Monthly Archives: August 2015

Film Review: Making Light in Terezin

Making Light

The documentary film Making Light in Terezin, written and directed by Richard Krevolin, gives us deep insight into the ways that theater helped many Jews cope with the terrible reality of their everyday lives in Terezin. Despite the starvation, disease and constant fear of transports, there were musicians and playwrights who continued to produce and perform plays and musical productions, even in the early period of Terezin when such creative efforts were forbidden.

One such work was a cabaret written by two Jewish prisoners of Terezin, which is the focus of the documentary. This cabaret was performed in Terezin but was nearly forgotten after the war. Through the efforts of a highly talented group of individuals, this cabaret was rediscovered, translated and performed in Terezin in 2012 for an audience which included Terezin survivors.

Dr. Lisa Peschel, a lecturer in Theater at the University of York, learned of the script while she was in the Czech Republic conducting research for her dissertation. In 2004, she attended a meeting of Terezin survivors and asked if anyone had documents from the camp. Two sisters spoke with Dr. Peschel and one of them mentioned that she danced in Terezin and had a script of a cabaret.

When Dr. Peschel met with the women and reviewed the script, she realized that she had never seen it before, that it was a one of a kind work. She translated the script into English and soon came to believe this cabaret needed to be revived, to be performed again. She went to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, where she connected with Hayley Finn and Kira Obolensky, and the three women collaborated to revive this cabaret. It was an immense task, since some of the humor was lost in translation and the script and musical score were incomplete. Dr. Peschel consulted numerous individuals to help decipher the humor. Some parts of the script needed to be adapted, as did some of the musical scores, all of which were done with the utmost care to remain true to the original script.

Playwright and filmmaker Richard Krevolin first learned of this project from Hayley and Kira when one of his plays was running at the Playwrights’ Center. He was captivated by the story of how creative individuals continued to produce art and music in Terezin. When he learned that Hayley, Kira and their actors were traveling to Terezin to perform this cabaret for survivors, Richard decided to document their performance and visit to Terezin on film. He also conducted extensive research on Terezin and the role of theater in the camp, interviewing survivors and scholars.

One of the survivors, Pavel Stransky, was a co-author of the cabaret script, and at age 90, is the only surviving author. Pavel discusses the role of art in Terezin, stating, “art is mental resistance. Art helps, helps to survive.” He also mentions how the humor in the cabaret allowed the prisoners to laugh, which Pavel believes is essential for survival and is also an act of resistance against regimes that rule by terror.

These themes are explored at length throughout the documentary, and are commented on by other Terezin survivors and other individuals who were involved with this project. This documentary sends a powerful message about how creativity and laughter foster hope, how incredibly resilient the human spirit can be, and how in pursuing their art, the prisoners of Terezin performed a heroic act of resistance against the Nazis. I highly recommend watching the documentary Making Light in Terezin to see the production of the cabaret, to hear the stories of Pavel and other survivors and to learn more of how theater and humor helped many prisoners to cope and endure in Terezin.

References (both available on Amazon)
Making Light in Terezin (DVD)
Making Light in Terezin: The Show Helps Us Go On (accompanying book by Richard Krevolin and Nancy Cohen)

Inge Auerbacher: A Voice for Justice and Reconciliation, Part 5

After two years, Inge’s parents convinced the doctors to release Inge from the hospital. Because of her illness she was not allowed to attend school and had to enroll in a course of study for the homebound. Despite her schooling being disrupted so often, Inge was a highly committed student. At the age of fifteen she graduated from eighth grade and attended Bushwick High School in Brooklyn.

Determined to make up for the lost years of education, Inge delved into her studies and extracurricular activities. She excelled in her classes and was popular with the other students. Two achievements that Inge was most proud of was winning second prize in a city-wide science contest and first prize in an essay contest. She would continue to have many achievements in science and writing throughout her life.

Inge finished high school in three years and then entered Queens College as a Pre-Med student, but after six weeks she had to leave because of her worsening tuberculosis. She was prescribed an aggressive treatment regimen of all the medications available, which amounted to twenty-six pills and two injections every day. The treatment worked, though it would be a year before Inge could continue her studies and she still had to face the stigma of being a tuberculosis patient. Most painful of all, two boyfriends ended relationships with Inge when they learned about her history of tuberculosis.

Eventually Inge realized that pursuing medical school would be too physically demanding and instead majored in chemistry. After graduating from college, Inge had a long and successful career working as a chemist in various hospital laboratories.

Inge at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum with her doll Marlene, which she kept with her during her time at Terezin.
Inge at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum with her doll Marlene, which she kept with her during her time at Terezin.

For years Inge tried to forget what she had experienced as a child in Germany and Terezin, but in 1966 she decided it was time to confront her past and returned to Germany. She visited her mother’s hometown, and met some of the people she had known there. She also went to Kippenheim, where she found the Jewish cemetery neglected and the synagogue being used as a storage center for animal feed. In a very powerful scene, Inge returned to Terezin and recalled how it had been when she was imprisoned there.

At Terezin, Inge visited the cemetery and the crematorium, and she realized that she had an important responsibility to fight prejudice. To do so would be a way to honor all those innocent victims of the Nazis. And so Inge began to share her story through writing books and speaking to audiences all over the world.

Inge with all her books
Inge with all her books

Her books I Am a Star and Beyond the Yellow Star to America have won awards and have been translated into many languages. She has also appeared in several documentary films in which she shared her story. Inge has also received prestigious awards from the German government, such as the Federal Cross of Merit for her work in reconciliation.

I have summarized her story here, but of course Inge’s story is best told in her own words. I highly recommend I Am a Star and Beyond the Yellow Star to America to learn more about the story of Inge, a highly courageous woman who has dedicated her life to fighting prejudice and injustice.

Inge wearing Ellis Island Medal of Honor
Inge wearing Ellis Island Medal of Honor

Books by Inge Auerbacher (available on Amazon):

I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust
Beyond the Yellow Star to America
Running Against the Wind
Finding Dr. Schatz: The Discovery of Streptomycin And a Life it Saved (Co-author Dr. Albert Schatz)
Highway To New York
Children of Terror (Co-author Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride)

Inge Auerbacher: A Voice for Justice and Reconciliation, Part 4

After leaving Terezin, Inge and her parents returned to Jebenhausen, her grandparents’ village, in the hopes that they would find that her grandmother was still alive. They found strangers living in her house, and learned that the people on her transport were taken to a remote forest near Riga, Latvia and shot, after first being forced to dig their own mass grave. Many other relatives were also murdered by the Nazis. After learning this horrible news, Inge’s parents decided to leave Jebenhausen as soon as possible and moved to another town called Goeppingen, where Inge’s father began to rebuild his textile business. The people in the town treated Inge and her family well, though Inge felt that she had to conceal her Jewish identity with the children she befriended. Eventually her parents felt that they had no future in Germany, and in May 1946, the family boarded a ship to New York, along with other refugees.

The Auerbacher family lived with relatives as Inge’s parents struggled to find work and to learn English. Inge attended school for the last two months of the school year and had a difficult time adjusting to the language and culture. It was a very lonely time for her, since she had difficulty communicating with the other children and was unfamiliar with their games.

Inge and her mother in the children's hospital.
Inge and her mother in the children’s hospital.

To make matters worse, Inge was suffering from a severe cough that would not subside and unusual fatigue. Her mother, knowing that Inge had tested positive for tuberculosis while in Terezin, brought her to a doctor. Inge was then examined by a lung specialist and immediately admitted to the children’s hospital, where she was placed in the tuberculosis ward. She remained in the hospital for nearly two years, and very rarely was allowed to go home for a short visit. In the hospital, Inge’s English language skills developed greatly and she and the other children were taught many different subjects from visiting teachers. Inge worked hard to improve her English and struggled with math, and in the hospital she discovered an intense love of science, which she would later pursue as a career. She hoped to become a medical doctor, though the worsening of her tuberculosis would force her to revise her plan.

Inge Auerbacher: A Voice for Justice and Reconciliation, Part 3

Other memories of Terezin stand out clearly in Inge’s mind, such as the visit of the International Red Cross. She recalls how parts of the camp were renovated, some prisoners were given extra clothes and food, an orchestra set up, a propaganda film produced. The Red Cross fell for the deception, and did nothing for the prisoners. The hunger, disease and transports continued on, the final transports happening in the fall of 1944. By sheer luck, Inge and both of her parents were spared from the transports.

The star Inge wore
The star Inge wore

In the spring of 1945, as the Allies closed in, the Nazis made their last attempts to kill the survivors of their death camps. At Terezin, the Nazis began to construct gas chambers, which were almost completed when the guards suddenly fled as the Allies advanced. Soon after the guards left, Terezin was liberated by the Soviet army on May 8, 1945. Still most prisoners could not leave because there was a typhus epidemic and they had to remain in quarantine. Tragically, many prisoners died from typhus following liberation.

In July 1945, a bus arrived to bring the survivors from the state of Wurttemberg back to Stuttgart, and Inge and her parents boarded the bus. Inge and her parents had come to Terezin on a transport of approximately 1,000 people. By the war’s end there were only thirteen survivors from that transport, including Inge and her parents. The war was over, but Inge’s family had terrible losses they would have to face.

Further Reading
Books by Inge Auerbacher
I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust
Beyond the Yellow Star to America

Inge Auerbacher: A Voice for Justice and Reconciliation, Part 2

Inge remembers the vast brick barracks of Terezin, which were surrounded by high walls, fences, barbed wire, and trenches filled with water, effectively cutting the inhabitants off from the rest of the world. The garrison town was supposed to have a capacity of 7,000, but as a concentration camp as many as 60,000 people were forced to live there in unbelievably crammed quarters. During the war, about 140,000 thousand people were sent to Terezin, more than half of whom were sent to death camps in the East. Though not a death camp, 35,000 prisoners died in Terezin from starvation and disease.

Inge's order for transport to Terezin
Inge’s order for transport to Terezin

Inge and her parents were sent to a cramped attic in one of the barracks. Later, they were moved to a section of Terezin reserved for disabled war veterans. The rooms were cramped, smelly and freezing in the winter, and for meals they had to assemble in long lines in the outdoor courtyard of the barracks. Breakfast was a sludgy, horrible tasting coffee, lunch consisted of watery soup, a potato and a few slices of turnip and dinner was more soup. Each week the family received a ration of bread, and struggled to make it last the week. Water was pumped from wells, many of them contaminated. Infestations of rats, fleas and bedbugs were widespread, disease was rampant, and epidemics broke out constantly. Inge was sick most of the time, beginning with the scarlet fever she contracted soon after arrival. She lay in the infirmary for four months, surviving many complications against all odds. After recovering from scarlet fever, Inge suffered from measles, mumps, a double ear infection and dysentery. She also suffered from head lice, and boils that erupted all over her body. When Inge was finally released, her hair was cut short and her scalp washed in disinfectant in an attempt to remove the lice. Her case was far from unusual, as most of the children were sick the majority of the time they were in Terezin.

Small Fortress at Terezin
Small Fortress at Terezin

Inge lived with her parents for most of her time in the camp, and since she was a German child in a population of primarily Czech Jews, there were few opportunities for learning or pursuing the arts. She often felt isolated from the Czech population, who tended to exclude the German Jews. Still, she did receive lessons from brave teachers who secretly taught children a variety of subjects from memory in attics or other places they could find some space. During our conversation, Inge reminded me that though art was created in Terezin, that does not mean that prisoners of Terezin were privileged. Some people tend to focus only on the art and theatrical productions and forget that the conditions in Terezin were as terrible as those in any ghetto, with starvation, disease and the constant fear of being transported East. Inge’s autobiography very clearly depicts the truly horrific conditions in Terezin, which we must not forget.

Prisoners at Terezin
Prisoners at Terezin

Further Reading:

Books by Inge Auerbacher (available on Amazon)
I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust
Beyond the Yellow Star to America