Truth even stranger than fiction in tale of an elaborate Nazi propaganda ploy
One of the many sordid subplots of the Holocaust was what the Red Cross charity knew about it at the time, and what they had done to intervene. A play opening in Dublin next week, Way to Heaven, by Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, tells something of that story. But the truth, it turns out, is even stranger than Mayorga's fictionalised version.
In 1944, a Red Cross worker, Maurice Rossel, visited Theresienstadt, a Jewish ghetto-cum-camp in the town of Terezín in what is now the Czech Republic. As Mayorga's play recounts, he found an almost idyllic scene. The camp commandant quoted from European philosophers before taking his visitor on a walk around what he described as a model town, a new experiment in Jewish communal living. The town's "mayor" waxed lyrical, children played on a bandstand, and a local family invited the visitor for dinner.
But this was an elaborate piece of theatre, designed to fool the Red Cross and, thereby, the world. Everywhere that Rossel was brought had been spruced up before his arrival. All the participants had been carefully rehearsed.
Theresienstadt was, in fact, a transit camp en route to Auschwitz. But a number of things made it unusual. It was housed in an old walled town, giving it a vestige of normality. It housed a particular concentration of the Jewish intellectual and artistic elite. And the Nazis decided to use it in its propaganda war to counter the then widespread rumours of an extermination policy.
The suggestion in the play is that the camp that Rossel visited was entirely fake and disguised the reality of a death camp, and that Rossel should have seen through this. The play has him returning to the site of the camp years later and examining his conscience: "I hadn't seen anything that was out of the ordinary, and I couldn't invent what I hadn't seen. I would have written the truth if they had helped me." (Rossel also visited Auschwitz, where he failed to spot the signs of the death camp, but he was not given access to the facilities there.)
The reality of the camp at Terezín, though, was more complicated, and its role in propaganda did not cease with Rossel's departure. Theresienstadt did actually become something of a centre of Jewish artistry, within and despite the Holocaust.
The camp had a jazz band and a cabaret revue. A children's opera, Brundibár, was written by one of the camp's composers, Hans Krása, and featured in a "documentary" propaganda film titled The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. Shortly after the opera was staged (for the benefit of the Red Cross visitor), most of its child cast was sent to Auschwitz; so too was the film's director, Kurt Gerson, an acclaimed Jewish actor/director. (There are clips of it on YouTube.)
A London concert in 2010 celebrated the music that was composed there. To mark it, Ed Vulliamy, a reporter for The Observer, interviewed survivors of the camp. Helga Weissová-Hosková told him there were "four phases" in the camp's "cultural life": "First, that of great creative resistance; second, that of the Nazi toleration of the cultural life; third, the manipulation of our art by the Nazis; and finally, when it was all over, the mass killing of almost everyone involved." (It's a superb article, available on The Guardian website.)
Rossel's innocuous report would become infamous, as the most egregious example of the Red Cross's failure to do its core job: bear witness to abuses of war, and bring aid to their victims. But the organisation's failure ran far deeper than one lowly official being duped by a Nazi ploy.
As the International Committee of the Red Cross has acknowledged, senior officials had become aware of the genocide by 1942, but failed to take any serious action to counter or even publicise it. Mayorga's play offers us Rossel's own examination of conscience as an attempt to understand why that might have been so.
Way to Heaven is at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, presented by Rough Magic, from December 5 to 15. See www.projectartscentre.ie.