Petr Ginz: a moving dramatization of a wartime diary

'The Diary of Petr Ginz', photo: Ian White

It is not often that school plays get to be performed at international theatre festivals, still less so when it involves taking performers, props and scenery hundreds of miles half way across a continent. But this is just what happened when a group of teenagers from Britain brought a brand new play to Prague’s Fringe Festival in 2008. And it was not by chance that this play was brought to Prague. In this week’s Czech Books, David Vaughan finds out more from the play’s author.

We are the rollicking Hitler Youth
We have no need of Christian truth!
No evil priest these ties can sever -
We're Hitler's children now forever! Juden raus! Juden raus! Juden raus! Juden raus! Juden raus! Juden raus!

'The Diary of Petr Ginz', photo: Ian White
An extract from the play, “The Diary of Petr Ginz”, as performed in Prague by pupils from Shrewsbury School in England. The scene is wartime Prague, with Hitler Youth bullies bringing terror to the city streets. The diary referred to in the title really exists. Petr Ginz was a Prague teenager, who kept a diary in the early years of the wartime Nazi occupation. Like 70,000 other Czechs of Jewish descent, Petr was later to perish in the camps of the East. Only his diary survived. When it was published in English translation in 2007, after being forgotten for over sixty years, it came to the attention of the schoolteacher Alex Went, who had already made several successful adaptations of 19th century novels for the theatre.

“I was immediately struck by the potential of this story to transfer to the stage. It’s a very moving diary, akin to The Diary of Anne Frank, but written by a boy who was somewhat younger. He was only 14 at the time he was deported to Terezín. The first question that sprang to my mind was how I would manage to do this and get permission to do this. So my first instinct was to try to find any surviving relatives. It was clear from the translation that had just been published in England that there was one such lady, the sister of Petr Ginz, Chava Pressburger, living in Israel. So that’s how I started, by writing to her, asking if she’d be happy for an adaptation.”

And she was…

'The Diary of Petr Ginz', photo: Ian White
“And she was. She is herself a remarkable woman, an artist of some repute, and an absolutely delightful lady, who was more than happy for me to treat her brother’s words and bring them to life on the stage.”

Tell me something about the diary. Was it written before he was sent to the ghetto in Terezín or in the ghetto itself?

“Well, that’s very interesting. The actual period covered is from 1941 to the autumn of 1942, which is when he was taken away. But, crucially, it covers the period of the Heydrich assassination. So that, as it were, provided a kind of external, historical climax, in addition to the personal climax with which the play ends.

27th May, Wednesday: There was an assassination attempt against SS Obergruppenführer Heydrich. Anyone who is seen after 9 o’clock and before 6 o’clock who does not stop immediately will be shot dead…

“There were already some pretty demanding requirements of Jews in Prague at the time. They weren’t, for example, allowed to ride on public transport. And in a kind of grimly entertaining scene towards the end of the play, there’s a moment where the children – Petr and his friends – are captured in the sights of a German soldier who’s about to get on a tram. I wanted a scene in the open street with the noises of trams in order to bring home this irony – that here were a people who weren’t allowed to fulfil normal, day-to-day lives – and it’s combined at this moment in the play with the escalation of oppression against the Jews of Prague.

Petr: […] Look, there’s one, over there. See?
Turna: Where?
Pavel: At the tram stop.
Petr: The tram’s moving off…
Eva: He’ll never make it
[sound of tram bell]
All: He’s missed it!
[They all laugh, one of them a little too long. A greatcoated figure calls to them from upstage.]
German office: Du hast gelacht?
[A long pause]

Is the diary intimate and personal or is it more an account of the day-to-day life of a teenager under these very bizarre and difficult circumstances?

“It starts with a spirit of adventure, a spirit of finding out and curiosity about the world. It’s very much not to do with the war or the situation that obtained even in 1941 for that family. There is something very normal about it. And yet, what comes out is the extraordinary brilliance of this boy, who in common with so many exterminated in the concentration camps, would no doubt have been able to turn his hand to anything with great aplomb. He was a very fine writer and had already written several schoolboy novels, one of which – about dinosaurs – we play on quite heavily. He was fascinated by science. One of the drawings which he did just after he had been taken to Terezín was an imaginative picture of the Earth as it might be seen from the lunar landscape. It has an astonishing prescience to it. It’s a little fantastical, in terms of its rendering of craters and other Moon features, but otherwise it’s an incredibly realistic portrait of the Earth seen from space.”

This particular image – his drawing of the Moon – became very important 60 years later for a very different reason…

“It did. In 2003, the American Space Shuttle Columbia took off and on board was the first ever Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who had been a pilot in the Israeli Air Force. He wanted to take into space with him a token of his nation and his race, and went to the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem to ask if they had some sort of memento that he could take into space. And of course, immediately, they thought of this drawing which had been rescued of Petr Ginz’s, ‘Moon Landscape’. A copy of this was taken into space, but, tragically, that Space Shuttle was the one which disintegrated on its return to Earth. So the copy of the drawing – thankfully not the drawing itself – perished along with Ilan Ramon.”

And this tragic episode is included in your adaptation of the diary as a play…

“It is. I thought it would be a good idea to sandwich the events of the early 1940s with that later tragedy, partly as an expositional device, to show how the diary had come to public attention in 2003, because up to that point it hadn’t really been known about, and partly because it plays nicely on Petr Ginz’s own scientific fascinations and makes a nice combination with that.”

And how did you go about adapting the diary?

“The way that the play is structured is as a series of alternating dream sequences, and moments which represent the writing of the diary itself. So Petr Ginz appears as a character, often spotlit as an individual, penning the diary, or right at the end of the play, typing the diary, and the alternating scenes pick up his words and animate them. So this seems to be a pretty straightforward way of proceeding and in fact it works very well, I think.

Popper: What’s that? Petr: It’s a Smith-Corona. A typewriter. I’m borrowing it from the Jewish Community. Pavel: I thought you were only meant to clean them. Petr: [hisses] I know. But shut up. No-one has to know. [Relaxes] Right. Our class magazine. The Outlook. Issue 1. Ready? [They all look at him hopefully.]

Alex Went
You wrote the play at a time when you were teaching at a school in Britain, and you wrote it very specifically for teenagers, people of a similar age to Petr Ginz himself. That must have been a very interesting – and very specific – process, for you as a playwright.

“Good drama is crucially that which communicates on the most simple as well as the most profound levels. My experience of writing with school audiences in mind has actually lent me the ability over the years to craft a play which is, I think, both direct and profound. Obviously, one has to take into account the abilities of young actors, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be pushed to the same emotional levels, for example, that an adult actor is. And I’d just like to add that when we came to produce the play in Prague at the Prague Fringe in 2008, we spent one of the afternoons before performing going to the Jewish Museum in Prague. And you can imagine that the affect on the children was really quite moving, quite deep, as they found on the walls of the synagogue the names of the characters that they were playing on the stage that evening.”

And the extracts that have featured in this programme are from the play as performed here at the Fringe…

'The Diary of Petr Ginz', photo: Ian White
“These are from the production in Prague, which I have to say was a wonderful and slightly mad experience, which involved driving a small car half way across Europe, stuffed with the most extraordinary variety of the paraphernalia of life in the 1940s, and some wonderful music that had been written for me by the choirmaster at the school where I worked, and a minibus full of very engaged and very excited children.”