Ghetto survival

Voices from Theresienstadt New End Theatre, Hampstead

Welcome to the "As If" world: the Theresienstadt ghetto, 60km from Prague. As if there were no Final Solution, it was used by the Nazis as propaganda to show the world the Jews living in a Paradise Ghetto with a school, coffee house and regular concerts in the cental square. In reality, it was an overcrowded staging post for Auschwitz, to where regular train transports were dispatched. And as if it were possible to live some sort of normal life in a place like this, the inmates succeeded in organising a flourishing cultural life of theatre, concerts and cabaret to help escape reality and even poke fun at it.

The "As If" song is at the centre of a theatrical evocation of this "As If" town for an "As If" race, performed by the Norwegian actress and singer Bente Kahan and a couple of very accomplished musicians on violin and accordion. Voices from Theresienstadt draws on songs and cabaret material surviving from the ghetto. With a couple of suitcases and a limited assortment of props, Kahan portrays five different women sharing the floor of a women's barracks. There's a vivacious, young actress from Prague; a cultivated, bespectacled old lady who works in the ghetto library; a pianist afraid of losing the music in her fingers; an Orthodox Danish mother of four, and a wealthy woman from Hamburg absolutely appalled at the conditions. She'd been told Theresienstadt was a sort of spa and was expecting a room with a balcony and bath. Their reactions to the conditions in the ghetto and their different ways of dealing with the "As If" world are dramatically interwoven with the songs that punctuate the performance: "Theresienstadt, Theresienstadt, The snazziest ghetto the world has got!"

Alongside the versatility of her performance, what makes Kahan's portrayal of Theresienstadt so powerful is the way she avoids making her characters into heroes. There is petty rivalry and, surprisingly, racism: the German Jews look down on the Czech Jews, and they both resent the special treatment of the Danish Jews. Zdenka Fantlova, a Czech Jew who herself performed cabaret in Theresienstadt and went to see the show with me last week, was immensely impressed by its accurate and irreverent tone: "People tend to think that everything in Theresienstadt must have been very sad. It wasn't. There was never an atmosphere of fear or despair amongst us young ones. And people misunderstand why the theatre and cabaret started. It wasn't to counteract the conditions, it was much more a continuation of what had gone on before the war. There were actors, directors, designers, composers, musicians, and they said, 'Since we are here, we might as well do something!' Then in doing it, it gave people a feeling of strength and hope. Then it became something heroic, but that was really accidental."

Although the characters in the play are "types" rather than specific people, Zdenka Fantlova was able to recognise in Kahan's performance an actress she'd known in the ghetto. "Vava Schon did puppet theatre, Cocteau's La Voix Humaine, and she directed me in a Czech comedy. When she performed La Voix Humaine, Murmelstein, one of the Council of Jewish Elders, fell for her. He was very ugly and she joked about him saying he looked like a pig. But she flirted with him and went with him in the end and it saved her life." This story is vividly alluded to in a couple of episodes, and other stories more desperate and more tragic. Kahan's picture of Theresienstadt is built up through snatches of one-sided dialogues (rather like La Voix Humaine itself) and the small details make a broad and vivid canvas. Eventually the women's actions and choices have life and death consequences. "The tragedy of Theresienstadt," said Zdenka, "comes through, in that Kahan portrays people who behaved normally in abnormal conditions."

One of the cabarets Zdenka herself performed included a scene in which the Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II (who built and named the town) were sitting on a cloud looking down on Theresienstadt, trying to work out what on earth was going on. Suddenly two new souls flutter up to the cloud, freshly arrived from the ghetto. They try to explain what is happening, but without success. For us today, it is just as difficult to make sense of the unbelievable courage and creativity that went on in the jaws of death. But many answers lie in the music composed there, the cabaret performances, the songs and the testimonies of those who experienced and even, according to Zdenka, enjoyed it. Pieces like Voices from Theresienstadt play a powerful and important part in understanding life in the"As If" town: "One bears the awesome fate 'As If' it weren't so bad / And talks about tomorrow 'As If' one's to be had"n

'Voices from Theresienstadt' is at the New End Theatre, Hampstead, London NW3 (booking: 0171 794 9963). To 6 July.

Bente Kahan performs songs from the show on a CD: 'Voices from Theresienstadt' (Dybbuk Promotion DP 1818) Simon Broughton

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