Our new mini Reading Room exhibition, Theatre and Literature in Concentration Camps, tells the story of resistance through theatre, art and literature.
The Malicious Gossip Law, passed in early 1934, meant that telling an anti-Nazi joke was a crime, the same year infamous anti-Nazi film Hitler’s Reign of Terror was debuted in New York. Despite censorship, culture remained, and this resistance included literature, art, storytelling, underground newspapers, and maintaining religious customs, as well as notably – theatre. Culture thus became means to resist the increasing Jewish dehumanisation in Nazi policy, as ‘theatre was another attempt by the victims to sustain one another and to try to preserve a semblance of normality in an obscenely abnormal universe’ (Rovit, 124).
Theatre, sometimes permitted and sometimes illicit, existed in concentration camps. In Alice Bloemendahl’s experience of literature in Theresienstadt/Terezín was tolerated and permitted by the SS, notably due to Theresienstadt serving an important propaganda function for the Germans. Paul Morgan’s experience in Dachau and Buchenwald however was much different, where any kind of performance was undercover. Yet, in exchange for a bribe, the SS permitted musical instruments (Rovit, 153).
Accounted by Bruno Heilig, a Dachau survivor and journalist and author of factual report and memoir Men Crucified in 1941 wrote:
‘Every Sunday a cabaret performance was given by the artists in the camp. Fritz Gruenbaum, Paul Morgan, Hermann Leopoli, and the Berlin siger Kurt Fuss. At first the idea of starting a cabaret in a concentration camp seemed to us absurd; but it proved a success… These cabaret matinees gave us the illusion of a scrap of freedom. For an hour or two one almost had a sense of being at home’ (Heilig, 121).
The exhibition features a collection of letters by Alice Bloemendahl, who describes the cultural, artistic and intellectual activities in Terezín. This mini exhibition also highlights draft play scripts, newspaper articles, scrapbooks of news cuttings, photographs and ephemera regarding Paul Morgan, founder of Kadeko, Berlin’s famous Cabaret of Comedians. This exhibition, through the striking examples of Alice Bloemendahl, Ben Hecht, and Paul Morgan explores the striking importance of art to psychologically survive, and actively resist, the Holocaust.