Many Questions and a Few Answers

by Robert Skloot

2022 NJTF HTII Lifetime Achievement Award
AHO Winter Conference, Miami, FL

I’d like to begin my remarks by asking the question that all of us have been asked often: “Why do you do the work you do?”

There are, of course, many answers, but I’d imagine that most of us would point to a sort of personal, necessary compulsion to spend time, and invite others to spend time, thinking about and feeling about one of the most tragic and influential events of human history. And because most of us are artists and scholars, we are obliged to use the skills and experiences we have to report on what we have learned,

Of course, much has been said and written about the importance of studying, teaching and performing our understanding of the Holocaust and even doing it with laughter; the best example of this were the Jews of Theresienstadt who performed music, cabaret and theatre as ways to resist the exterminatory mission of the Nazis. Doing this, they also preserved, and increased, the amount of Jewish culture that would be left as their legacy for us even if they didn’t survive.

Theatre, music, film, art and dance are today, because of you, the five fingers of the hand of this mission of ours, in doing what we do. Let’s just say that what we are doing is necessary for the health of our culture and our responsibilities to history.

For a generation I taught a class called “The Theatre of the Holocaust” at the University of Wisconsin. (I also was a director.) Students had many questions about the Holocaust, and sought answers for them. Their interest was aroused by different provocations: because some had contact with a Holocaust survivor or children of survivors, because some had familial (ancestral) connections, because some had seen a Holocaust movie or read its poetry or were touched by a work of art or a photographic exhibit. One student revealed that his reason for taking the class was to get closer to his Jewish girlfriend.

We always began the class by advancing a key question to think about for the semester: if you had been there at that time and place, what would you have done? Some of you know Harold and Edith Lieberman’s play Throne of Straw; it was premiered at our University Theatre. It concludes with the character Yankele, a jokester and a realist, one of the few survivors of the deportation of the Jews of Lodz, Poland. Yankele challenges the audience thus: “Don’t feed me your dinner table morals about how they should have behaved. Only say what you would have done.”

The students were asked to think about and imagine themselves inhabiting the lives of perpetrators and victims as we read together plays that raised the most moral and ethical questions of all and every time. They could grapple and argue with what the great historian Raul Hilberg called the “triptych” of victim, perpetrator and bystander; they come to realize that these three categories are no longer discrete. At the class’s final meetings, we talked about the lessons that the Holocaust teaches and the answers were often difficult, different and diverse. Which is to say and to realize that there is, and can be, no simple answers for the questions that the Holocaust leaves for us to consider.

As creators and purveyors of Holocaust “performances” we have been criticized for good and bad reasons. The nay-sayers and mis-understanders make our work more difficult to be sure. But like many of you, I have taken more than solace or refuge in our work. I also take courage, and determination to hold fast to the struggle to repair and reimagine the genocidal world into a more just and peaceful place through telling stories that can relieve suffering, prevent violence, destroy stigma and insure the recognition of human dignity for all. One of the (less obvious) things we do is sign on to the work of social justice.

But the forms and challenges of our work have changed, and rightly so. New understandings of history and experience and new needs of audiences to confront new social and artistic conditions challenge earlier assumptions that informed previous generations, including my own. But two other questions remain constant, inquiries that have preoccupied people since Euripides wrote the first western play about genocide, The Trojan Women, 2,500 years ago: why do we do evil? and, why do we do good?

Insights may be gained by seeing plays about people in danger and in struggle: Rumkowski in Lodz, Gens in Vilna, Gerron in Theresienstadt, Korczak, Kastner, Karski Sophie Scholl, Inge Deutschkron, and the murdered companions of Charlotte Delbo brought to life and to their deaths through art. Their stories raise questions worth examining and pondering by students and anyone else seeking a foundation upon which to base an ethical life.

Lastly, you know that one of the attractions that brought us together is the founding of the extraordinary resource called the Holocaust Theatre Catalog housed at the Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami. It is the repository of our theatrical-historical past that will enable us to define our performative ethical future. The Catalog will assist people like us in the work of integrating Holocaust plays into theatre seasons and school curricula and, in the largest sense, contribute to finding the answers to our most urgent and existential questions.

I want to close with an expression of gratitude to you, my colleagues. Together, we are the five fingers of the artistic hand that is extended to others, for dispensing  information, inspiring resistance, defining the parameters of an ethical life and for encouraging and modelling empathy, without which we would surely perish. You are not alone; many others await shaking your extended hand. I believe that theatre itself is a strategy to prevent genocide. It is a place where, in the words of the playwright Erik Ehn, “what was taken away, what was cast in ruin, must be restored through story.”

I dedicate these remarks to my friend and colleague Arnold Mittelman, President of the National Jewish Theater Foundation Director Holocaust Theater International Initiative


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