Otto Aurich & Lisl Frank

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Cabaret in the Face of Death
By Volker Kühn


Volker Kühn entered radio and TV by way of journalism. He spent four years in the USA; in Frankfurt while editor at the Hessischer Rundfunk he wrote and produced a satirical program for over 10 years. Since 1970, Volker Kühn has been a freelance author and director, responsible for many radio plays and features, stage plays, cabaret programs, musicals, TV shows, and a "dada-apocalyptical" work that ran for hundreds of performances. He wrote five volumes and a TV documentary (ZDF) on "100 Years of German Cabaret." Some of his other documentaries explore entertainment under the Third Reich and cabaret in concentration camps. He has published record collections as well as countless books on cabaret and satire, among them several books on composer Friedrich Holländer. His play "Marlene," about Marlene Dietrich, has had more than 500 performances. Volker Kühn is a member of PEN and the recipient of several prizes for his work. He lives in Berlin. Since 2004 Member of All About Jewish Theatre Editorial Board.
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"Listen to me! The Germans do not want to destroy only our bodies, no! They want our soul! Do you understand? They try to enter into our soul. They are determined to let their bullets enter our bodies and their spirit our souls. Do you understand? Our fight against them must be a spiritual fight. We won't defeat them with our fists, but with our mind!"

After the man cried out this burning appeal, he took a sip from the bottle and muttered, "There is no future in the Ghetto. No future." Then, suddenly, one hears songs in Yiddish, people dance and sing. "The SS men in their black scull-uniforms appear to be amused, some inmates turn their backs, others clap and join in. A poster is rolled up on stage. "One does not play theatre in a cemetery!" is written on it.

This macabre scene is from the play "Ghetto" by the Israeli author Joshua Sobol, performed in Berlin and Hamburg several years ago. It was not fiction brought onto the stage, but the re-enacted, horrible reality of the year 1943: in the Ghetto of Vilna, where ten of thousands of Jews, crowded together in the most cramped of spaces and guarded by the SS, dreading being taken away and killed, theatre was played. "I did not believe my eyes when I saw the documents from Vilna", Joshua Sobol tells me, whom I meet between two rehearsals in the Habima-Theatre in Tel Aviv, "and then I knew that this is a theatre play." What he did not know then: Vilna was everywhere. Like this or similarly, cabaret was played in ghettos, camps and concentration camps, in Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, in Mauthausen and Westerbork, in Börgermor and Esterwegen. Cabaret as an atmospheric drug to keep those destined for death quiet was first tolerated by the guarding troops, later ordered; cabaret as an opportunity for survival, as a means of encouragement and act of resistance, performed by masters in the subject, was on the programme at Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka until the bitter end.

Hardly any of those who under the gallows fought even for a smile survived the inferno. Theatre in the cemetery? Viktor Matejka, the Viennese politician for cultural affairs, flies in a friendly but decisive way into a rage: "One plays theatre in all kind of places, not only in the cemetery!" As a "political" prisoner, he had convinced the SS in Dachau to allow them to play theatre in the courtyard of the camp in the open air. "Hitler's regime was the biggest despotism one can think of. Everything is allowed. Theatre and cabaret, whatever you want. Sheer survival was at stake."

Louis de Wijze, today owner of a factory in Nijmegen, agrees. He performed at the age of 20 in the Dutch transit camp Westerbork, from where the notorious transports to the east started, at the cabaret stage that was established at the express wish of the SS by German cabaret masters Willy Rosen and Max Ehrlich: "You can't explain this afterwards. You are in such a camp. You live from week to week. Every Tuesday the train arrives. If you are not among those who go on a transport, you utter a sigh of relief: gone. Without you. You are still needed, you tell yourself. You received a short delay. Until next Tuesday." Also later in Auschwitz he tried everything to make himself indispensable, he played football – "Jews against criminals" – and played cabaret: "In Monowitz we had somebody who could walk like Chaplin. We laughed tears. And the morning after they kept hanging people." They wanted to encourage their co-prisoners to hold out to the end. They wanted to lower the suicide rate in the camps. And they counted on humour as a weapon and on laughing as a healing force. Until the bitter end. Only a few days before his death, the formerly famous entertainer Fritz Grünbaum gave in Dachau his last performance and made fun of the misery of his situation. His bitter jokes were spread throughout the camp. Once, when a guard refused to give him a bar of soap, Grünbaum fretted: "One who has not got enough money for soap, should not keep concentration camps." He died in 1941 from exhaustion, emaciated to a skeleton, like his 'KadeKo' colleague Paul Morgan in Buchenwald.

"Nothing went without humour. This is how I managed to survived six years imprisonment in the KZ", states Erwin Geschonnneck in hindsight, "only with humour could we drag people out of lethargy and apathy and encourage them." The later-to-be actor of Brecht and star of the Defa was artistically active in the camp with and without the permission of the KZ guards. He played sketches in Dachau and performed as main actor on a stage they made themselves which signified for him the world, he sang songs from the Three Penny Opera in Sachsenhausen in secret and recited the tale of the emperor's new clothes, he composed camp songs in Neuengamme which his Czech co-prisoner and colleague Emil F. Burian wrote for him: "Our daily bread is hard bread. It tastes of blood, it tastes of sweat, it tastes of tears." Humour is laughing despite it all, says Geschonneck, and shows me in Dachau the spot, where in summer 1943 under the open sky and in front of the SS, performing as the bloodthirsty knight Adolar he made fun of the Gröfaz [="Grössster Führer aller Zeiten", biggestest leader of all times, nickname for Adolf Hitler] of Braunau – next to the barracks where the uniforms of shot co-prisoners underwent disinfection. The frightening murder spectacle was called "The Blood Night at the Schreckenstein oder This is not True Love", a spooky macabre play written by one of the prisoners, the Viennese journalist Rudolf Kalmar, in the camp. It was modeled after the "Pradler Ritterspiele", those brash pieces of naive-macabre popular art that are played in Vienna to this very day in which people plunder, ravage, stab and behead to their hearts’ content. This only barely disguised satire on Hitler was performed for six weeks, applauded by the prisoners and smiled at without much understanding by the SS guards. Then the play was dismissed.

Why they were allowed to play in the first place, is explained by Viktor Matejka: "Luck in war was declining. We in Dachau were then used for the production of weapons, we were needed." Humour, satire and irony were used by KZ inmates already 10 years before as means for moral rearmament. Guenter Daus, old communist and trade union leader, tells about the beginnings of the so-called Schutzhaftlager [protective custody camps] in the Emsland, where the Nazis wanted to re-educate their political enemies immediately after Hitler gained power. Daus describes what is was like: "It was in summer '33. There was the night of the long boards: SA people wildly beat on us with sticks in which they had hammered rusty nails. The aim of this action was to humiliate us, to take away our self-confidence." Daus and co-inmates fought back – with a cabaret performance. 'Zirkus Konzentrazani' the colourful programme was called, which was performed in August on the main square of the camp at Börgermoor mainly by amateur actors who transcended above their fate with acrobatic performances, clown games, stale jokes – "Humor is when one is in the Hu! Moor". Even then, the pros and cons of such KZ activity were intensely discussed, the critics among them suspecting that the Nazis would use their fun for propaganda.

"But the success proved us right!" says Guenter Daus. In his voice one hears even today, after nearly sixty years, defiant pride. At any rate, a song written in the camp was performed for the first time in this circus performance, which, smuggled outside the camp by prisoners and taken abroad, soon afterwards became the musical symbol of anti-fascist resistance: "Die Moorsoldaten". The camp song was forbidden. And with it the cabaret. But soon afterwards, in one of the neighbouring moor camps, there was again reason for laughing, if only for an hour. The short scene, which took place in 1935 in Esterwegen, was performed by professionals of their metier. Among them were the popular Berlin cabaret perfomers Werner Finck, Guenther Lueders and Walter Gross, who were convicted by Goebbels to "six weeks of camp with labour", to make an example.

It was cabaret by order. The camp authority was bored. Finck joked as he used to do: "You will ask yourselves why we are so merry and jolly. Well, there are reasons for that: In Berlin we haven't been like that for a long time. The opposite is true: every time we performed we had this unpleasant feeling. We were afraid to come to a KZ. And now, you see, we don't have to be afraid any longer – we are in a KZ anyway!" Walter Gross also delivered humour, although he did not feel like it. "We were tormented, day and night. They woke us up from sleep and ordered us to do knee-bends. They had us cart sand from one corner of the camp to the other. And then back again." Did he know then who was responsible for this "special treatment", I ask him. "Of course. This was Goebbel's own idea. That also become clear in trial."

The above mentioned trial was held a year later, in October 1936, at a Special Court in Berlin. The indictment “Violation of the Law of Malice” related to a piece from "Tingel-Tangel" and a sketch from "Katakombe", where Finck commented on his raised right hand with "Aufgehobene Rechte" [a pun which cannot be translated: it means 'raised right (hand)', but also that rights (laws) no longer exist]. The trial ended with acquittal. But Goebbels had made his mark. Espeically Werner Finck, whose ability to get stuck in the thicket of words of his half-finished sentences and who had the audience finish his muttering sentences, was early on a thorn in the Nazi's side. After Hitler gained power, his seemingly harmless punch lines were also circulated outside Berlin. People said that he had asked the police informers who sat in the audience and wrote down each word, whether they would get along [writing down his jokes] or whether he had to come along [with them]. Goebbels closed the cabarets "Katakombe" and "Tingel-Tangel" on 10 May 1935 and the actors were arrested. I meet the woman who remembers this evening as if it were yesterday, at the main house of the 'Society of the Nuns of the Holiest Heart of Jesus" in Bonn. She lives here. Then, more then 50 years ago, Sister Isa Vermehren stood every evening on the stage as "Göre mit der Knautschkommode" ('Lass' with the Accordion) and sang fresh-merry-jolly-freely cunning sailor songs as a 17-year old teenager. "I arrived, since my slot was usually rather late, at 10, half past 10 to the cabaret", she recalls, "and everything was dark. There was only a lost waiter and the chairs were still on the tables. Friends then told me that had happened: Werner Fincke and Rudolf Platte and all the others were arrested and the "Katakombe" closed. They urged me to get away from Berlin. That's what I did."

Not her songs, however, brought her one year before the end of the war to the concentration camp. The stations of her "journey through the last act", as she calls it, were Ravensbrueck, Buchenwald and Dachau; the reason was simple: her brother fled from Ankara to the British-occupied Cairo. This meant detainment based on kin relations. Cabaret in the KZ? She shakes her head. "No, no. Ravensbrueck was a pure female camp. There something like that was not possible. The will to annihilation, which was the basis of these camps, was obvious. We worked to complete exhaustion. But maybe one reason is that women in general are less experienced with internment. They were separated from their families, their children. The disorientation was eminent. Perhaps men have another way of behaving in a structure such as this." She performed there once, twice. She sang Bach and Händel and "Die Gedanken sind frei" [Thoughts are free]. This was like a signal, she says.

Up on the hardly forested hill in front of the gates to Jerusalem I meet Ruth Elias from Mährisch-Ostrau, who found forty years ago a new home here in Israel. She brought her accordion with her. Ruth Elias sings the anthem of Theresienstadt to me, that song which was popular in the Ghetto like no other: "Hooray, tomorrow life begins, the day comes nearer when we will pack our bundles and return home. Everything goes if one only wants it. Let's extend our hands! And we will laugh at the debris of the Ghetto!" These lines encouraged people, gave them power and assurance, says the woman and looks down to the valley. There is Yad Vashem, the memorial site for the victims of the Holocaust. Many of those whose names are registered there died with these lines on their lips, she says. The Czech comic and cabaret artist, Karel Svenk, who wrote these lines, could not provide himself with the hope he gave to others. Tomas Kosta, a native Czech who lives today as publisher in Bergisch Gladbach, tells me about his end: "I knew him from Theresienstadt, there he played cabaret revues, wrote the texts and the lyrics and put them on stage. This was more critical and also more poetic than most of what was offered there. Later we were together in Auschwitz and its attached camp Meuselwitz. As late as April 1945 we were squeezed together in cattle trains to be brought to Mauthausen. Karel Svenk could not cope with it. First his spirit left him, then he was completely confused and also physically exhausted. He died during the transport. That happened in the vicinity of Karlsberg, during an airplane attack. He was not yet 40 years old. We buried him next to the railway lines as well as we could."

The song, which speaks about laughing on the debris of the Ghetto, is finished. One feels that Ruth Elias has sung it often. She sung it also in the camps, in Theresienstadt and others. New Year's Eve 1944, for example, it was in the attached camp Taucha. There the women sat together and started singing songs from their home countries – Hungary, France, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia. Ruth Elias wrote a new text to a melody by Lehar: "Here stands a prisoner in his prisoner's clothes…" This was the only song in German. "Suddenly the commander of the camp stands behind me. I thought that this is the end. Then he said to me, 'Within ten days you raise a complete cabaret programme.' I had never done something like this before and I told him. Then he snubbed, 'If you don’t obey, you’ll go to jail!’ and left. We managed to do it together, especially the gypsies were excellent. And the greatest satisfaction was that the SS who applauded. And we told them between the lines one thing or another in our language which they could not understand."

These songs were her only weapon then, she says. "They empowered us." Ruth Elias needed this power. She survived Auschwitz, gave birth to a child there. KZ physician Mengele provided for the baby. He forbid the mother to breastfeed, because he wanted to find out how long it would live without food. Ruth Elias shortened the struggle of her child: she killed it with her own hands. She speaks silently about it, nearly detached. She thinks about every word, says silently what there is to say. And she only speaks about it today. She kept silent for forty years. Her sons, both in their mid-30s, heard about it only when she published a report on her life as book two years ago: "Hope Kept Me Alive." The title is a programme. It could also have been a title for one of her cabaret performances.

Jetty Cantor of Hilversum, the grand old lady of the Dutch cabaret, sang as well during all her life against the sorrow inflicted upon her, first the Amsterdam Ghetto theatre, in which the SS herded the Jews together to send them in cattle wagons on the transport to the East, then in the KZ, in Westerbork and Theresienstadt. There she bid her sister with her two young children farewell, a farewell for good. In autumn 1944 she herself came to Auschwitz: “First they took my violin away. Then I saw those huge flames and the smoke. I thought that this is the kitchen for all the many thousand people. But it was the gas chamber. And then I was called to the rehearsal. Rehearsal? In Auschwitz? Yes, they said, we should play, in front of the gas chamber. I can’t do this, I said. Just imagine: my family or friends go into the oven and I play music to it. Then they fetched me.” She does not know how she survived the prison of death. She never did. And she never understood what actually happened. “One day they told me: you are a Jewess. I did not really know what that means. I had never been in a synagogue.”

When she was freed, she was only skin and bones. Months later she still could only walk with the help of crutches. “I spent the most beautiful time of my life in Germany, I went to school there when my mother played theatre there. And I always loved Germany. It hurt twice as much that it was Germans who did all this to me.” She knows the Berlin of the early 1930s, recorded records there and sang for the German radio. Richard Tauber gave her a precious ashtray as a present. Joseph Schmidt, also famous in those years, had a box of chocolate made for her because she sang “Ein Stern fällt vom Himmel” (A star falls down from the sky), his lied, so impressively. She admits today that she preferred to co-operate with German artists. “They are always so accurate, on time and precise. Willy Rosen was like that as well. He wrote the most beautiful songs for me. A fantastic man, a true artist. But all of them were like that.”

All of them, these are the imprisoned artists of Westerbork, the transit camp close to the German-Dutch border where during World War II more than 100,000 Jews, Dutch and German emigrants were herded together. In the bleak camp in the heath all the well-known cabaret artists of the cabaret scene of Berlin and Vienna who fled in 1933 from Hitler to the neighbouring Netherlands were gathered: the entertainers Max Ehrlich and Franz Engel, the comedian Otto Wallburg, Hermann Feiner and Josef Baar, the cabaret performers Chaja Goldstein and Alice Dorell, dancers and musicians such as Otto Aurich and Erich Ziegler, the old champions of the cabaret, Rudolf Nelson, the former stars of his Berlin revues, Camilla Spira and Kurt Gerron and finally Willy Rosen, the cabaret-playing composer of popular songs, who was one of the main attractions of the “Kabarett der Komiker” in Berlin with his famous usual announcement “Text and lyrics by myself”.

SS-Obersturmfuehrer [sergeant major?] Gemmeker, the camp commander, is a friend of the “light muse”. In the government barracks, from where those sentenced to death are sent in wagons to Auschwitz and Sobibor, he has a stage built; the boards used for it are from a demolished synagogue in the nearby town. Instruments are brought in, the expansive curtains were requisitioned, the costumes ‘put in safekeeping’ from exclusive fashion shops. The revues which Max Ehrlich and Willy Rosen perform here in their “Buehne Lager Westerbork” are called “Humour and Melody”, “Bravo da capo!” or “Totally crazy”. Westerbork gains the macabre reputation of being the “stronghold of European cabaret”. Songs from operettas, popular songs, witty couplets and silly sketches, ballet numbers and performed jokes. And in the first row, surrounded by his staff: the commander in a big armchair. “And the people laughed and applauded” – it was like being in Berlin at the Kurfuerstendamm”, recalls Camilla Spira who sang there once again her successful songs from the “Weisses Rösl”, “we were suddenly somewhere else. You can’t imagine that. The people down there, they forgot everything during those two hours.”

Etty Hillesum kept a diary in Westerbork until her deportation. “Oh dear”, is written there, “the hall is crowded to capacity. And one laughs tears, yes, tears!” Philipp Mechanicus notes shortly before his deportation: “All of us sit in dirt up to our neck and one sings nevertheless. A psychological riddle. Operetta next to an open grave… Making fun, one sounds the death-haloo.” One plays always, when transports arrive or leave for the East. “That was the most horrible thing,” says Jetty Cantor, “how often we had to say good-bye to parents and siblings, to good friends and acquaintances at the train. How can you go back to the stage, be funny and make people laugh afterwards?” Those who performed in the cabaret hoped for better chances for survival. Willy Rosen, for example, wrote for the camp stage: “Life makes no sense for those who don’t have luck. If you haven’t got luck, you slip and fall over. So I ask you, Fortuna, be faithful, touch wood, touch wood, toi-toi-toi!” Max Ehrlich showed optimism as a post coachman in biedermeyer style: “Always slowly forwards, always with good nature, it’s not time yet, we still have time.”

In the beginning of August 1944 time had come. Commander Gemmeker closed the camp theatre and sent its actors on transport, railway wagons rolled via Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. “He smiled us to Auschwitz”, said Jetty Castor bitterly. And Camilla Spira adds: “Max Ehrlich, Willy Rosen, Franz Engel, Otto Wallburg – all murdered. All.” When Jetty Castor arrived in Theresienstadt, she met many acquaintances from better days. Here they performed as well, played theatre, played music, danced and sang. An enormous cultural variety, from symphony concerts, operas, operettas, lectures and cabarets, is meant to give the ghetto impression of being an exemplary camp and deceive international aid organisations about the real fate Jews were facing there. A farce. Cabaret groups played in basements, in back yards and lofts. One can hear a jazz band playing the “Negro music”, hated by the Nazis, in a coffeehouse – with the “Tiger Rag” and the “St. Louis Blues”. Here Cantor begins as a singer.

I meet the bandleader of the “Ghetto Swingers” in Emerson, a little place on the American West Coast. Martin Roman, also far into his 80s, recalls the order: “The commander had told me: I want you to sound American and to swing. You have to jazz, so that sparks and ties will fly..” Martin Roman is a professional musician, he was a pianist with the world-famous “Weintraub Syncopators” and played in the orchestra of Marek Weber and later travelled Europe with his own band. One can hardly count the camps he survived: Vught, Westerbork and Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Oranienburg, Sachsenhausen, Kaufering and in the end there was the death march to Wolfratshausen. He survived everything, he says, with music. “Music saved my life.” In Theresienstadt he was once called to the commander: “That was an SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer [sergeant-major?]. His name was Rahm. He told me: Roman, I have another task for you. I want to have a new cabaret. Its name is ‘Karussell’ [roundabout]. Kurt Gerron is the director, you know him from Holland. You will make the music to it.” Co-operation with Gerron was just wonderful, says Roman. He tries to remember playing at the untuned piano: “We ride on wooden horses and are swirled around, only when we stop dizzly, we will see where we stand.” Kurt Gerron sang the song on the round-about himself, alsoi songs from the Three-Penny Opera.

Annie Frey, living in the Viennese Hutweidengasse, remembers it well. Above her bed-sofa hangs a drawing with a dedication: “For my dear colleague with my sincere thanks for your wonderful co-operation on the premiere of the ‘Karussell’. Theresienstadt, 3 May 1944. Kurt Gerron.” The famous artist, cabaretist and director, who had played Tiger Brown in the Berlin first performance of the Three Penny Opera and who stood in front of the UFA camera as cabaret director in the ‘Blauer Engel’ with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings, found a task again. He cared for everything, organised, initiated and fought. “He insisted that each of us get a large, spacious warderobe,” says Annie Frey. “Where would you have that?”

Also the Schönova, Vlasta Schön of Prague, then in her early 20s, played theatre in Theresienstadt. First in her mother tongue, then in German. Her best role was the ‘Loved Voice’ of Cocteau. “I have been asking myself for the last forty years why we did that. Because the audience wanted it? Because the actors wanted to play? Yes, I wanted to play. That was my life!” Nava Shan, as she is called since she moved to Israel after her liberation, relates an incident which nearly put off one of her premieres. “It was after the dress rehearsal. We went to the loft where we wanted to play and saw that our stage was full of dead bodies. Fifty or sixty, nobody knew where they came from. We asked the blind people living in this house to form a line and take the bodies out. The premiere was held as planned.” Kurt Gerron wanted her for his “Karussell”, but that was too nostalgic for her. “’Cabaret statt Kabarett’ [‘cabaret is apolitical, entertainment only, while ‘Kabarett’ has got a critical, political view]. In my opinion that was sticking to the past, in the so-called good old times. We theatre people preferred to think about the future. We rehearsed what we wanted to play in Prague after the war.” When the delegations of the Red Cross arrived, the fat was in the fire. “At each corner, music was played, without pausing. Like in an amusement park. It was horrible. People were fooled by this.”

Then Himmler had the idea to make a propaganda movie, in which Theresienstadt, this waiting room for the trip into death, should be marketed as the “Paradise Ghetto Theresienbad”. The cruel idea: Jews should manage it by themselves. Kurt Gerron was chosen, the experienced UFA director. The film title was “The Fuehrer gives the Jews a town.” Gerron obeyed. The Ghetto, in which more than 30,000 died, in which one did not live but vegetate, in which diseases, fame and frost raged, this ghetto, from where more than 80,000 people were deported to death camps, became a film scene in late summer 1944.

Old and sick people were deported to Auschwitz to free up space. Parcels were distributed which were not to be opened, bread which was not to be eaten, cigars which were not to be smoked. Theresienstadt – a “Potemkin village”. “Gerron forgot everything around him. He stuck obstinately to his new task, was the big director, played Hollywood.” The person saying this is Coco Schumann, who came to the camp as a 17-year old. The very young piano player started as a drummer for the ‘Ghetto Swingers’, his predecessor had been deported. A pavilion was built for the band at the market square, they received white shirts – everything for the movie. “It was one big lie”, says Coco, “and everybody knew it.” Later he had to play in Auschwitz for the SS and in front of the gas chamber: “La Paloma” and “Alte Kameraden”. [Old Comrades, a song commemorating war camaraderie]

I walk with Lisl Hofer through Theresienstadt. The streets are empty. At the market square plays loud rock music from loudspeaker boxes, some twenty, thirty teenagers stand around rather aimlessly. Lisl Hofer is looking for the house in which she used to live then. “Lived”. “We vegetated like animals. 18, 20 people in a single room. Among them old people, sick, dying. Simply misery.” When she found the house, we enter the inner court. The current tenants are suspicious. She tries to explain. Ghetto? They do not understand her. They only know about the little fortress outside town. There was once the “princip” imprisoned, the one who fired the shots in Sarajevo; that’s how, so one says, the first world war started. Later on the fascists tortured communist resistance fighters. That’s about all.

Lisl Hofer was a beginning soubrette when the Germans marched into Austria. She went then to Prague, met Hans Hofer and married him. One from the Hofer dynasty, all of them gifted comedians. They had a cabaret together in Theresienstadt, the Hofer cabaret – entertaining, Viennese songs, operettas, something for the people. Today she lives in Rostock. We try to enter the Hamburg barracks where Gerron’s cabaret was located. Only a few weeks ago this would not have been possible – since the end of the war the army has been there again. Theresienstadt, initially built as a fortress, is again what it was meant to be from the very beginning: an army base. The press officer is understanding, after some to and fro we are allowed to enter: an empty inner court. In the long corridors listless recruits. Nothing apart from them.

Lisl Hofer speaks about the propaganda movie. Hans Hofer was there as Gerron’s assistant director. He also appeared with his cabaret in front of the camera, outside in the gorge of Drabschitz. It was not done in high spirits – the SS stood behind the camera with drawn guns.
We return to the hotel in Prague. I have got an appointment with Ivan Fric, the Czech camera man who filmed then, at the age of 22, under Gerron’s direction, the propaganda movie. In the lobby of the hotel I meet Tomas Kosta who had told me about the life and death of Karel Svenk. “The film was a lie and we knew that. Gerron fooled himself, he hoped to be able to save his life.” Günter Grass and Walter Höllerer join in – they will give a prize to their colleague Vaclav Havel at the Hradschin the next day. But Kosta has got another reason to visit his old home country. He wants to show his adult children the place to which he was deported as a 17-year old. “Do you know it?” he asks me. “I come from there. “ “You were in the Ghetto?” “Yes.” “What is your impression?” “My impression is that the people living there today have not got a clue where they are.” “True. I will speak about this with my Czech friends. The small fortress is a memorial for political prisoners. In the Ghetto itself there is no single sign, nothing commemorating the fact that tens of thousands of Jews were brought together from the whole of Europe to deport them to Auschwitz. That was in the line of the old political regime. This is also something which has to be taken care of now.”

In the meantime Ivan Fric has arrived, agile in his late 60s. He speaks about the humiliations which the US inflicted upon the former UFA star. They insisted that he personally perform as well, also in front of the camera. Gerron perspired, was ill, sang Mackie Messer, tried all the tricks of his popular art, tried to make some jokes – the audience ordered to be there did not move and sat there silently.

Then he was sent away, says Fric. The film was finished without him. With the last big transport, in October 1944, straight to Auschwitz. Straight into the gas chamber. “I saw him in Theresienstadt at the ramp”, says Vlasta Schön. “The train was ready to leave. Gerron fell on his knees and asked for permission to stay. He said: I made this movie for you! The SS boots kicked him inside the wagon.”

They played for their life. They gave hope and confidence to themselves and to others, even then, when everything was lost. They did not want to believe it. Gerron’s colleague Kurt Kapper, an author for cabaret as well, then wrote the bitter necrolog, anticipating evil for himself and his kind: “We thank you, good Jew, we say it to you frankly: pack your suitcases now, be so kind, because you are now in line for Poland.”

The few who survived the inferno are still at a loss. “I don’t understand it”, says Louis de Wijze, “how is that possible. Those wonderful artists. What they achieved then. Under these conditions. Then, then the play was over and one did not need them any longer, one says, thank you and simply puts them into the oven?” “A nightmare”, says Jetty Cantor in Hilversum. “And you dream about it again and again. But the worst is that you wake up, wet with perspiration, and you know that is not a bad dream, no, it was really like that.”

A journey is coming to its end. The attempted approach to a past, which was once the present of our parents and grandparents. A nightmare without moral. There are only questions without an answer. “I know only one thing”, says Annie Frey of Vienna. “Singing saved my life. More than once.” 


Translated in to English by Nancy Chapple

Dirk Mulder, Ben Prinsen (eds.), Lachen im Dunkeln. Amüsement im Lager Westerbork, Münster 1997, p. 15-31.


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