Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp established in the town of Terezín, was unique. Built in 1941, it was used to detain Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia — many of whom had been prominent in the arts.
Nazi propagandists described Theresienstadt as a “spa town” to which the artists, actors and musicians could “retire” after being shipped from their respective countries. To perpetuate the murderous fiction, the Nazis allowed a limited set of cultural activities.
There was even a Freizeitgestaltung, or Office of Leisure Time Activities that encouraged concerts, theater performances and visual arts.
Among these were some 50 performances staged during the three-and-a-half-years of the camp’s operation. It was this aspect of Theresienstadt’s history that fascinated Drew Mindell, an Emory playwriting major who graduated with honors on May 9. Mindell spent several months in the university’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience doing research on the Holocaust and theater history.
What would have been the experience of a group of incarcerated actors, he wondered, rehearsing not just a lighthearted drama or skit but one of the most notorious portrayals of a Jewish character in history, Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice?”
What would such a rehearsal have meant in a place that owed its existence, under the Nazis, to the extermination of the Jews? How, in effect, does one respond when art so closely shadows life?
“What is left for them? I think that’s the question. I think that’s what they spend the play trying to find,” Mindell said. “When all of these things that allowed us to create our culture and our lives and even the normal things that we do are taken from us, what do you do?”
His play, “The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (or at least our best approximation of it),” is about precisely this. It depicts a group of actors as they prepare for a performance of the English stage classic and grapple with their feelings in the face of death and the loss of all that once meant so much to them.
While there is no record of the play ever having been performed or even contemplated at Theresienstadt, there was an active theater program there. Mindell believes it was all part of the desperate search to maintain an everyday connection to human life.
“You haven’t lost your humanity as long as you are able to create something and as long as you are able to reach another person, you have what makes you human.”
According to Mindell’s research, there were cabaret skits, a puppet theater, even theatrical revues at the camp. Even plays like “The Human Voice” by Jean Cocteau were staged under the watchful eye of Nazi censorship. According to Mindell, the production was less about the performance and more of a cry for life.
“It’s very easy to be so caught up in all that is bad there that it doesn’t feel like anything good is going to come again. And when you feel like that is when you need to keep going.”
When the Nazis took over Terezín, they expelled the 8,000 Czechs living there and began transporting what would amount to some 140,000 people, mostly Jews, to their death at various camps, including Auschwitz.
The most dramatic moment in the history of the camp, though, took place not onstage but during a visit from representatives of the International Red Cross and Danish Red Cross in June of 1944. King Christian of Denmark wanted to ensure that Jewish deportees from his country weren’t being abused and that rumors of mass murder were false.
To prepare for the charade, the SS, which ran the camp, created a six-month beautification program, roping in the Council of Jewish Elders, as they called those who helped them administer the camp, to create a veneer of normalcy.
Just a month prior to the Red Cross visit, 7,500 prisoners were murdered “to alleviate crowding” in the camp. After the one-day inspection, the three-man delegation reported that the “residents” were being treated well. Their report confirmed that some the best dramatic actors, it turned out, were the Nazi officers who ran the camp.
The Nazis even shot a propaganda film and, when it was completed, shipped the “cast members” to death camps, where they were murdered.
Of the many thousands of Jews who passed through Theresienstadt, only 1,574 survived the war, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Mindell’s play, which was performed at Emory in February 2021, won the David L. Shelton Award for a full-length regional work — an honor bestowed by the American College Theater Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The play also garnered an honorable mention in the National Jewish Playwriting Contest in 2021.
- Bob Bahr
- Drew Mindell
- Emory University
- David L. Shelton award
- American College Theatre Festival
- National Jewish Playwriting Contest
- World War II
- Office of Leisure Time Activities
- The Merchant of Venice
- Jean Cocteau
- The Human Voice
- King Christian of Denmark
- Council of Jewish Elders
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Kennedy Center