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On “Theatre as a Form of Resistance to Oppression & Genocide”: How Theatre Normalized Life for a Jewish Ghetto in WWII

Last night I attended a talk by Joshua Sobol, an Israeli playwright and director who has written over 75 plays and directed internationally, including in the U.S., Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and, of course, Israel. BU was fortunate enough to have him through the efforts of the BU Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies and the Brookline-based theatre Israeli Stage. The talk was entitled “Theatre as a Form of Resistance to Oppression and Genocide” and it focused on the role theatre played in the World War II Vilna Ghetto of Lithuania. It humanized a community that felt dehumanized and helped an increasingly broken community thrive. It was a beautiful example of people practicing their humanity, together.

Sobol began by explaining how a theatre had even sprung in the Vilna Ghetto, a seven-block neighborhood that now held ten-times its capacity (It had originally housed 3,000 inhabitants, but during the war housed 30,000). Some members of the community believed that if the Ghetto contributed something of value to society, they increased the chance of survival for the Jews of Vilna. If they were productive maybe the Nazis wouldn’t further eradicate them. Normalization was key to building a functioning and productive community, especially for a one whose life had become anything but, with close to 60,000 members of the community missing, their whereabouts unknown. Normalization required a healthcare system, an education system, and a cultural system, which required a library and a theatre. The implementation of these systems would create *jobs*, which would bring work permits, the equivalent to a *life* permit. The theatre would provide tons of jobs, especially since its leader welcomed everyone who wanted to be an actor.

The theatre was open for eighteen months and produced five major productions, including a Strindberg piece and “The Eternal Jew.” A second, tinier stage made space for cabaret reviews that included sketches, short satires, songs, and stories that had taken place in the Ghetto. There was a competition announced to the Vilna community for the best short play about life in the Ghetto and in the theatre’s last days its artistic director read pages and pages of plays about life in Vilna. The theatre titled its subversive works in Yiddish so that the Nazis were kept ignorant. Love it.

Ultimately the Vilna theatre was the place that made the lives of ghetto inhabitants feel a bit more normal. It reminded them of their humanness in a time and place where dehumanization reigned. It revived a sense of value in a community that felt worthless. And it brought them together for collective story-sharing, perhaps the most human thing.

After the talk I asked Joshua Sobol about his thoughts on American theatre in Trump’s America: As a non-American theatremaker and someone who has done extensive research on the role of theatre in an oppressed community, what were his thoughts on the role of theatre in an America where minority groups are being attacked?

First, he said that America is “the biggest ghetto in the world.” If I were to guess what he meant I would say that, yes, America can be considered a ghetto in that it closes its eyes to the international ecology a lot more than other nations. And that America has recently enclosed itself in walls through its recent Muslim Ban. Next he said, “walls create ghettos,” referring to the potential building of the Mexico-U.S wall, or Wall, I guess. Sobol said that the human spirit revolts. And that America “will probably make a wave of theatrical creativity that will fight against separation, isolationism, hatred of foreigners, and paranoia.” Yes. I am a firm believer that the artist is an inherent member of the vanguard. Now here’s to some HARDCORE VANGUARDING.

For more info on the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies and Israeli Stage:

BU Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EWCJS/

BU Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies Twitter: https://twitter.com/BUjewishstudies

Israeli Stage Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/IsraeliStage

Israeli Stage YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNeqcbdnoGuBQWYIzwBfLGQ

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About gbfontenele

Director and dramaturg in training. Free spirit and questioner from the beginning.

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