Monday, April 23, 2012

Cabaret and football: Life before death in the HolocaustBy Kevin Connolly

Cabaret and football: Life before death in the Holocaust. By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Jerusalem

Songs composed and performed by Jews confined in a Nazi ghetto during the Holocaust have been pieced together by researchers and can now be heard again - a distant echo of the daily lives of men and women who would one day, if not immediately, be sent to their death.

In a hushed studio theatre in the heart of Tel Aviv, the ghosts of the Holocaust are singing again. A small group of performers has been recreating songs written in the ghetto of Theresienstadt - the prison community near Prague where the Nazi authorities gathered Jewish families from Czechoslovakia and beyond between 1941 and 1945.

Composers and songwriters like Viktor Ullman and Karel Schwenk were among the prisoners and they left an extraordinary testament to the durability of the human spirit as they waited at the gateway to oblivion Around 160,000 Jews passed through the ghetto in its four years of operation - 36,000 died there of malnutrition, mistreatment and disease. Of the 90,000 men, women and children who were sent east to death camps like Auschwitz only 4,000 returned.

ut the music of Theresienstadt doesn't sound or feel like a requiem for the dead - much of it was written in the cabaret style popular in Central Europe between the wars. It has a spiky, sarcastic feel to it - shot through with sudden shafts of sentimentality.

Ullman and Schwenk, together with the other artistes, perished in the Holocaust and it took an extraordinary piece of musical archaeology to bring their songs back from the dead. "Five years ago, we interviewed 20 survivors from Theresienstadt," explains Professor Michael Wolpe, the musicologist behind the project. "Each one of them sat down and sang us songs from the cabaret, and there were a few who even play the piano a bit. As I understand from the survivors, [the music] is absolutely like it was then."

Rediscovering the music of Theresienstadt (known as Terezin in Czech) provides a sharp reminder that while most of us have a clear picture of the outline story of the Holocaust, relatively little is known about how daily life was lived within it.

New exhibitions in Israel of photographs of football matches played inside the ghetto underline that perception. Games were played in front of substantial crowds with some spectators looking down on the seven-a-side matches from balconies high above the courtyard that served as a pitch.

Search on the internet and you will easily find the unbearably poignant footage of the doomed players - most had been transported to the death camps within weeks or months of the film being shot. One of the few who survived was Peter Erben - now 91 and living in the Israeli Mediterranean city of Ashkelon with his wife Eva, who also lived through the nightmare of Theresienstadt.

Peter's memories of the Holocaust are grimly compelling - he survived transportation to the death camp because he was moved to Theresienstadt late in the war, when the approach of the Soviet army was already disrupting the operation of the camps. He survived a period in the slave labour camp at Mauthausen in Austria too, his personal story an extraordinary odyssey of good luck woven into a tapestry of despair and depravity.

Of his days playing football in Theresienstadt as he waited through the long months for the inevitable transfer to Auschwitz he says simply: "Football was very important in Theresienstadt - there was a game every week and thousands of people came.

Even the SS men were there in civilian clothes. They liked it too." We have grown used to the over-arching narrative of the Holocaust with all its cruel destruction - but we know little of its grim subtleties, and perhaps struggle to find the words to describe them.

The truth is that Theresienstadt was a place of death but it was less brutal than the ghettos of Poland or Lithuania. It's not clear exactly how that came about - it may have been determined by the character of local commanders, or it may have been that the Germans drew ethnic distinctions between Jews from Central Europe and Jews from countries to the East.

The Czech ghetto was still a gateway to hell but because it was less brutal and squalid than the others it also came to play a role in one of the most extraordinary of all the German propaganda operations of World War II. In an attempt to disguise the true nature of the Holocaust, the Nazi authorities consented to a request from the Danish Royal Family to allow a visit by Red Cross inspectors.

The results were a shameful farce - the inspectors seem to have agreed to speak only to the guards and commanders and not the malnourished inmates who were ordered to sit around in fake cafes drinking water dyed black so that it resembled coffee. Peter was one of those inmates. The Germans even shot a propaganda movie, although they lost the war before they had a chance to show it around Europe.

Oded Breda, director of the Terezin House - a museum set up by survivors to commemorate and study the ghetto - says the film remains a powerful piece of propaganda for Nazi apologists and Holocaust deniers to this day. "That film is still working. Look at it on YouTube and look at the comments that are left.

People are saying, 'Look at Jews during the war, how they even played football. There was nothing [sinister].'" If Oded Breda is right to claim that Holocaust-deniers are still reinforcing their grotesque perversions of historical fact with Nazi propaganda films then there are worrying signs for the future. It is a good moment perhaps to pause and listen to the ghostly voices of the musical past in Theresienstadt, and remember the truth.

Iraq's clash of old and new

Standing on a dusty mound on the outskirts of al-Hilla, two Iraqi officials have an argument about what lies underneath. One thing is certain: three pipelines carrying oil products and liquid gas from Basra in the south to Baghdad pass under the hill. Two of them were built in the late 1970s and early 80s, and the third was just completed a month ago. But according to Hussein Falah al-Ammari of the State Board of Antiquities, there's something more valuable than oil under that hill. "We're standing on the outer wall of the ancient city of Babylon," he said. "The pipelines penetrate the city from both sides, cutting through the northern wall where we are now, through the city and all the way to the southern wall 1.5km (0.9 miles) south from here." Facing the antiquities official is Muayyed al-Sultani from the pipeline company in Babylon. Dressed neatly in a suit and tie, he's accompanied by a camera crew from the Ministry of Oil, as well as four soldiers. One of them flaunts a machine gun with a belt of rounds dangling from the bullet compartment. "With all respect to the antiquities board," he says politely, "our opinion is that there are no ruins here." The two men debated the powers of their respective ministries, the importance of the oil pipeline, and the value of Babylonian ruins. But the discussion was going nowhere The Ministry of Tourism has already taken the Ministry of Oil to court over the extension of the pipeline, which it says is unlawful because it endangers an archaeological site, and did not have the approval of the State Antiquities Board. It says that unless the pipelines are diverted, the bid to get Babylon listed as a World Heritage Site will fail. 'Just dust' On the surface, it's just a hill like any other in Iraq. Situated at the outskirts of Hilla, the modern name for the ancient city of Babylon, it's dotted by thorny bushes and patches of dry grass, and surrounded by palm trees on all sides. "It's just dust around here," said Mr Sultani, adding that while the pipeline was being extended, no traces of ruins were found. But Mr Ammari had a ready explanation. "It's the erosion over the millennia," he explained, insisting that about a metre underneath, the remains of the wall stood largely intact, preserved in "architectural detail". Further in, he said, "we could find military bases, or private housing units or administrative centres". But even if the court orders a diversion of the pipelines, there's no certainty that the bid to have Babylon listed as a World Heritage site will succeed. Few would doubt the "outstanding universal value"' of the ancient city, but there are other criteria for being listed as a World Heritage Site. Among them is "authenticity" of the ruins, and Babylon has already been compromised. Ancient glory Within the inner city walls lie the remains of the palace built by Nebuchadnezzar the Second around 2,600 years ago: layer upon layer of reddish-brown bricks, windswept and eroded over the millennia. But piled on top of the ruins are new structures erected during the past decades. Iraq's former President Saddam Hussein ordered the rebuilding of the ancient city at exactly the spot where the old one stood. The result is a mixture of old and new, and it is difficult to distinguish between the two. The clash of the Iraqi ministries pits the demands of the modern age against the preservation of history. But it could also prove to be an example of history repeating itself. Iraq's oil sector remains burdened with a variety of problems, but its potential is vast, and so are the geopolitical implications if it fulfils it. Ancient Babylon was a bustling commercial hub. Merchants carrying goods from places like India, Persia, and Egypt passed through the city, generating wealth for its ambitious kings, and tempting them with dreams of glory. In today's Iraq, it's the lure of oil that could prove impossible to resist.

Hamlet - The Play Stalin hated Behind the Iron Curtain, Shakespeare's plays were a way to send secret messages about Soviet society to theatre audiences. Now a Lithuanian staging of Hamlet - designed to make Stalin, who hated the play, turn in his grave - will be performed in the UK. Why do these 400-year-old plays resonate in the former Eastern Bloc? When Lithuania's biggest rock star, Andrius Mamontovas, was offered the role of Hamlet in 1996, he was rather surprised, but agreed to have a go. He has now played the prince for 15 years, and will soon perform the role in London as part of the UK's cultural festival to mark the Olympics. There were nine months of rehearsals for a play that was at the beginning seven-and-a-half hours long, and even today lasts nearly four hours (there is also a cut-down version of just over two). What has kept him going is Eimuntas Nekrosius, one of Europe's most renowned theatre directors, and the special prestige Shakespeare holds in the countries of the former Soviet Union. In Soviet-era Lithuania, there were productions of Shakespeare for which people queued through the night for tickets. Shakespeare was culture with official approval, but as one of the few alternatives to tales about earnest Soviet heroes, it was also a way for theatre directors to symbolically address forbidden issues. Going to the theatre had an excitement it perhaps lacks nowadays, says Mamontovas. "I miss those secret messages... there were always little secret messages from the artist to the audience. But there's no need for that now because you can say what you want openly - it's more entertainment now." Another appeal of staging Shakespeare was its soundtrack. Rock music was sometimes smuggled into productions in an era when many Western acts were banned - and the list of such acts was long and varied. A telling xchange in Soviet Times Hamlet: What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune, that she sends you to prison hither? Guildenstern: Prison, my lord! Hamlet: Denmark's a prison. Rosencrantz: Then is the world one. Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst. "ACDC, Tina Turner - she was banned for her sexuality - the Stranglers, the Clash, they were one of my favourites. And there was Julio Iglesias," says Mamontovas. The artistic director of Lithuania's National Theare, Audronis Liuga, recalls a landmark musical staging of Romeo and Juliet in 1982. "It was a spirit of freedom, it was very youthful, very joyful, based on a lot of improvisation, very recognisable for this generation of people who were listening to the Beatles, Jesus Christ Superstar - this kind of music but not of course legally." This new Lithuanian production is full of music, but no rock - although it's far from conventional, with not a doublet or hose in sight, and a coconut taking the place of Yorick's skull. It is one of 37 companies performing at the World Shakespeare Festival at London's Globe Theatre Then there is the history of Hamlet in the Soviet Union. An early landmark of Lithuania's professional theatre was a production of Hamlet by Mikhail Chekhov, nephew of the playwright Anton. But Hamlet then fell out of favour. Stalin, it was understood, had turned against the indecisive Prince of Denmark. The uncomfortable comparisons between the setting of Hamlet, the dark world of Elsinore and the Kremlin, was perhaps too close. Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, had usurped the throne, depriving the young Hamlet himself, and there were parallels - for those who wished to see them - in Stalin's seizure of Lenin's leading role and his demolition of rivals such as Trotsky. There was also another layer of symbolism. Stalin, a keen theatregoer, took against the renowned director Vsevolod Meyerhold and had him arrested and tortured, and executed. Best known of all of Hamlet's 1,500 lines It's in Act III Scene I, and Prince Hamlet appears to be talking to himself He's trying to establish his uncle's guilt in murdering his father and usurping the Danish throne The speech is a deep philosophical reflection on life and death The six most familiar words in theatre Meyerhold dreamed all his life of staging Hamlet, his favourite play, but somehow never managed it. He was renowned for having said, with bitter irony, that he wanted his tombstone to read: "Here lies a man who never played or directed Hamlet". From the day he was killed in 1940, Hamlet and the death of Meyerhold became intertwined in the public imagination. Stalin's death in 1953 prompted a series of new Hamlet productions that tested the boundaries of how far the post-Stalin thaw had gone, and so the play gained a symbolic status of freedom of expression. The director of the Globe Shakespeare Festival, Tom Bird, says this resonance is echoed across the region. "There's a feeling in the former Soviet Union that Shakespeare was never censored. So he becomes in a lot of these places not just a writer but almost a freedom fighter, almost a saint. "If you go in to the countryside in Armenia you meet people with the name Shakespeare - their first names are Shakespeare. "The most famous footballer in Armenia is Henrikh Mkhitaryan and his middle name is Hamlet. And no, Hamlet isn't Armenian for Hamish; it's Hamlet, the Dane. It's incredible it's seeped in to everything." But there is also a sense that something has passed. They do not miss the fear, but the privileged position of high culture and Shakespeare has slipped. Tina Turner and Julio Iglesias may have been banned, but there was a deep reverence for Shakespeare. Fifteen years on, Mamontovas is still eager to carry on playing the Danish prince for a few more years. But he knows the clock is ticking. "I am very happy and very lucky to be here, this play has opened a lot of doors for me. I took this on when I was Hamlet's age, around 29, it would be strange if I was still being Hamlet when I'm 50."