Many Holocaust performs function Jewish youngsters coming of age within the shadow of the loss of life camps. But these works typically current sentimentalised, redemptive tales, such because the 1950s manufacturing of The Diary of Anne Frank. They foreground sure narratives to the exclusion of others, resembling queer experiences. Talking testimony, nevertheless, can carry such tales again into the current.
How may we use the stage to inform a unique story concerning the Holocaust to younger adults? This was the dialog with which we – Anna Hájková, a Holocaust historian, and Erika Hughes, a scholar and director of Holocaust theatre – started our venture. We selected to give attention to the marginalised matter of the queer coming-of-age expertise as a result of it provided a robust counterpoint to the same old tales of the Holocaust.
Utilizing the instruments of documentary theatre, we introduced one lady’s account of queer want and survival in ghettos and focus camps, centering a non-stereotypical perspective of life within the Holocaust. We invited audiences to desert their preconceptions of younger individuals’s tales from the camps.
The story we inform defies the usual assumptions which have formed so many representations of the Holocaust. Our place to begin was the life story of Margot Heuman, the primary lesbian Jewish Holocaust survivor who bore testimony. Nonetheless thriving at 94, Margot lives within the US.
Over a number of months we developed a one-act play, The Wonderful Lifetime of Margot Heuman, which premiered on-line on the UK’s Brighton Fringe Competition throughout lockdown in 2021, and can be proven in Canada, the US, and Germany later this yr.
Margot Heuman’s life story presents a well-known Holocaust story in some methods, however confounds expectations in others. Born in 1928 in Germany, Margot grew up in a middle-class household in Bielefeld. In 1943, they had been all deported to Theresienstadt ghetto. As a bit of lady, Margot knew she was interested in girls. In Theresienstadt, she skilled some happiness because of relative normality of life in a youth care centre within the ghetto.
It was on this kids’s house that Margot met Emma, a Viennese lady – “the love of her life”. Each had been deported to Auschwitz, Neuengamme and ultimately to Bergen-Belsen, the place they had been liberated by the British military. All through the starvation, chilly, compelled labour and separation from Margot’s household, the connection sustained each youngsters.
For many years Margot bore testimony about her imprisonment, however by no means mentioned the precise which means of her relationship with Emma. One in all us (Anna, whose work addresses queer experiences of the Holocaust), met Margot and interviewed her many occasions. It was solely with an overtly lesbian historian, particularly fascinated about queerness, that Margot shared her complete story.
An entire life in an hour
Working by way of hours of oral testimony given by Margot to Anna, we devised the script and staged the play as a piece of documentary theatre. This course of revealed a lot concerning the tensions between written historical past and dramatic composition. Whereas the phrases got here straight from the interview transcripts, the choice of what to incorporate – and extra importantly, what not – took weeks of enhancing and workshopping.
How may we condense the story of 1 wonderful life right into a one-act play, lasting lower than one hour? There have been so many particulars that didn’t make it to the stage – not as a result of they weren’t vitally necessary, however as a result of we would have liked to be concise.
The Wonderful Lifetime of Margot Heuman gives a meditation on bearing testimony, on past love and on making house for queer romance in in any other case homophobic environment – typically when the stakes are life and loss of life.
There are solely two characters within the play: the survivor Margot and the historian Anna. In staging the efficiency as a dialog between survivor and historian, we illustrate how Margot’s act of witnessing can be yielding management over her story to the historian. Her insistence on company is an insistence on dignity.
We additionally wished to render the position of the historian clear, revealing Anna’s reactions to Margot’s testimony to point out how the historian shapes it into historic narrative.
We didn’t need the sort of theatrical realism which may give approach to sentimentalisation, which may generally obscure historic truth. To that finish, Erika, as director, had the performers carry their scripts all through, typically turning to them to learn dialogue, as a reminder of the testimony from which their phrases got here.
The a part of Anna the historian is learn by an actor of her age. Although Margot is now in her nineties, her phrases are spoken by an actor in her early twenties – not a lot older than Margot was herself was through the Holocaust.
At first, the performers break the fourth wall, addressing the viewers straight and introducing themselves by their precise names. With these strategies we cast a crucial distance between the efficiency and Margot’s precise expertise, encouraging audiences to replicate on Margot’s life as a lesbian lady through the Holocaust and after, within the US. Onstage, Margot and Anna bond over their shared experiences, however the play invitations audiences to see how there stays a historic and generational chasm between the 2.
The play illustrates Margot’s story with actual pictures from her archive, together with outdated pictures of her as a younger lady and paperwork of her journey in focus camps through the Holocaust and displaced particular person camps after the warfare.
Ultimately, because the historian Anna tries to piece collectively a story from the bodily items of the archive, Margot finally asserts her company over the house – rearranging the items to inform her personal story. It’s her voice that continues to be entrance and centre.
“I used to be wonderful,” she rightly says, to historical past and the current.