Playwrights did not begin to describe and interpret the Holocaust experience until a decade after the end of World War II. It takes time to heal, generate the strength to reflect, and find a clear and steady voice.
The most influential and lasting American effort was “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the 1956 adaptation of a young girl’s journal by two Hollywood screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. To a large extent, the play’s accessibility and popularity stem from its dramatic realism and the alluring thread of Anne’s innocence and optimism within the context of the atrocities occurring outside her secret annex.
In Europe, theater works related to the Holocaust tend to be more somber and surreal accounts. Most are full of allegory and metatheatrical artistry, which help audiences in the very countries where the greatest cultural, political and personal devastation occurred confront those harsh realities.
A collection of approximately 600 of these plays can now be accessed through a single, centralized electronic archive – the Holocaust Theater Catalogue – which was created by the National Jewish Theater Foundation (NJTF) and was launched this past October.
The archive’s primary function is to fill an existing void in Holocaust awareness by providing a critically needed entryway to the subject for the theater arts and those doing arts education. As is stated on the archive’s website, “It is [the NJTF’s] sincere hope that the utilization of these select theater works… will inspire all to keep alive the lessons of the Holocaust and provide an artistically driven moral compass for future generations.”
The expediency with which the project moved from conception to completion was motivated by the pending loss of the last of the survivors of the Holocaust and their firsthand accounts. It is believed that, through the insights, creativity and courage of theater artists, their collective memories will remain alive in perpetuum.
According to Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group and an advisory board member of the NJTF, the timing is right for a theater archive like this.
“Our theater movement stands at a unique place in time, where the work on our theaters’ stages is more intentionally reflecting social and historical realities, and where the possibility is stronger than ever of nuanced and powerful conversations taking place among audiences and artists.”
The most powerful plays about the Holocaust, notes playwright Juan Mayorga on the NJTF website, tell stories “that can provoke mourning for the victims and, at the same time, force the spectator to look within himself for any remaining poison of Auschwitz.”
Local playwright and award-winning poet Mary Weems has written such a story, which has been submitted for inclusion in the archive.
Her one-act play “A Conversation After A Funeral” – which made its Cleveland debut at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2013 and was performed at the Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood early last year – is about a meeting in the afterlife between Anne Frank and Emmett Till, a black teenager whose murder helped spark and serves as a symbol of the American civil rights movement.
A free performance of this play will take place on January 21 at 7 p.m. at the Hope Lutheran Church (216-321-6775), 2222 North Taylor Road in Cleveland Hts.
Mary Weems should be hearing back shortly from the NJTF about whether “A Conversation After A Funeral” has been accepted into the Holocaust Theater archive. If it is, the world will have access to one more play that rekindles the memory of Anne Frank and one more story worth telling on Yom Hashoah U'Mered HaGetaot (Holocaust and Ghetto Revolt Remembrance Day).
Cleveland Jewish News entertainment writer Bob Abelman takes a closer look at Jewish artists, their work and other issues of interest.