Yom HaShoah, a time of Holocaust Remembrance, is being recognized in the U.S. with theatrical “Remembrance Readings” during the last week of April.
At a time when political tensions in the U.S. and worldwide are high, theater is an increasingly valuable tool to address and reflect on the dangers of demagoguery, volatile political behavior, the seemingly incomprehensible horrors that can ensue, and the courage of those who say “no.”
“Theater is a way of dramatizing -- portraying what happened and giving people an emotional connection,” says Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel, Founder and Executive Director of Remember the Women Institute in New York City. Saidel is a researcher who focuses on recovering women’s hidden experiences in the Holocaust and other world events, and she sees the arts as a critical way to share the stories of those who have been silenced.
For Yom HaShoah this year, Remember the Women Institute is focusing on “Women and the Resistance in the Holocaust” with readings of four theatrical works at the Center for Jewish History in New York, in conjunction with the American Jewish Historical Society on April 26. The plays describe women who joined the underground, spoke out and fought against the Nazis, despite the perils involved.
With “resist” on the lips of many in the U.S., the theme is particularly appropriate.
Unfortunately, women – both as writers and central subjects – are frequently sidelined in the telling of these stories. And that’s true even though women in the U.S. today are the primary drivers of efforts to oppose reactionary forces, according to one analysis.
To make the stories of women’s experiences in the Holocaust more visible, an online publication, “Women, Theatre and the Holocaust,” contains hundreds of entries and descriptions of plays by women and plays about women over the past seven decades. The guide, prepared by Saidel and Karen Shulman, is releasing its third edition for free download this week. The 100-plus page guide includes descriptions of 148 plays by women about the Holocaust and 167 about women and the Holocaust (some overlap, of course). The guide also includes six essays on women, theater and the Holocaust, a bibliography and a lesson guide for teachers.
The publication indirectly addresses a sad fact of theater: women playwrights and women’s stories are too often ignored. Gender parity studies, described by playwright Jenny Lyn Bader on the theater site Howl Round, confirm that women playwrights, who are about 45% of the Dramatists Guild members, get only 20% to 25% of the new play productions.
As a touchstone for understanding human rights, Holocaust stories are especially valuable, says Carolyn Levy, a freelance director and theater professor in St. Paul whose focus is on social change. “There are people in our country who are saying the Holocaust didn’t happen and I think they’re dangerous. If we aren’t learning about Nazi Germany, we run the danger of seeing more and more things like that happen,” says Levy.
Meghan Brodie, a professor at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, directed the first U.S. production of a 1943 work, From the Underworld, a deeply textured avant-garde farce written by Germaine Tillion in a concentration camp.
“Much of Holocaust history has been written by men, so the perspectives of women are valuable because, while both men and women suffered atrocities, there were differences between men’s and women’s experiences,” says Brodie. “The students learned about themselves and their role in both remembering the Holocaust and using their voices to speak out against the injustices they see around them,” she says.
The identification of these women’s works benefits others in the theater, too, by providing actors and directors with challenging roles, says Alexis Greene, an arts journalist and author.
“Let’s remember that the Holocaust and subsequent genocides were incredibly devastating to women,” says Greene. “Any group of plays that focus on women and encourage women to write about women, to perform women, to direct plays about women will boost, in part, women’s participation in the nonprofit theater world.”
The National Jewish Theater Foundation, now part of the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, encourages Yom HaShoah Remembrance Readings with a collective listing on its website.
The urgency is fierce for connecting audiences to histories, responses and consequences: women’s stories and the theatrical venue are more relevant than ever.
(Portions of this article appeared in WomenArts.)
(Photo by Shannon Zura)