Review: Remembering the Holocaust in Ghetto
On September 21-23, 2018, the opening night of Ghetto (Lith. Getas) directed by Gintaras Varnas – based on the play Ghetto by Yoshua Sobol and documentary, archival as well as memoir material – took place in Kaunas. This is a joint production of the National Kaunas Drama Theatre and the independent theatre Utopia.
In September of 1941, a Jewish ghetto was established in the old town of Vilnius by the decision of German authorities. The play by Yoshua Sobol speaks about the life in the ghetto, the efforts of the Jews to survive in the conditions of the extermination policy implemented by the Nazis, and phenomenal activities of the theatre founded in the ghetto. All the main characters of the play and the performance have real prototypes, the people who lived in the ghetto at that time. When Yoshua Sobol wrote the play about Vilna ghetto in 1983, he had not visited the capital of Lithuania himself. However, he was inspired by the story about the theatre functioning in the ghetto during the Nazi occupation, which turned into a symbol of resistance. The play has been translated into more than 20 languages.
Director Gintaras Varnas dedicated his performance to the lost Jewish Vilnius. Together with performance playwright Daiva Čepauskaitė, the director supplemented the plot of the play with authentic stories of the Holocaust witnesses, both victims and executors. According to Gintaras Varnas, it was those memoir stories by the Holocaust contemporaries rather than the play by Sobol that served as an impulse for him to stage a performance on the topic of the Litvak history and the Holocaust. Varnas had become deeply interested in the history of Lithuanian Jews several years before. Gintaras Varnas claims that, “what I’ve learned, has really scared me. Until then, I never imagined the scope of the tragedy; I didn’t know many details or facts. During that period, I practically split with my Lithuanian identity. I was ashamed and that shame served as an impulse for this performance to appear. I understood that as long as I didn’t stage a performance on the topic, that shame would remain.”
In the portal on performing arts criticism menufaktura.lt, theatre critic Rima Jūraitė states, “I think that today, without additional dramaturgy, the play by Sobol would be too sterile and would only be limited to the image of Vilna ghetto as some kind of a myth that we learn about from memories; and memories are inevitably interpretations, whereas interpretations of such interpretations appear in a performance. Eventually, all this turns into a fictitious literary or theatrical piece highly restricted by a single topic. Varnas and Čepauskaitė develop the play further, offer new themes and, most likely, seek to provoke discussions. Even before the premiere, one might have expected that the subject of Lithuanian killers of Jews would be provoking, irritating and, as we see from the performance reviews, probably offensive.”
In culture and art weekly 7 meno dienos, critic Ina Pukelytė writes, “Despite distrustfulness and disapproval, part of Lithuanian society chooses to speak about the things that seem to be directed against the very nation in the context of the national discourse – about the attention and love toward the other, the different. Director Gintaras Varnas is among such speakers. Last year, he initiated an intercultural dialogue at Kaunas National Theatre by staging Nathan the Wise (Lith. Natanas išmintingasis) by German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and this year he has presented Ghetto by Israeli Yoshua Sobol to the public.”
Theatre critic Aušra Kaminskaitė (menufaktura.lt) says, “In general, the entire performance is full of various meanings and to me this is a true reflection of the tragedy of war. After the performance, there was indignation about nudities and rape scenes, but they, in a way, reveal Kruk’s [character’s] thoughts, when he objects to the idea of the formation of the ghetto theatre: horrible things happen – people are tortured and killed, and at the same time a theatre is being established on ‘their dead bodies.’ /…/ Most probably that’s why it is so difficult to watch this performance – you constantly feel that everything is ambiguous, the tragedy unfolds alongside festivities. /…/ Also, it is very important for me that the creators of the performance do not mean it to be a reproach to Lithuanians and do not blame them for killing; instead they are sending a message that even if you don’t think that our people did that, you have to realise that this doesn’t mean they can never do that.”
Ina Pukelytė (7 meno dienos) writes that, “The genre of a review is too narrow to reveal all the themes and meanings suggested in the performance. Thus, I want /…/ to draw the attention to the most evident things. At the end of the performance, we hear the melody of Hayyah’s love confession to Vilnius, which also reveals the love to the city of the present generation inhabitants of Vilnius. Yet today, the love is marked with the feeling of loss and emptiness that cannot be filled. Polish researcher Ruth Elen Gruber refers to this kind of feeling as phantom pain, and to the identification with the Jews that used to live in the city but are now long gone – with virtual Jewishness. More and more people both in Vilnius and Kaunas are experiencing this phantom pain, actively engaging in the history of their city and trying to, at least virtually, return to the cities what actually belongs to them, including memory. Director Varnas expresses the very same gesture with his performance.”
Donatas Stankevičius photo