Was the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre Unique?

Rasa Vasinauskaitė, Kinas, 2006 Nr.1
2006 March 31 d.

Markas Petuchauskas is a theatrologist, Lithuanian theatre critic and historian, habilitated doctor, professor. A former prisoner of Vilnius ghetto, an 11 – 12-year-old teenager who saw most of this theatre’s performances and concerts in 1942 – 1943. Before the destruction of the ghetto he managed to escape together with his mother, hide in homes of Lithuanians and thus to survive.

When became independent, M. Petuchauskas started conducting research into the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre when only a few knew about it. He has published memoirs and research on this unique phenomenon in Lithuanian culture. After having founded the Lithuanian Jewish Culture Club almost 12 years ago, he organised International Art Days in 2002 to commemorate the 55th and 60th anniversary of the ghetto; many prominent artists from Lithuania, Poland, France, Germany, United States of America and Israel, the surviving ‘children’ of this theatre, participated in the event.


– In front of me is Vol. 3 of the Krantai magazine, 1997. It is in this volume that it is possible to find material concerning the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre. And we have met, dear Mark, also not accidentally: a feature film directed by Audrius Juzėnas, The Vilnius Ghetto, has appeared in cinemas. It is an attempt to re-create the everyday life of the Vilnius ghetto and its theatre. The history of the Ghetto Theatre and the version presented in the film seem to be two different things. We can understand the artist’s intentions, the creator’s position not to follow specific historical facts, but I would like to ask you: how much should the flight of the creator’s fantasy be permitted? Should there be any borders between artistic invention and a specific history, which immediately touches, perhaps, the most painful aspect of life in Vilnius and of its culture?


– It is a complicated and mostly theoretical question. However, like any theoretical question, it is directly related to practical things. I will start answering your question also from this publication. This issue of Krantai was initiated by us, the Lithuanian Jewish Culture Club: we funded and prepared it when organising the first International Art Days commemorating the 55th anniversary of founding the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre. Then, in 1997, hardly anybody knew anything about this theatre in ; we had to find out its history from the very beginning, remember and find people who were and worked here. We invited Joshua Sobol, the author of a play about the Vilnius ghetto, Ghetto, as a guest to the Art Days in Vilnius : I contacted him, we became acquainted and then he came to for the first time. While visiting Paneriai, communicating with us, the club members, the playwright not only became familiar with Vilnius , but also went up on that stage he wrote about in his play.

J. Sobol’s play written almost a quarter of a century ago was positive, despite its abstract character, one-sidedness and subjective approach to the Ghetto Theatre. Without attempting to reach historical accuracy the author focused on the solution of more philosophical problems. This is what Sobol says: “The real human problem arises not when you have to choose morality or immorality, but when you have to choose from two immoral options. This is the most horrible. Because then you are alone. Without God. You have to take the responsibility. There is no other way.” This idea, raised as the main philosophical idea, was successfully realised in Sobol’s play Ghetto. And the play was moving then; it was telling about the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre on various stages of the world. I would say it was both a political and an artistic act of the playwright.

It is quite surprising that the first Lithuanian feature film about Holocaust appears as if in an airless space. As if, the 16 years of Independence never happened when many new studies of Holocaust and the participation of Lithuanian punitive squads in the liquidation of the Lithuanian Jerusalem appeared. Of the fact how many Lithuanians, prominent artists and intellectuals among them, were supporting the spiritual resistance of the ghetto in various ways, were saving people and cultural values. Or the facts how, let us say, Lithuanian actors from Vilnius and other intellectuals sympathised with the Ghetto Theatre, supported and saved its creators. Well, of course, this depends on the film makers’ choice.

As he became the script-writer for the film, Joshua Sobol himself has struck through the play he has written before after so many years. It was clear in the play that it was dedicated to the theatre initiated and founded through the heroic effort of the cream of Lithuanian Jerusalem artists. Despite the fact that the playwright has not witnessed the events. For instance, the singer Liuba Levicka is called Chaja here, thus referring to the name of another talented young girl, pure like crystal, Chaja Rozental. Meanwhile, the events it tells about are related precisely to Liuba Levicka. In his play Sobol has also interpreted Liuba’s story by deviating from reality. Liuba could not meet Kitel due to one simple reason: when Kitel, the famous Nazi sadist, was sent to liquidate the Vilnius ghetto and appointed the commander of Vilnius Gestapo Jewish Department (June 1943), Levicka was already executed in Paneriai. Liuba was really caught with peas she was carrying to her mother, but she was discovered by a completely different man: the chef of the ghetto, the adjunct of Vilnius Gebitskomissar for Jewish affairs von Hinkst, F. Murer. Thus, I do not belong to those who look scrupulously for the truth of facts; a work of art is impossible without fantasy, if, of course, it helps the artistic whole and the concept of the work of art. In this sense, Sobol’s play should not be criticised. Besides, it is interesting that the higher German commandment felt that other Nazi commanders would not be able to liquidate the Vilnius ghetto, which was strong in its spirit, underground organisations and contacts with other Jewish ghettos. Perhaps, it was not an accidental decision that Kitel, unequalled in his refined sadism, had to be sent to Vilnius . Thus, there are many cases of inaccurate historical facts, but this does not disturb me.

I am disturbed by something else. The film has unambiguously emphasised that the founder of the theatre was the ghetto police commander J. Gens, that Gens and Gestapo commander Kitel, in fact, led the theatre. After the premiere, I participated in a meeting with Joshua Sobol. I asked the playwright how to understand that a collaborator founds and leads the theatre in the film (whatever complex and tragic figure Gens was) and a Nazi. The playwright claimed that Gens founded the theatre and he referred to H. Kruk, the theatre’s chronicler. I answered that the scriptwriter interpreted H. Kruk too dogmatically, because the latter was against the founding of the theatre together with a group of intellectuals, but only at the beginning. Already after the first public appearances, Kruk turned into a supporter of the theatre (evidence to it is the recently published H. Kruk’s diary of the ghetto in Lithuanian).

When only the pseudo-creator of the theatre is emphasised, the uniqueness of the latter escapes the film. In this case, the theatre could be included in the list of ‘cultural’ actions organised by Nazis in concentration camps and ghettos (concerts and performances of singers, violinists and even orchestras, etc.) in order to entertain themselves, to mock at their victims, to trample on their human dignity, film it and use for propaganda (I do not know, what kind of propaganda the director A. Juzėnas believed in when he maintained in one of his interviews for Lietuvos žinios that “the Vilnius ghetto was not so poor as that of Warsaw. It had inconceivable entertainment…” and that the Vilnius ghetto could be compared to a small Paris (!). After having read it, I fell into such nostalgia for the year 1943 that I almost regretted escaping the Vilnius ghetto just before its liquidation).

I remember that the actor Regimantas Adomaitis who read memoirs about the founding of the Ghetto Theatre during the 2002 International Art Days was surprised: I am an actor myself, but I do not imagine how people could found a theatre under such circumstances; this is inconceivable. Precisely this – a unique theatre in Europe – was the subject of the play. Especially because there was a lot of pompous talk about this during the presentation of the film… Well, and while watching Juzėnas’s film we see a completely different interpretation of these events. He allows treating this film as a swallow of the so-called ‘Holocaust industry’ in .

I have a recording of a television programme in Haifa , 1984; I keep this recording as a documentary value; Sobol presented it to me. Besides, quotations from this recording have been presented in the aforementioned issue of Krantai. This is what the artistic director of the theatre, Izrael Segal who performed in Lithuanian theatres before the war, says answering to Sobol’s questions. “Who founded the theatre?” Sobol asks in 1984. “Actors themselves,” Segal answers. I can’t think of the Ghetto Theatre. This is too tragic. Thus, they went to Gens and asked the permission to establish a theatre…” There are other memories, which I allow myself to quote. The great Jewish poet A. Suckever writes: “Hardly a day after the killing of my mother, young director Viskind came to comfort me and invited to meet Jewish actors. They were said to be thinking to organise a theatre: we have to fight also with this weapon; we should not succumb even for a moment; we will create our own theatre, will bring joy to the ghetto, we will spark hope. I agreed to lead the artistic project of the theatre.” Dr. Mark Dvoržecki remembers: “Even now it seems to be an impossible thing. A theatre in a ghetto…”

And later it became a part of cultural life in the ghetto and its spiritual peace. The surviving actors met in Strašūno Street 7, a room of the artist Šabtaj Bliacher, the famous actor in pre-war Vilnius who was killed later, and decided to start the founding of a theatre. The director Maks Viskind (graduate of Vilnius Hebraic Gymnasium, the founder of the Hebraic Drama Studio who later died in the Warsaw ghetto) was among its initiators. I could quote other stories that former children of the Ghetto Theatre shared later. For instance, Samuel Bak who visited Vilnius in 2002 during the second Art Days to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Vilnius ghetto writes in his memoirs: “Even today I find it hard to imagine why the Nazi leadership consented to this project. After all, this was a ray of light in the land of darkness for those who were imprisoned in those several streets, an unpunishable and uncontrolled short-lived flight from sad everydayness to the imagined kingdom of fun.” It is hard to understand how, after so many years, it is possible to create a film by striking through new facts and memoirs published earlier, castrating real history and at the same time leaving real names of people in the film.


– You are a child of the ghetto and you have seen performances of the theatre. What they were like and how far are they from the version presented in the film? And how do you see the image of the main heroine of the film: the singer Chaja? After all, the director and the scriptwriter referred to a single fact of the life of the famous Liuba Levicka, and Chaja is rather a combined image embodying, as you have mentioned, two different personalities.


– It says least about the performances. In 1996 – 1997 I found and analysed 230 theatre posters in the State Archive. This is a shocking epopee of human stamina!

The theatre posters show a huge variety of genres: a psychological performance, excerpts from operettas and operas, concerts, puppet performances, pantomimes, revues, humoresques, sketches, satirical miniatures, for instance: The Ghetto in a False Mirror. In the film we see only one genre: a cheap Bordel.

This is what Ona Šimaitė writes about Liuba Levicka. The Nintingale of the Ghetto Liuba Levicka is the title of her memoirs: “After concerts in the ghetto I have experienced Liuba’s hospitality many times, stayed overnight in her place. One such night she told me how Lithuanian policemen were hunting her as a woman and what gigantic effort she needed to get free. A made-up story that she was infected with syphilis helped. Only Beecher-Stow’s quill can describe the spiritual suffering of Levicka. And she was happy that she managed to escape the bitterest fate for a woman. (…) Liuba Levicka was gazing at the stars; and they were treading on her like on sand at the seaside. Her spirit had passionately desired freedom and found death. There is no more Liuba Levicka, a singer with wonderful spirit, and there is less heart and warmth in the world left.”

In the play, we will not find the slightest hint at any sympathy, sexual attraction or something similar between the singer and the Gestapo commander. In the film, perhaps, seeking a cheap (commercial?) effect, in the scenes of Bordel orgies, we see a character that has nothing to do with Levicka and insults her memory. Is it possible to represent the singer in this manner, knowing Levicka’s heroic stance in the ghetto, Lukiškių prison and Paneriai, without stepping over the limits of morality and correctness? (A. Suckever has written a short story about the singer’s stamina and tragic death.) I am surprised that this has happened in a film screened in 2006 that pretends to be the first feature film, a revelation of the history of the Vilnius ghetto and its theatre based on authentic documents…


– You probably remember a much earlier version of Ghetto directed by Jonas Vaitkus at the Academic Drama Theatre. Then the discussions over the performance were also complex, because the director had also abstracted the history of the Ghetto Theatre a lot and, I would say, thus avoided historical facts. I think the makers of the film have also tried to follow a similar path, staging the life in the ghetto among theatre decorations, which, together with the stage, turn into a metaphor of struggle between life and death. Life on the stage as if amounts here to life on a powder-keg, and it continues, despite everyday risk. Another thing is that, perhaps, the director lacked artistic skill and professionalism to combine such sensitive and philosophical themes of the play and the script into an integral whole?


– Of course, this is an obvious shortcoming of the film. I can only repeat that artistic fantasy, the most daring metaphor is fruitful when it helps the artistic whole. However, as one wise man once said, art is, first of all, measure.

If Vaitkus’s performance was shown now, people would accept it differently. Or, perhaps, the director would stage it differently. I remember, Vaitkus participated in our Art Days events, and we talked… His performance as a work of scenic art was integral.

Artistic integrity has a huge significance: to the meaning and to the idea; it allows interpreting the same facts differently. It is possible to create a Gens like Kitel, but also the way we see in the film by Juzėnas: a negative, but at the same time tragic, figure. This is a great achievement of the film. Everything depends on how facts are given meaning. Art cannot exist separately from meaning and ideology: everything is intertwined.

Of course, I would not like to ‘scourge’ the director who has touched this subject for the first time. Perhaps, we can see a certain progress in his work. However, in this case, I am worried about the effect of the film… Besides, before going to see the film, I was reading reviews by Lithuanian journalists and even upset that they were writing about the ‘easy’ life in the Jewish ghetto. Yet when I saw the film, I understood that this was the only possible way to see the ghetto. And, perhaps, this is what most of people will think of it: the life in the ghetto was effervescent, people used to come to performances, sat there in fur coats and wearing expensive jewellery, etc. I understand that this is props, perhaps, the artist’s ignorance, but when all details accumulate, you cannot stop wondering… The ghetto was not like this; the Ghetto Theatre was not like this; Vilnius was not like this then…

Sobol wrote that he was shocked having learned about a Ghetto Theatre in Vilnius . After the premiere, I was shocked having learned from the film that such a unique theatre did not exist…


Interviewed by Rasa Vasinauskaitė