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'Theater of despair'

Hinda Tzivia Eisen, Northeastern’s 2013–2014 Gideon Klein Scholar, began her lecture at the university’s Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion on Tuesday morning by asking a rhetorical question: Could the West­er­bork Cabaret, a per­for­mance troupe comprising inmates at a World War II detention camp in the Netherlands, be revived with the same spirit in which it was orig­i­nally intended?

The answer, Eisen later told the audience of about 100 students, faculty, and staff, was a resounding no—“not because you couldn’t sing the songs, translate the scripts, tell the same jokes,” she said, “but because the audience and the milieu no longer exist in society today.”

Eisen’s lecture kicked off Northeastern’s annual Holo­caust Awareness Week, which is presented by the Human­i­ties Center and the College of Social Sciences and Human­i­ties in part­ner­ship with the Holo­caust Awareness Committee. Titled “Remembrance and Resti­tu­tion,” the com­mem­o­ra­tive and edu­ca­tional series of events —including a panel discussion, a survivor talk, and a film screening—aim to reflect on the Holocaust’s legacy in the 21st century.

Following Eisen’s talk, two Northeastern researchers discussed their expe­ri­ences in leading a group of under­grad­uate students on a Holocaust-​​themed Dialogue of Civ­i­liza­tions program to Germany and Poland last summer. Natalie Bormann and Veronica Cza­stkiewicz, an aca­d­emic specialist and a doctoral can­di­date in the political science department, respectively, explored the ethics of visiting sites of trauma and chron­i­cled the challenges of nav­i­gating today’s landscape of Holo­caust memorials.

Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, underscored the value of the week­long com­mem­o­ra­tion in his intro­duc­tory remarks. “Holo­caust Awareness Week reminds us that indif­fer­ence to evil is the same as complicity,” he said. “We are here to remember the victims of geno­cide and to honor those who have worked against it.”

Eisen’s pre­sen­ta­tion honored a score of German-​​Jewish inmates at the West­er­bork detention camp, who staged six theatrical pro­duc­tions from July 1943 to June 1944. Located in the northeast region of the Netherlands, the camp famously housed Anne Frank and her family before they were deported to Auschwitz, and was ruled by 1st Lt. Alfred Gem­meker, whom Eisen described as a “patron of the arts.”

Gem­meker, she said, routinely invited the Jewish artists into his home, and yet “still sought their deportation to ‘the east’ as a necessity of the Nazi cause.”

One of the artists he liked was cabaret director Max Ehrlich, a German actor and screenwriter who was killed at Auschwitz on Oct. 1, 1944. Under his direction, Eisen said, the cabaret troupe aimed to “bring light into the darkness, not to utopi­anize the outside world, just to bring comedy to the dark sit­u­a­tion they found themselves in.”

But it was an almost impossible task. In fact, Eisen said, the prospect of survival was so bleak that the West­er­bork Cabaret became known as the theater of despair “because of its ability to decide who lived, at least while involved in production, and who was deported to ‘the east’ to be mur­dered.” In the end, the numbers told the story: of more than 50 troupe members, only two survived the war.

Eisen is a graduate student at Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music. The Gideon Klein Award—which honors the memory of the Czech pianist and composer who died in a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp in 1945—is annually bestowed upon one student, who receives $5,000 to study the work of artists who were per­se­cuted by the Nazis. Bill Giessen, a former Northeastern professor who grew up in Nazi Germany and passed away in 2010, established the award in 1997 in memory of his mother, Gustel Cormann Giessen.

– By Jason Kornwitz

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