Zdenka Fantlova’s The Tin Ring and Vasily Grossman’s The Road – remembering the realities of the Holocaust.

Before attending a performance of the powerful drama, The Tin Ring, brilliantly brought to life by Jane Arnfield in the intimacy of Mr.Speaker’s House at Westminster, I hadn’t known that Zdenka Fantlova would be in the audience.

Zdenka Fantlova with Jane Arnfield

Zdenka Fantlova with Jane Arnfield

It would be impossible not to be profoundly moved by the poignant and harrowing story of this now elderly woman. And where better to be challenged to affirm life over death and love over hate, than in the heart of the British Parliament – a building which also survived Nazi attempts to destroy it, along with the democratic values it represents.

The Tin Ring

The Tin Ring

As The Tin Ring unfolds we learn that, somehow, the remarkable Zdenka defied all the odds, all the horrors of the concentration camps, and somehow survived.

Somehow, she had retained and never been separated from the tin ring which Arno, the boy she loved, had secretly passed to her in the camp.

And, somehow, this troth serves as a repudiation of the visceral hatred and violence represented by Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen Belsen and all the other monstrous Nazi extermination centres.

The Tin Ring

The Tin Ring

The Tin Ring takes us into Dante’s Hell but here is someone who has survived and emerged to give the lie to Hitler’s confident belief that he could act with impunity and never be held to account; someone who is able to speak for the countless mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers whose kith and kin were slaughtered; someone able to channel the suffering, pain, and their shocking loss into a defiant testimony.

Zdenka’s story reminds us how great is the power of true humanity; the greatness of the power of love; the triumph of life over the ideology and culture of death. Here is a love story to rebuke the evil hate story of the Shoah.

Arno’s tin ring comes to represent love, hope, truth and life itself.

The narrative reminds an all too easily forgetful world of the savagery of the Holocaust: the indifference, the silence, or collaboration of so many; and the danger of “never again” happening all over again in our own times.

The political and moral consequences of this collective amnesia – let alone the catastrophic human consequences – are appalling.

The Tin Ring uses the powerful medium of drama to address this danger of collective forgetfulness and obscene attempts to rewrite or minimise the history of those times.

But if collective memory is to have any purpose it must surely prompt us to reflect on reports, at home, of anti-Semitism and the scapegoating of minorities.

What, too, does it say to us about contemporary and horrific genocidal events overseas, from Sudan to North Korea, from Syria to Burma. Or do we mimic Neville Chamberlain’s infamous remark, as Hitler invaded Zdenka’s Czechoslovakia, that it was “a far away country about which we know very little.”

After the Holocaust world leaders declared “never again” – and after every subsequent genocide, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo, Burma, Kosovo, and the rest, they have said exactly the same thing.

We need to understand gross inhumanity precisely because it has, does, and will happen all over again.

Not long after watching the Tin Ring a friend gave me a copy of Vasily Grossman’s book, The Road.

It’s a collection of essays and short stories. Some were written after he had written first hand reports of the Battle of Stalingrad for the Soviet press. Grossman – from a Russian secular Jewish background – sees the Communist USSR as the only hope in the struggle against Nazism. After Stalingrad he travels West with the Red Army and takes first hand accounts of the  industrial scale inhumanity which characterised Treblinka. My friend rightly says that The Road “should be compulsory reading for those for whom World War Two is ancient history – as a reminder of how lucky we are to be living in era of relative tranquillity.”

The Road is an amazingly powerful account of the sheer depths of evil to which man can sink. The Treblinka narrative is poignant and disturbing and Grossman’s belief in the Red Army and Lenin’s legacy, now entrusted to Stalin, is touched by a naively optimistic view of Communism. The later stories in his collection, affected by Stalin’s Great Terror and Purges, the Gulags, and the suppression of his own writing, leaves Grossman with a more realistic view of Stalin’s Soviet Union: and he was fortunate that Stalin died just before Grossman himself was about to be arrested.

Stalin died just before Grossman's intended arrest

Stalin died just before Grossman’s intended arrest

 

In reading The Road and watching The Tin Ring I was reminded of the remark of Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, who said “do not ask where was God at Auschwitz, ask where was man.” That same question is at the heart of Zdenka’s story, and Grossman story.

If we are to find the correct answer t0 Sack’s question “where was man?”  we will need to immerse ourselves in accounts like those contained in The Road and how good it would be if  plays like The Tin Ring were staged more widely and seen in universities, civic halls, churches and popular venues – prompting us to raise our voices and to take action on behalf of today’s Zdenkas and Arnos and challenging those who promote their own versions of twentieth century xenophobia and hatred of minorities.

Drama and Music To Make Us Think: Disability Hate Crime, Religious Persecution, Bullying, Relationships, the Holocaust, North Korea, Scapegoating of Minorities…

Ten Ten Theatre Company - "The Jeweller's Shop"

Ten Ten Theatre Company – “The Jeweller’s Shop”

Ten Ten theatre company and "Kolbe's Gift"

Ten Ten theatre company and “Kolbe’s Gift”

Confessions of a Butterfly by Jonathan Salt

Confessions of a Butterfly by Jonathan Salt

Rise - "Soldier to Saint"

Rise – “Soldier to Saint”

Rise Theatre Company

Rise Theatre Company

Actors in Living Without Fear

Actors in Living Without Fear

 

 

90%of all babies with Down's Syndrome are victims of eugenic abortions

90%of all babies with Down’s Syndrome are victims of eugenic abortions

A Baby With Down's Syndrome

A Baby With Down’s Syndrome

"Some people think I shouldn't be here, but I am. I'm a human being, and I'm in love." - words of an actor in "Living Without Fear"

“Some people think I shouldn’t be here, but I am. I’m a human being, and I’m in love.” – words of an actor in “Living With Fear”

 

   A theatre company, consisting primarily, but not exclusively, of actors with learning disabilities, recently came to Westminster to perform their play “Living without Fear” – and in one short hour achieved more in raising awareness about disability hate crime than any number of speeches delivered in Parliament.

   Drama has an extraordinary capacity to move, to touch, and to reach people and this production by Blue Apple Theatre made me reflect on both the issue which the company explored and on the way in which they succeeded in catching my attention.

  Jane Jessop is the founding director of  Blue Apple Theatre.  She says that the British Crime Survey found that each year a truly shocking 65,000 assaults take place against people with disabilities and that “this is probably an underestimate”. Some one million people with learning disabilities live in Britain and Mencap say that up to 90% of people with learning disabilities are bullied and harassed on a regular basis

 Determined to raise awareness among policy makers she believes drama is an effective way to do it. So, she persuaded Steve Brine, her local MP in Winchester, to sponsor a performance of the play and, by kind permission of Mr.Speaker Bercow, this was performed in Mr.Speaker’s House.  Among those who had travelled up to see the play was Hampshire’s Chief Constable, Andy Marsh. Esther McVeigh, the Minister with responsibility for disabled people was also present.

  “Living Without Fear” shines a light on the vulnerability of people who are initially thrilled by the idea of independent living but who then have to come to terms with prejudice and negotiate the visceral hatred of the people with whom they have to live alongside. It’s simply impossible to be left unaffected by the play or by a cast which comprises some of those who have experienced such hatred first hand.

   I was particularly struck by the young actor with Down’s Syndrome who says Some people think I shouldn’t be here, but I am. I’m a human being, and I’m in love.”

  He’s right of course: eugenic abortions now prevent most people with Down’s Syndrome from being here. 90% of babies with Down’s Syndrome have their lives ended in the womb. The violence, discrimination, and prejudice against people with learning difficulties or disability begins at conception. How sad that this young man’s love is met with society’s rejection.

   Jane Jessop says that her first hope in bringing “Living Without Fear” to Westminster “was to bring our talented actors to the heart of Parliament so that people legislating on abortion and other issues would meet whole and rounded people with learning disabilities, especially those with Down’s Syndrome and see their talent and potential.

“I  hope you could see there is no limit to our ambition in helping them realise their potential. Next was to raise the difficult issues around disability hate crime.”

 Blue Apple’s web site shows the breadth and the range of work in which this inclusive theatre company is involved and which deserves to be seen by audiences up and down the country:   

http://www.blueappletheatre.hampshire.org.uk/  and this link features extracts from the play and lets the actors speak for themselves: http://bit.ly/YLcgFg

    Recently I have seen some other brilliant examples of drama being used to explore contemporary themes. At the Easter Celebrate conference in Ilfracombe there were performances by two Catholic theatre groups – Ten Ten and Rise.

  Rise produced some thought-provoking sketches and are now preparing to take their play “Soldier to Saint” on a UK tour from June 28th to July 12th.
Set in 2020, in an England which is persecuting Christians, it’s the story of a soldier, John Alban. Like his Roman namesake, his friendship with a fugitive priest endangers his freedom and his very life. On a daily basis, in many parts of the world, from China to Nigeria, contemporary Albans are deprived of their liberty or their lives and this is a timely reminder not to take for granted the freedoms we enjoy in Britain: (http://www.risetheatre.co.uk/ )
Drama allows the exploration of countless rich and disturbing questions.
Ten Ten used Celebrate to stage a powerful production of “Heart”, a drama which takes on inter-generational relationships and the role a grandmother plays in challenging her grand-daughter’s bullying of another girl.
Later in the year Ten Ten, are back at London’s Leicester Square Theatre where they previously performed “The Jeweller”, an adaptation of John Paul II’s play, “The Jeweller’s Shop” – which examines relationships, friendships, and love, in the context of three couples whose lives become intermingled. The comedian, Frank Skinner, described “The Jeweller” as “deeply funny, gut-wrenchingly sad and thought provoking.”

Between October 1st and 5th Ten Ten turn their attention to another Pole, St.Maximilian Kolbe, whom John Paul called “the patron saint of our difficult century.” This brand new production of “Kolbe’s Gift” – an inspirational play by David Gooderson – takes us to Auschwitz, where the imprisoned Kolbe encounters a soldier, Franek Gajowniczec, and freely gives his own life to save the other (http:www.tententheatre.co.uk).
Like “Confessions of a Butterfly”, the one man play about the life of Janusz Korczak, written and performed by the Catholic writer, Jonathan Salt, and which I saw at a synagogue in London a few months ago, “Kolbe’s Gift” reminds us of the savagery of the Holocaust; the indifference, the silence, or collaboration of so many; and the danger of “never again” happening all over again in our own times.
Salt introduces us to Korcczak’s heroism but also to children like the boy with the violin – who chooses to become selectively mute after watching the execution of his parents. A profoundly moving and poignant story, it’s not one which I will quickly or easily forget.https://davidalton.net/2012/11/02/confessions-of-a-butterfly-the-remarkable-story-of-janusz-korczak/
Each of these dramas explores a different question and tells a different story but they all raise profoundly important issues in a world which can too easily become indifferent and where we need to find a range of different ways to effect change.
And it’s not just drama: art and graphics, writing, poetry and music all have their part to play. The Catholic musicians, Ooberfuse, have just marked North Korea Freedom week with a brilliant song, Vanish the Night, released on Youtube and features the North Korean escapee and human rights campaigner, Shin Dong Hyok: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=be7WTX_z_E8&feature=share.

An earlier song, about the assassination of Pakistan’s Catholic Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, His Blood Cries Out, has now been watched by over 137,000 people http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABOIQfhyh1g .

In every generation we must guard against prejudice and bigotry, racism and xenophobia and cherish our precious freedoms and liberties. In particular, minorities, ranging from people with learning disabilities to vulnerable ethnic groups or dissenting religious believers, need to have their stories told. And, this is a world in which anti-Semitism, racial intolerance, and the scapegoating of minorities – such as homosexuals living in those Commonwealth countries which still impose the death penalty for homosexuality – or Christians facing death in countries like North Korea or Iran – or institutionalised discrimination in the form of caste based prejudice against Dalits in India – are all distempers of our age.
Perhaps music and drama will succeed in waking us up to these horrific realities when speeches and commentaries do not – and maybe challenge us to change our attitudes and our laws.

https://davidalton.net/2012/09/13/the-killing-of-people-with-downs-syndrome-bbc-report/