I was recently contacted by an academic, Dr Samantha Mitschke, who specialises in British and American theatre about the Holocaust, about an old play of mine ‘The Last Days of Adam’. She is planning to use it at a conference ‘Lessons and Legacies’ at Washington University in St Louis (1st - 4th November) along with two other works.
A workshop is planned entitled "Holocaust Theatre and the Quest for Empathy," and the participants will have three case studies: The Diary of Anne Frank, Primo by Antony Sher, and my play, which I published in 2015. ‘The workshop involves looking at how writers have adapted Holocaust diaries and memoirs for the stage, and the various factors of empathy involved, including an overview of empathy theory, notions of empathic factors, and so on.’ says Samantha and has asked me for my memories of the process.
Fortunately, a few of those memories are already in print, in a collection of essays I published last year, called ‘Orwell, Two Guinea Pigs, A Cat and A Goat’. In that collection is a post-script, to an essay about the Judenrat leader Jacob Gens, who ran the Vilna Ghetto. The post-script talks about my experience with ‘Voices of the Holocaust’, a theatre company I was heavily involved with for two years, and the off shoot of that experience, the writing of ‘The Last Days of Adam: The True Story of Adam Czerniakow’.
I have to say, it’s rather an unexpected honour to be included as part of an academic conference in the States and alongside such illustrious texts. Anne Frank’s is probably the most famous diary of the Holocaust and Anthony Sher is an actor I’ve admired since I first saw him in a blistering TV adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s ‘The History Man’.
I had ‘True Story’ as part of the title of my play because I very much tried to make the play a ‘document’ which condensed and closely ‘translated’ Czerniakow’s own diary onto the stage. It will, therefore, be interesting to hear back from Samantha about how the participants to the workshop respond and interpret my interpretation of events.
The play itself had its earliest origins in another play I help write called ‘Fragile Fire’. ‘Fragile Fire’ was a play written and devised by ‘Voices’ a small touring theatre company. ‘Fire’ was largely concerned with Mordechai ‘Angel’ Anielewicz and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the character I played was Adam Czerniakow. Czerniakow died halfway through ‘Fire’, which in fact was largely a physical theatre piece perhaps less concerned with a text ‘heavy’ version of events as the dramatic, visceral portrayal of events. Perhaps the last quarter of the play, was a set piece of flying bodies, jumping and diving off a spinning scaffolding. The scaffolding was on wheels, and I was the pivot with the fate of four or five other actors, literally in my hands, with the colossal frame occasionally heading rather closer to the edge, of the variously sized stages we performed on than I necessarily felt comfortable with!
Anyway, from the research and creation of that character and that play, I decided the story of Czerniakow himself was worth telling. Part of the reason being related to, I think, Yehuda Bauer’s notion of ‘Perpetrator, bystander, victim’. This trilogy of types, involved in the events of the Holocaust, was one we used in our workshops and teaching sessions pre- or post the show. And in a sense, Czerniakow seemed to fit all three ‘types’. The Judenrat of the Ghettoes, created by the Nazi’s, were essentially Jewish councils who were given the job of running matters within the Ghetto. Leaders of the Judenrat came in a variety of types, Gens, for instance, was a much harder and harsher character than Czerniakow, and perhaps due to that, it might be said he was much closer to being a ‘Perpetrator’ than a victim. Czerniakow was a subtler, gentler man and certainly conceived his task as one of trying to ameliorate the suffering of the Jewish community in the Ghetto. In the end, he certainly realised that he had been duped or played the fool by the Nazi’s who really had never really intended to ‘live and let live’ when it came to the Jews. The Ghettoes were not an apartheid, they were a step, a part of a process, toward the Holocaust. How clearly the pathway to genocide was laid out is a matter of debate, but certainly, the Nazi’s generally knew that the Judenrat and its people were mere instruments to be discarded when the time came.
Like many Jews and others at the time, Czerniakow thought eventually things would ‘blow over’, there had been ghettoes and pogroms before, the majority would survive it was a case of protecting as many as possible for as long as possible, until a brighter day. Tragically it was a very dark night he was walking into. Eventually, he took his own life. The ways in which he combined the three ‘types’ of Bauer’s are not so much investigated in the play as merely portrayed. The ‘True Story’ is really ‘this is how he felt, this is what he did’. It is less didactic and more open-ended, in a sense, than it could have been, at least, that was the intention.
The participants of the conference may well have differing perspectives, but if the play stirs any of the debates in any way it will have served its purpose.