There are still stories to tell

When Julia Pascal dramatised the life of a Jew betrayed to the Nazis in Guernsey, she joined a handful of playwrights prepared to deal with the Holocaust. She tells Michael Arditti about the trouble it caused her, while Peter Guttridge meets Aharon Appelfeld, a survivor of the camps, whose novel Badenheim 1939 is being staged by Second Stride
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The Independent Culture
The first joke that Julia Pascal remembers hearing was told to her by her father. It concerns two Jews, Moshe and Hymie, who are facing the firing squad in Tsarist Russia. The soldiers tie their blindfolds, while the officer asks if they have any last requests. As Hymie steps forward to beg a cigarette, Moshe puts his hand on his shoulder with the words, "Don't make trouble."

This is not advice that Pascal herself has ever heeded. She made trouble with her family by refusing to conform to the traditional wife-and-mother role and leaving home to become an actress. She made trouble as an actress by demanding the chance to direct, until she became the first woman director at the National Theatre in 1978. She made trouble as a director by publishing an expose of the prospects for women directors in a newspaper, which prompted a threatening letter from Trevor Nunn. She made trouble by forming her own theatre company and, rather than concentrating on "women's issues", producing controversial, hard-hitting plays about Northern Ireland, such as Seamus Finnegan's Soldiers.

She is still making trouble with her latest project, a trilogy of her own plays dealing with the Holocaust, at a time when many in her community, fearing the resurgence of the Right, prefer to keep a low profile. She has little patience with this attitude, and insists: "I have no wish to pass my life as a campaigning Jew, but I need to know where I come from and what I am against."

The plays were not planned as a trilogy. The first, Theresa, was prompted by a newspaper article about Theresa Steiner, a Viennese Jew, betrayed to the Nazis by Guernsey's Bailiff. Haunted by the story, she tried to discover more, but came up against a wall of silence - until a friend of Steiner's put her in contact with the Channel Islands Occupation Museum, which allowed her to copy out documents but not to photocopy them. This, ironically, proved to be a source of inspiration. "Something happens to you," she says, "when the words pass through your head to your hand."

The legacy of the Occupation years is evident in the Channel Islands, in the network of underground hospitals built by prisoners incarcerated in concentration camps on Alderney. The association continues to this day, as groups of German veterans (2,000 of whom fathered children there), return each year to Guernsey, where they take over a hotel, meet old friends and sing Nazi songs.

Pascal's portrait of collaboration is worlds away from that of William Douglas-Home's The Dame of Sark, in which the eponymous heroine, the personification of the great British virtues of decency and pluck (the part was originated by Anna Neagle), outwits the local Nazi commander. Small wonder that Pascal's play has been banned on Guernsey. But islanders who have seen it have been much affected, including the Bailiff's grandson, who told the playwright that "when the war ended, the British authorities didn't know whether to hang my grandfather or to knight him". In the event, the Queen Mother knighted him in 1945.

Although a degree of accuracy has been subtracted by turning Theresa from a young music student into a middle-aged professor, considerable authenticity has been added; the purpose of the change is to accommodate the actress Ruth Posner, who, as a child, escaped first from the Warsaw ghetto, and later from Auschwitz when the train taking her there was bombed by the Allies. Pascal explains that she "didn't want to cast just another actress. It has added so much to use someone who lived there, who can transmit the experience just by her presence."

The second play, A Dead Woman on Holiday, is an extension of the first. Having examined people directly affected by genocide, Pascal wanted to explore "the next generation: people who weren't in the firing-line". Focusing on a French-Jewish interpreter at the Nuremberg trials, she considers the nature of love in a world that has lost its innocence. "If you've known the Holocaust, you can't accept the world as it's given to you. I wanted to look at that process from a woman's point of view: a woman who is free, who works, who travels. To a certain extent, that's me."

The trilogy is completed by Pascal's radical revision of Solomon Ansky's The Dybbuk, a Yiddish classic steeped in folklore, ghosts and mysticism. This, too, came out of the experience of Theresa and, in particular, of performing the play on a German tour where she was conscious that, for a Jew, "there were nothing but ghosts... Hitler had won. So I used the Ansky play as a way into my personal dybbuks. At the same time, I was very aware of tapping into a culture that was mine. There is very little Jewish theatre tradition, no mystery plays, only The Dybbuk and Golem."

Pascal is one of a tiny band of playwrights - others being CP Taylor and Bernard Kops - who have dared to present the Nazis on the British stage. She points to the particular power of the medium: "No one can absorb the death of six million people. And you can never show people starving in concentration camps. But, on stage, you can make them mirror the audience; they are ordinary people ripped out of their lives. And, because theatre takes place in the present, it isn't relegated to history."

Although she was born after the war, for Pascal, as for many Jews, the Holocaust has been the defining event of her life. "It governs the way I think and act. I'm determined to make my life mean something. I feel very strongly that they got six million of us, but here's one who survived. I'm a Jewish atheist and there aren't many role models, apart from Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg."

Her choice led to a breach with her family so great that she has not spoken to her mother for 25 years. "I've never wanted children... They can burn your children; but they can't burn your books. Well, they can; but not if you keep copies of your scripts dotted around in enough places."

She has herself been the victim of anti-Semitism in both Britain and France, where she lives for much of the time with her husband, until recently the Socialist mayor of Maubeuge. There, because of her dark hair and colouring, she is often taken for an Arab and subjected to that currently more respectable brand of racism. She, however, sees it as another manifestation of the same sickness, insisting that "people are born innocent and the hierarchies are there to make them clock into evil. Evil is to do with the way that we have constructed our society into castes, into sects, into slaves."

Pascal's three Holocaust plays have been performed extensively throughout Europe to audiences of many different colours and creeds (at London's Oval House, a predominantly black audience related Theresa's plight to its own immigrant experience). Although in her most recent work she has moved away from Jewish subjects, Pascal has kept her crusading zeal. "My home is with people on the fringes; that's what makes me write. I'm not interested in people in the system but in those who have their fingernails on the edge of it and are just about to drop off."

n 'The Holocaust Trilogy' runs to 10 Dec, New End Theatre, London NW3. Booking: 0171-794 0022