Today or tomorrow, I shall be taken to the camp.
May God help me to overcome this too.
—Regina Kandt, Last Letters from the Holocaust: 1941
The theatre’s nature is one of bringing people together, which makes it an apt medium to fuel collective memories. The type of theatre that best depicts the Holocaust is one that can provoke mourning for the victims and, at the same time, force the spectator to look within himself and ask himself if there is in him something of an executioner or of his accomplice. This is what George Tabori beautifully accomplishes in his plays The Cannibals, Mein Kampf and My Mother’s Courage.
Hungarian by birth, a writer in English, and a director (with occasional spouts of acting in German), Tabori combined his experience of British and American life with the cultural traditions of central Europe. What makes him so exceptional is not his widely known work as a translator and adapter of Bertolt Brecht, nor is it his screenplays of several Hollywood films, including the ones directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it is his experience. Would-be writers are often advised to rely on their own experiences when looking for a fresh subject matter. But there are a few writers that have as much rich material to draw on as George Tabori. His father was a prominent journalist who was arrested by the Nazis and was later killed in Auschwitz. His mother, however, managed to talk her way out of deportation to Auschwitz. Her story is told in Tabori’s play My Mother’s Courage and in the fiction film with the same name, directed by Michael Verhoeven (in which Tabori appears on screen through much of the film).
My Mother’s Courage was the first of a series of plays that employed wit and paradox in order to bypass the taboo surrounding the Holocaust. The play dramatized an incident in 1944 when Tabori’s mother, Elsa, persuaded an SS guard to let her off the Auschwitz train, claiming that she’d left her Red Cross pass at home. Her escape was possible, thanks to coincidence, courage and some help from where you’d least expect it. As a reader, I saw Elsa suddenly being plucked from her everyday life and thrown into the surreal nightmare of mass deportation. It’s an extraordinary account of one individual’s escape from death as opposed to that of the millions who didn’t survive. My Mother’s Courage remains a satirical, dark tale about fate and human cruelty. It left me with the feeling that no one can save you.
As a writer, playwright and military reporter, Georg Tabori writes about the horrors of war, each one of his lines being full of irony and dark humor, through which he examines the moral aspects, the refraction of the soul, the personality, the disintegration of the human in man caused by the war. That is what I saw in the play Cannibals—a dark story about a group of concentration campers in Auschwitz, who are in a dilemma whether to eat the dead body of their cellmate to save their own lives. Is it a crime and would they remain humans after eating a man? Tabori is talented at conveying the humanity in even seemingly inhumane actions such as cannibalism. I felt repulsed at myself while reading about those inmates, preparing to eat their fellow. “I would do it, too,” I thought to myself. This play to me was a spectacle of remembrance, confronting me with Hitler’s victims in an imaginary contemporary situation.
His style reminded me of that of Charles Bukowski for his uncompromising language and for his love of the public lowlands. Hence, the play that impressed me the most was Mein Kampf—an anti-Hitler farce with crude characterization and ridiculous situations. It can quickly make audiences laugh at the monsters of the Nazi era so as to belittle them. This message was a powerful one, coming from a Jewish man who had lost almost all his family members in Auschwitz. The Holocaust is definitely not facetious, but this play showed me that there is never anything that we can’t laugh about. Mein Kampf is a wild, dark farce filled with strange and incongruous elements. Set in a Vienna flophouse, it centers on a young Adolf Hitler, who is preparing for an interview at the Academy of Art. One of his housemates and a friend, the Jewish Bible vendor, Shlomo Herzl, tries to talk Hitler into giving up painting and going into politics. The rest of the play is solemn, yet, an utterly hilarious farce. His avant-garde work confronts anti-Semitism. He uses sharp wit and humor to examine the relationship between Germany and the Jews, as well as to attack anti-Semitism. Whimsy in his mode, he switches from bathos to profundity in the twinkling of an eye.
Tabori’s plays can be described as emotional but not sentimental, poetic but not aesthetic, landmarks of Holocaust theatre. I admit, his plays are not for everyone. As someone who has a love-hate relationship with writers such as Bukowski, D. H. Lawrence, and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, I found certain similarities with Tabori when it comes to the use of language. I have been extensively spoiled with descriptive writing that is lyrical. As someone who isn’t used to the occasional foul language and vulgar image, reading some of Tabori’s plays is a bit difficult at times. However, once I laid aside all former prejudices, I was pleasantly surprised. I’d recommend his plays to those who aren’t afraid to get in the dirty confessions of the world’s most impious war.
Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University. She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria. Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands. Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015. When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.