out of the camp cut across all stylistic boundaries.”

Steve Muir: “Just to add to that, broadening out a little bit from Terezín, some of the other composers we’re looking at survived – they escaped to England or the United States. For example, Wilhelm Grosz from Vienna was writing in a very jazzy style, extremely lighthearted, and went on to write for radio and things like that. Some of his songs are jazzy, but with a serious undertone as well. I’m sure that there are things from Terezín as well that may reflect that area.”

I’m interested in this broader aspect of the project, because it strikes me that you are doing something fairly new – looking at people who were displaced and what that does to the creative process and what it does to their relationship to the audience. So can you tell us a bit more about the writers and the musicians in that respect?

Steve Muir,  photo: David Vaughan
Lisa Peschel: “I can speak a bit to the phenomenon of theatre because a lot of the time what happens when people end up in Terezín, is that they take whatever tradition they came from and just transplant that into the ghetto. For example, one piece I would very much like to find – we have the song lyrics but we don’t have the libretto – is an operetta called The Girl of the Ghetto, and this was written largely by Viennese Jews, who took their favourite form and found a way to put the content of their lives in Terezín into this framework and turn it into a comic story. A lot of the Czech Jews bring the style of the famous interwar theatre artists Voskovec and Werich into the ghetto and then put Terezín content into that form.”

Presumably you are all very busy running around preparing things. Our listeners can find out more at your website…

Steve Muir: “That’s absolutely right. We have a project website which is:”

And the nice thing is, because we have listeners all over the world, including Britain and the United States, if they are anywhere near Leeds or York, or Madison, Wisconsin, they’ll be able to come along themselves…

Steve Muir: “That’s right. Also, everything we perform will be recorded to a very professional standard by our film crew, who will follow us around the world, and that will then be archived on our website. Those performances will be linked with the sources of the pieces and the research behind them. So people can follow the stories of the pieces and the people behind them, where they came from and what happened to them.”