Manya Frydman Perel (born in 1924) survived eight concentration camps and dedicated almost fifty years of her life to educating thousands of students on the horrors of Nazi crimes against humanity. Her death on July 29, 2020, inspired the foundation of “The Manya Project” that pays homage to survivors by keeping their personal narratives about the Holocaust visually and aurally alive through theatrical performance. This study offers strategies for creating scripts and performing Holocaust testimony using the Brechtian idea of Verfremdungseffekt and Gestus to respect and honor the lives of Holocaust survivors Manya Frydman Perel, Itka Frajman Zygmuntowicz (1926–2020) and Rosalie Lebovic Simon whom the author has had the privilege to meet and experience their individual testimonies.
Keywords: Holocaust, witnessing, embodiment, trauma, survivor, Verfremdungseffekt, Gestus
Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.Elie Wiesel
The immediate power of Holocaust survivor testimony and witnessing is unmistakable. As Rob Baum stated, “testimony arises from the concomitant, simultaneous need to tell the story and to be heard. That’s all. The presence of the witness is that which grants testimony its power” (“The Mark” 50) Nevertheless, survivors are dying and as Mary Dejevsky put it, “there is no substitute for just one individual’s testimony, spoken face to face. As the number of those who remember declines, so—inexorably—the link between that past and this present is loosened” (n. pag.). Losing this link is especially problematic due to the lack of Holocaust education and understanding in American culture. Only fourteen of the United States require genocide studies and a 2018 survey conducted by the Claims Conference found that nearly one-third of Americans and forty-one percent of millennials believe that only two-million or fewer Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Meanwhile, forty-five percent of the population cannot name one concentration camp. The study also notes that eighty percent of Americans have never visited Holocaust museums or met survivors. Less public contact with survivors will only increase these percentages.
To combat this lack of vital information, The USC Shoah Foundation’s mission is “to develop empathy, understanding and respect through testimony.” The foundation recorded over 55,000 testimonies of survivors of genocides around the world. Videos also include interactive holograms that allow people to ask survivors questions as if they were present in the same room. Holocaust museums, education centers and speakers’ boroughs everywhere are actively working to preserve the memories and testimonies of survivors through written memoirs, audio and video recordings. These preservation methods are valuable tools to help future generations understand the impact of the Nazi genocide on a personal level. But they do not replicate the visceral experience of being in the presence of a survivor, because shared physical presence is an important element of witnessing. Therefore, documentary theatre presentations of survivor’s stories offer a strategy to preserve and perform this important history with an actor serving, in Freddie Rokem’s words, as a “hyper-historian,” which helps audiences understand that the performer will “reappear” as someone that existed in the past (13). To harvest the power of live, embodied testimony, I edited the first-hand narratives of three Holocaust survivors to create one-woman plays.
The first-person narrative plays are the verbatim testimony of three survivors I have come to know. Hell on Earth: The Shoah Experience of Manya Frydman Perel is the focus of this article because it received a live staged production on October 16, 2018. The next two plays are still in progress: Girl in a Striped Dress: The Holocaust Story of Rosalie Lebovic Simon received a public reading in May 2021, and I edited Number 25673: The Story of Itka Frajman Zygmuntowicz during the summer of 2021. I plan two more monologues for the “Manya Project” in honor of Manya Frydman Perel, who has been a great inspiration and supporter and understood the importance of witnessing the Shoah.
I met Manya Frydman Perel (1924–2020) while directing Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo’s play, Who Will Carry the Word? in September 2008. For vital background research, the cast met and heard Perel’s testimony in person. Manya, who spent almost fifty years giving her testimony to school groups and others in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area, understood the importance of telling the story of the concentration camps on-stage. She sat by me on opening night at Temple University on October 27, 2008, and quietly cried through most of the production. After the performance, the cast presented her with flowers and Manya told the audience that the cast, “reminded me of my girls from the camps.” Manya also met the casts and attended the opening nights of the 2009 and 2013 productions (fig. 1).
The impact of Manya’s story and her physical presence grounded and inspired the actors’ understanding of the importance of witnessing and bearing witness to the Holocaust. As Jessie McCormick, a cast member of the 2013 production, posted on Facebook after learning of Manya’s death, “meeting her was one of the highest honors I’ve ever held” (McCormick). Manya Frydman Perel’s gripping personal testimony inspired me to create a work of documentary theatre in 2018. She met with actor Darby Pumphrey and I that August in preparation for the production.
The three women’s stories at the center of the project follow similar patterns. Perel was born in Radom, Poland and grew up with five brothers and four sisters. After their ghetto was liquidated, her parents, two brothers and a sister were murdered in Treblinka. Manya ultimately survived eight concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. Rosalie Simon was born on July 27, 1931, in Teresva, which is now in the Ukraine. She lost her mother and brother upon arrival at Birkenau, in June 1944, when she was twelve years old. Her and her four sisters remained together and were liberated in Allach, Germany, by American soldiers in April 1945.
Itka Zyqmuntowicz (1926–2020) was born in Ciechanow, Poland. In October 1941, she, her parents and younger brother and sister were shipped to the Ghetto in Nowe Miasto. Her parents and siblings were murdered in Birkenau in November 1922, while Zygmuntowicz labored in the death camp. In January 1943, she survived the death march to Ravensbrück, where she was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross. These three women understood the importance of witnessing and spent decades presenting their testimony to many groups, especially school children. While all three have similar histories, their stories have different themes.
Perel emphasized the importance of taking care of family and resisting the Nazis whenever possible. Simon explains that, as twelve-year old, she was not supposed to live but credits her survival to the support of sisters and others. Zygmuntowicz expresses the importance of her family, education and memory in helping her survive.
All three women strived to help us understand the human impact of the Holocaust and the importance of living without hate and prejudice. I had the honor to meet, hear their testimony and interact with these three survivors. All described atrocities, senseless beatings, starvation, disease and murder. Yet, they went on to live fulfilling lives and proved to be kind, caring humanitarians. Survivors’ stories provide us living history and viscerally personify the tragedy of the Holocaust. Their stories chronicle very personal experiences of life before the war, the loss of home and family and the seemingly miraculous acts of kindness, chance and heroism that allowed them to live. Survivors do not tell their stories for self-aggrandizement. While survivors provide us with their unique voice, they also give a voice to the six-million victims we can never hear.
Baum discussed in her article, “The Body as Archive: The Shoah and the Story (Not) Told,” how the human body serves as an archive, like a museum. She recognizes that audiences can also view an actor’s or dancer’s body in performance as an archive (668) and acknowledges the performative nature of witnessing and testimony. Like archives, she posits that:
Survivors and nonsurvivors [sic] constitute sites of memory, embodying cultural archives. Archives are composed of authentic or original memories, and their materiality is not limited to cultural objects (such as texts and artifacts) but include living bodies with subjecthood. . . . A body is a site of storage: a container of emotion, sensation, and memory, including trauma and its effects. In traumatology to “contain” also means to hold (in) to keep, circumscribe, protect, or limit.“Archive” 669
“Containment” is important when analyzing how survivors tell their stories. While a body is a site of storage, I observed these three Holocaust survivors hold, protect and limit their exposure to their traumatic past while telling their stories. Holocaust survivors, while distanced in time from their traumatic history, also need to remain psychologically distanced from that history to tell it. This form of self-care used to tell their own history is akin to Verfremdungseffekt as described by Bertolt Brecht (201–04), that requires actors to create a critical distance to the character rather than try to become the character. So, while they are telling their story, they need to keep this history in the past.
Verbatim works of documentary theatre seek to, as Vivian M. Patraka, stated in Spectacular Suffering, “to honor and cherish [Holocaust survivors’] testimony and their palpable presence . . .” (4). A goal of my work is to create an aesthetic work of theatre, but I also follow Robert Skloot’s code of ethics, that seek to instruct artists not to cheapen, trivialize, or exploit survivors (11). As Cathy Caruth notes in her introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, the shared experience of traumatic memories can have a healing effect for the survivors, (6) but I want to be sure that the audiences experience of recreated suffering does not exploit the survivors’ personal stories. Theatre works best in a world of metaphor and symbolism with audiences understanding that the stage world is a created world.
Attempting to create the reality of Holocaust trauma on-stage can exploit survivors, actors and audience and will most likely fail. Theatre makers need only look to survivors themselves who offer examples of ways to contain their stories, which are both self-protecting and prevent exploitation of themselves and audiences. Perel, Simon and Zygmuntowicz all referred to their written testimony and tried to maintain a neutral tone when speaking. Manya occasionally strayed from her written dialogue. In those “off book” moments, she often got visibly angry and needed to take a moment to re-distance herself. Nevertheless, when Perel gave her testimony in public, she also made sure to take care of her audience. McCormick said:
We all listened intently but couldn’t help but cry. She didn’t notice at first, since she was reading from a book. . . . When she finally looked up from her binder and saw us weeping, she stopped and went “why are you crying?” We all explained that her story was moving but tragic, and that we felt bad for the horrors she had to experience so young. Then she looked at us and apologized for making us cry. We were flabbergasted. We said she had nothing to apologize for! . . . She carefully stood herself up, and slowly walked over to us from her table. “No more crying!” she said, “Here! Let’s cha cha!” and she walked over to me, grabbed my hands, pulled me out of my chair, and danced with me until we all laughed. She then gave us all hugs, sat back down, and finished her speech.
While stories of spectacular suffering can seem theatrical, theatre need not get over invested and distracted in spectacle. Rather, these three plays focus on the humanity of these women, their striving to retain their compassion under inhuman conditions and their appreciation of life as they try to maintain hope.
Patraka later pointed out that “to say we can ‘know’ or ‘understand’ anything about the events of the Holocaust is problematic, since the material history underlying the term is so grounded in a sense of goneness [sic]” (4). Instead of “absence” she uses the term “goneness” because:
It more completely reflects the definitiveness, the starkness, and the magnitude of this particular genocide by dictating the scope of what and who has been violently lost, including succeeding generations that cannot be. Murder and cruelty on a mass scale are what distinguish this goneness from the historian’s problem of documentation and recovery. Goneness is inconceivable but its effects are palpable, particularly in the inevitable desire to articulate, negotiate, mark, and define.4
Survivor’s stories are full of loss and survivors lack the ability to take us back and show us what they experienced. The imagination fails to come close to reproducing the horror of the Shoah, and Primo Levi confirms this sense of goneness when he argues:
We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. . . . We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are . . . the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance.83–84
Freddie Rokem also points to this paradox by noting, “it is this muteness of the ‘complete witness’ that the theatre, when it is performing history tries to rescue” (xiii). However, a hyper-historian performing a Holocaust survivor, who according to Levi was still not a true witness, becomes a kind of witness when performing a survivor’s testimony.
According to Rokem, a hyper-historian makes it possible for audiences to recognize the actor as “redoing” or “reappearing” as someone from the past (13). In staging survivor testimony, I agree with Rokem, who stated that the performance (and actor) “can never become these events or the historical figures themselves” (13). But as theatre makers, we must rely on the “aesthetic potentials of the actor’s body as well as emotions and ideological commitments [which] are utilized as aesthetic materials through different kinds of embodiment and inscription” (13). Performing a theatrical work as history allows the actor to transform into a hyper-historian and become a witness to the Holocaust for audiences (25).
Elie Wiesel reinforces this idea of witnessing in his closing remarks at the “The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors” conference held at Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Communities on April 11, 2002. He asked, “But who will be the last survivor, the last to tell the tale. . . . Who will be our witness?” He answers his question by explaining that, as long as scholars and students study the Holocaust that they will be “our heirs, our witnesses,” because “For whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness” (Wiesel; my emphasis). Witnessing is not limited to archival research. Given that an actor’s or dancer’s body serves as an archive, their performance of Holocaust testimony becomes an archive of memory and offers audiences a sense of witnessing as well (Baum, “Archive” 668).
The three one-woman plays archive survivors’ testimonies as a form of documentary theatre (or verbatim theatre); they function more in the realm of memory because the spoken narrative represents how the survivor experienced and remembered the Shoah. They are much more personal than a traditional narrative drama yet imbued with goneness. While on stage, an actor/hyper-historian re-appears as a Holocaust survivor and performs a re-remembering of an actual testimony, making it possible for audiences to recognize an actual re-seeing of a survivor’s past.
Producing and Performing Hell on Earth
Hell on Earth: The Shoah Experience of Manya Frydman Perel, like other Theatre of the Holocaust plays, aims, in Robert Skloot’s words:
1) to pay homage to the victims, . . . 2) to educate audience to the facts of history; 3) to produce an emotional response to those facts; 4) to raise certain moral questions for audiences to discuss and reflect upon; and 5) to draw a lesson from the events re-created.14
The ritual recorded in figure two opened the performance and paid homage to Manya Frydman Perel and her family. It also became a site of remembrance and commemoration of Holocaust victims by presenting actual photographs of Manya’s family. This silent, physicalized, ritual served as a memorial to Manya, her family and the six million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis. It set the stage as a sacred space and help prepare the audience for the story. The silent ritual of unpacking, seeing and displaying old photographs of Manya Perel’s family members evoked ghosts from the past that connect the actor to the memorized story. The actor silently spoke volumes and prepared the audience to witness Manya’s story. The unwrapped black and white photographs were presumably seen after a long time in storage. They were displayed on a table as precious objects filled with meaning. Later, the actor referred to the photographs as she spoke about Manya’s family members. When she related how each died, Darby turned the photo face-down on the table. Witnessing these images from the past played a critical role in the narrative when Manya described seeing her parents, two brothers and a sister for the last time (fig. 3)
A spoken prologue followed the silent, physical ritual and served as a moment of Verfremdung. It distanced the actor from Manya to remind the audience that they were watching an actor preparing to perform a character. the prologue also allowed the actor to introduce herself and Manya Perel to the audience. The prologue offered some facts of the Holocaust and introduced Manya from the actor’s perspective and set the actor up as an expert. This monologue is designed to respect Manya and her story and to help the actor and audience understand the impossibility of realistically recreating the events of the Holocaust. The prologue can be personalized, allowing the actor to express her impressions and experience of Manya’s words, which are spoken starting in scene one.
Manya’s oral testimony, functions in the realm of memory, which can be problematic in terms of mental gaps and historical inaccuracies. Nevertheless, Manya’s testimony aligns with the testimony of countless other survivors and the historical record, which gives her memories authority. This authority allows the actor to function as a Holocaust educator during the performance. To properly execute that authority, actors must be fully cognizant of the given circumstances of the Holocaust survivor and fully connect to the story. They must empathize with the survivor’s experience of the Holocaust to become a hyper-historian. Actors performing a Holocaust narrative must become deep listeners by fully understanding the survivor’s life before, during, and after the Holocaust. Although Manya Perel’s words in the performance text serve as given circumstances, the edited play cannot provide the complete picture. The historical record provides the “big picture” of facts, timelines and statistics. Actors must understand the impact of the historic event, how survivors’ memories functioned and how they physically and vocally relate such painful, traumatic events to audiences.
Figure 4 shows 94-year-old Manya with 21-year-old actor Darby Pumphrey, a fourth-generation survivor, when they met in August 2018, in Manya’s home. This increasingly rare opportunity to personally talk to a survivor allowed the actor an invaluable opportunity to explore her own family history and gave her a deep connection to the work. The experience changed Darby’s life, as she expressed in her version of the prologue:
Meeting Manya was a wonderful gift. You see, my grandmother, my Bubby was the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland. I never knew my Bubby’s parents, my great grandparents. I only ever heard bits and pieces of their story. In many ways, Manya’s story is the story of my great grandmother. Through Manya, I am now more connected to my great grandmother. More connected to my history. The individual details of my grandparent’s histories are lost, but Manya has helped me recover some of that loss.Hostetter
Manya lived by herself and was generous in sharing her home and her history. Later, she even fed us. The always supportive Manya even came (with her son and daughter) to see Darby’s performance in October 2018 (fig. 5).
Darby Pumphrey did not become Manya when she performed Hell on Earth. The audience saw a young, costumed actor who performed a ritual of unpacking photos as if she was the title character. Then, Darby spoke in her own voice and established her expertise on the subject, setting up her role as a hyper-historian. During the transition from the prologue into scene one, as the recording in figure six shows, the audience watched Darby physically and vocally switch into portraying Manya with the line, “It started in the year 1939” (Scene one). This conscious disruption served as another Verfremdungeffekt to let the audience see Darby become a character. They saw a real person bringing her own truth to Manya’s testimony. As Baum stated, Darby’s body became the “site of storage: a container of emotion, sensation, and memory” (“Archive” 669)
The audience witnessed Pumphrey becoming the container of Manya’s story during Darby’s transition to embody Manya. Darby ends the prologue by stating, “This is her account, as she remembers; her personal hell on earth and what the world has come to know as, the Holocaust” (Hostetter). Darby then walks around the table, sees the photos, puts on a Star of David armband and adopts a Polish accent. This moment of humiliation, of labeling, of psychological trauma is made physical and visible, requiring only a slight costume change (fig. 6).
While Brecht intended Verfremdungseffekt to create a critical distance to the action on stage, in this production his technique also helped unite actor and audience into an ensemble for the duration of the performance. Sharing the unpacking of family photographs with the audience, followed by Pumphrey speaking in her own voice, allowed the audience to know the actor and to understand the personal connection that Darby forged with Manya. The prologue, spoken directly to the audience, not only helps establish the actor’s authority, it also introduces a coming moral lesson and shares hope that Perel’s story would be as impactful as it has been for so many people:
Something she said was, “I hope that my life will be an example for others not to take life for granted, not to be prejudiced toward others, and to respect one another. After all, we only have one life to live.” Her life and story have accomplished this, and she has definitely influenced and made an impact on every individual that she has spoken to. Including me.Hostetter
The body of the play, composed of Manya’s testimony, is memory told to an audience in a theatre. Manya describes her life events in chronological order, beginning with peaceful family life, the arrival of the Nazis and the deterioration of daily life, though deportation to the ghettos, concentration camps, and liberation. Pumphrey’s performance started in direct conversation with the audience. She later adapted a Polish accent for the performance and presented a studied embodiment of the survivor. Darby was able to address the audience visually and vocally and physically embody a range of emotions that the text provoked, including love, humor, anger and sorrow. She transported the audience back to the checkpoint where Darby, as Manya, saw her family board cattle cars for transportation to death in Treblinka. Pumphrey’s emotion in these moments were real, but the emotions were hers. Her visceral performance offered a personal communication of this story to an audience filtered through her own witnessing of Manya’s past.
The final scene of the play returns the audience to the present as Manya answers people who have asked her why “we did not resist the Nazis” (Hostetter 17). She responds with:
The Jewish people resisted during the Holocaust. The Jewish people resisted by creating sabotage, rebellion, and uprisings when and wherever possible. They fought to the last drop of blood against the Nazi machinery. Finally, we survivors resisted with our minds. The Nazis could not crush our spirit, our faith, or our love for life and humanity. Everyone who survived successfully resisted the Nazis and their “Final Solution.” The “Final Solution” it turns out was the Nazi German ideology that turned on itself and became the destiny of the Third Reich, their final solution.Hostetter 17
This direct address distances the actor and the audience from Perel’s personal story, allowing them a moment of critical reflection of assumptions many people may still hold regarding the Holocaust. This contemporary reference concluded the testimonial portion of the play. The play concluded with an epilogue that reestablished the performer’s own identity and act of personal witnessing.
In the epilogue, the actor no longer “plays Manya” and tells the audience in her own voice why Manya spent almost fifty years telling her story. The play closes with a personal wish for Manya:
Manya had nightmares. She still had trouble sleeping more than 75 years after the Holocaust. Manya, I hope that you can sleep now knowing the impact of the story of your experience of the Holocaust has made on me and the thousands of others that you have so generously shared your history with, meaning that none of us will ever forget the inhumanity experienced by a group of people based on their religion.Hostetter
Based on Perel’s example of witnessing, an actor performing Holocaust testimony needs to establish a relationship with the audience that communicates the humanity of the historical figure and trust that the survivors speak their truth without using emotional exploitation or trying to enter a world that is incomprehensible. A caring relationship was a hallmark of Manya’s witnessing and should inspire the audience to understand that we have become a witness as well when recreated on the stage.
Rokem noted that the Shoah and the atomic bomb are both extreme examples of the destructive energies in history (192), but the presentation of Holocaust survivor testimony on-stage does not need to feed on destructive energy. The survivors’ testimonies used in these three plays describe trauma and brutality, but they ultimately focus on the necessity of family and human support in navigating such extreme cruelty without sacrificing compassion. Ultimately, as Rokem put it, “it is the spectators who create the meaning of the performance, by activating different psychological and social energies” (192). Audiences understand family connections and likely dread the loss of their own relatives. Darby Pumphrey’s careful preparation and empathetic understanding of Manya Perel’s story aided in creating meaning for the audience. The actor transformed an actual person’s experience of historical events into a sensitive portrayal of history. As Rokem explains:
Theatre about historical events generally focuses on a character [my emphasis] with knowledge . . . where the victimized survivor is given the position of the witness. This witness is able to tell the spectators something about the experiences previously hidden behind the “veils” of his or her past and now, through the performance, revealed to the spectators. The cathartic processes activated by the theatre performing history are more like a “ritual” of resurrection, a revival of past suffering, where the victim is given the power to speak about the past again.205
It is essential for actors to become emersed in the given circumstances of the play, and exploring the plethora of video, audio and available written testimony. As actors and directors, we must not cheapen, trivialize or exploit the words of the survivors. Verbatim transcription and adaptation of this highly personal, lived narrative come with the deep moral responsibility to portray the lives of survivors and their traumatic experiences with respect and care for the survivor, actor and audience. Hell on Earth offers a theatricalized experience of the Holocaust that pays homage to the victims while reminding the audience that the actor portraying the survivor is providing a first-hand account as a hyper-historian and witness.
Imagining oneself in imaginary circumstances is not possible in the Theatre of the Holocaust. George Steiner worries that attempting to express the Holocaust on-stage could be trivial or impertinent. He wrote, “the world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason. To speak of the unspeakable is to risk the survivance of language as creator and bearer of humane, rational truth” (Steiner 123). Nevertheless, unless the horror is described, it will be forgotten. The survivors’ personal truths are truly impactful, and we must try to understand. Fortunately, artists can educate audiences even when survivors can no longer personally tell their stories. Giving Manya’s words the meaning they had in the camps may not be possible, but watching an actor play Manya as an actor playing Manya helps audiences understand the difficulty of the task and the dedication needed to tell the story as honestly as possible. An actor who embodies the voice of a survivor can work with the audience to develop understanding.
Meeting Manya Frydman Perel and other Holocaust survivors profoundly impacted my life and work as a theatre artist. During their lives, Manya and Itka Frajman Zygmuntowicz were dedicated to teaching students about the Holocaust by sharing their stories. Rosalie Lebovic Simon is still active with speaking engagements. These kind, open, warm and generous women provided a living archive of a horrible history. Writers and actors dedicated to presenting the verbatim testimony of survivors may help preserve these narratives through a living interaction with audiences. The goal is to avoid cheapening, trivializing or exploiting their lived histories. We must pay Holocaust victims homage; educate audiences; raise moral questions for discussion and reflection; and draw a lesson from these historic narratives. With an ethical and empathetic approach, we can keep these testimonies alive through the physical embodiment of theatre.
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*Anthony Hostetter is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Rowan University where he teaches Theatre History, Contemporary World Theatre and The Theatre of the Holocaust. He is a stage designer and director. He is the author of “Robert Edmond Jones: Theatre and Motion Pictures, Bridging Reality and Dreams,” with Elisabeth Hostetter, Theatre Symposium, vol. 19, November 2011, and “An Interview with John Clancy, Playwright and Director,” Communications from the International Brecht Society, Spring 2009. His “A Disaster of Cosmic Proportions? Revisiting Max Reinhardt’s Grosses Schauspielhaus,” was the winner of the 2001 Herbert D. Greggs Award for Outstanding Writing in Theatre Design and Technology.
Copyright © 2021 Anthony Hostetter
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