THE Smoke Of Home, a rediscovered one-act play written in the Second World War Jewish ghetto at Terezín, near Prague, will be staged at Clifford's Tower, York, tomorrow and Sunday at 8pm and 9.30pm.
The site of Clifford's Tower was the scene of the massacre of the entire Jewish community of York, on March 16 1190, in the culmination to a wave of anti-Semitic riots sweeping the country.
The royal castle atop the earthen mound where Clifford’s Tower now stands had been the refuge chosen by the city’s 150-strong Jewish population. Besieged, most of the Jews chose to commit suicide; the survivors were killed by a mob.
“It is especially appropriate that The Smoke of Home, a powerful historical drama, is being performed in York’s iconic Clifford’s Tower – the scene of such a dreadful episode in our history,” said Dr Stephen Muir, from the University of Leeds, who is heading a research project to highlight lost or forgotten works.
Joe Lichtenstein's cast rehearsing at Clifford's Tower, York. Picture: Esme Pitts
Written by Czech Jews Zdeněk Eliáš and Jiří Stein's in 1943, the 45-minute play was preserved by one of its authors. It only resurfaced in 2006, however, during University of York theatre lecturer Dr Lisa Peschel’s research on the cultural life of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, also known as Theresienstadt ghetto, established by the SS in the garrison city of Terezín in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
A Terezín survivor who remembered the play put her in touch with Zdeněk Eliáš's widow, Kate. Prompted by Dr Peschel, Mrs Eliáš found the script in her late husband’s safe, among his most important papers.
Zdeněk Eliáš had survived the war and moved to America, where he died in Seattle in 2000. Co-author Jiří Stein was deported from the ghetto to Auschwitz in 1944 and then to Dachau, where he perished in December that year.
“We’re very pleased and grateful to English Heritage to be able to present this event in Clifford’s Tower," said Dr Peschel. "Not only because it’s fitting for the play as the original setting is a prison tower, but also because of the significant history of the site for the Jewish population of York.”
What inspired the play, an historical allegory set in the Thirty Years’ War? Jiří Franěk, a survivor of the ghetto and friend of the authors, recalled that many Terezín prisoners lived only for their memories of home, a home they idealised and expected to return to after the war.
"All those naive recollections were related to a notion of home which was unchanging," he said. "Only a few were able to look the truth in the eyes, a truth which was already apparent even in the camps: none of us would return to the same home we left. Eliáš and Stein were able to face that possibility.
“The play’s two young Czech Jewish authors confront a question their fellow Terezín prisoners could not bear to face: ‘if we survive, will we have a home to return to?” said Dr Muir, who is leading Performing The Jewish Archive, a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project to explore hidden archives, uncover and perform lost works and create a legacy for the future.
Translated by Dorothy Elias, the play is directed by University of York alumnus Joe Lichtenstein, who has worked in tandem with dramaturg and executive producer Dr Peschel, editor of Performing Captivity, Performing Escape: Cabarets and Plays from the Terezin/Theresienstadt Ghetto, who will introduce tonight's 8pm performance.
James Esler, left, Sam Hill, Jacob Hobbins and Christian Loveless in rehearsal for The Smoke Of Home. Picture: Timothy Kelly
Lichtenstein's cast features University of York students James Esler as Christian; Sam Hill, Waldau; Jacob Hobbins, Walloon Guard; Christian Loveless, Casselius; Estela Williams, Veronika, and Josh Welch, Father Anselm.
Please note, this outdoor event is not accessible by wheelchair and the audience will be expected to stand for the 45-minute performance. Dress up warmly and bring a raincoat, but no fold-up chairs or umbrellas.
Tomorrow's opening performance has sold out but will be streamed live online via ptja.leeds.ac.uk/events/the-smoke-of-home or at youtube.com/watch?v=1Ff16MD-rz4, with the channel being active from 7.30pm.
Tickets for the remaining shows are on sale at ptja.leeds.ac.uk/festivals/leeds-york-2016/; if you need a bench seat, reserve one when booking. Under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.
The Smoke Of Home (Dým domova) opens the University of Leeds programme of rediscovered Jewish music and theatre, featuring performances in Leeds and York of varied works, many thought to have been lost. Eight world premieres will be among the 20 performances spread across eight venues in the two cities as part of a global research project, under the banner of Out Of The Shadows.
“It promises to be a poignant and uplifting programme of events celebrating the lives and achievements of Jewish artists in times of both adversity and freedom, with pieces once thought lost or languishing 'in the shadows', now brought back into the light,” said Dr Muir, a senior lecturer in musicology and performance in the University of Leeds’s School of Music.
Further highlights will include the Nash Ensemble, the New Budapest Orpheum Society, cabaret, theatre, song, piano music by a 12-year-old prodigy from the Warsaw ghetto, chamber music and an exhibition of children’s drawings from the Terezín ghetto.
Out Of The Shadows is supported by the York Festival of Ideas. For full details, prices and bookings, visit ptja.leeds.ac.uk/festivals/leeds-york-2016 or call 0113 343 2574.