THESE JEWISH PRISONERS OF THE NAZIS LAUGHED IN HITLER'S FACE - TEREZIN
In a speech in 1939, the ridiculous little corporal, now the murdering dictator, Adolf Hitler, expressed his frustration that the Jews laughed at him. He said their laughter must now be sticking in their throats. Jews imprisoned by the Nazis in Terezin Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic found a way to laugh in Hitler's face. Their talent and determination - their "chutzpah" - audacity - brought a bit of light into their precarious lives.
Richard Krevolin, a filmmaker and playwright who grew up in Woodbridge, says he's not a person who throws the word "miracle" around lightly, but even he has to admit that he's recently been part of a chain of events that can only be characterized as miraculous.
Krevolin, you see, has created a documentary called "Making Light in Terezin," which tells the true story of how Jewish prisoners held in a concentration camp during World War II fought back against the Nazis, not with guns or bombs, but by singing, dancing and laughing.
The film will make its New England debut on June 1 at Lyric Hall, 827 Whalley Ave. in New Haven, for three shows.
As Krevolin puts it, "This is a story of when art battled death onstage every night." In the face of horrific darkness and uncertainty, he says, four 20-year-old prisoners in the Czech concentration camp wrote and produced comedy shows in an attic cabaret in 1943, shows that the survivors said helped them to endure.
In 2005, Lisa Peschel, a theater studies professor, discovered the "Laugh With Us" cabaret scripts and organized a troupe of American actors to go to Terezin in 2011, to perform the show. She invited Krevolin to come along and document their story.
Terezin was not one of the Nazi death camps, but instead was a way station for Jews, many of whom would be sent on to Auschwitz and other death camps. Of the 150,000 people imprisoned there, 88,000 were sent to death camps.
Yet, the cabarets show the actors laughing and imagining the future, such as a time when no one will know the true meaning of the "yellow star" they were forced to wear.
Krevolin lived in the camp for a week, filming and recapturing what he calls "the deep need of human beings to create, and the unstoppable creative force that survived."
The result is "Making Light in Terezin," which not only re-creates the cabaret show, but includes Krevolin's moving interviews with some of the survivors, including the original writers, who talk about that time without bitterness, but with appreciation of the creative force they felt.
It was truly a life-altering experience, he says. And far from being steeped in sadness, the film explores the joy of life.
"It came at a time in my life when it really transformed me," says Krevolin. "I had initially questioned the value of being a comedy writer, but after going to Terezin and talking to the survivors, I was transformed by the inherent value, power and unquestionable importance of comedy and the arts in people's lives."
He says he spent all his money to create the film, which he's been working on for the past two years, narrowing down the 40 hours of footage to an 87-minute film. And despite being broke by the end of the process, he says he found amazing people along the way who helped bring it to life.
"Every time I reached a roadblock, it was as if God sent somebody to help," he says. "This is a story of the Holocaust like none other, and it tells the stories that we need for kids to learn. People need to see the faces of the survivors — to hear from someone who lived this experience and instead of being bitter and angry, is talking about love and the unstoppable creative force that allowed him to survive."
At the request of many who had seen the film, Krevolin and his friend, Nancy Cohen, have compiled all the 40 hours of interviews into a book, "Making Light in Terezin: The Show Helps Us Go On," which gives more depth about the lives of the survivors. It will be available for purchase at the showing in Lyric Hall.
As Rabbi Irwin Kula, of New York, writes in the introduction to the book, "We divide the world between victims who went passively to their deaths and those who ... courageously fought and killed the enemy. But in learning about the artists and musicians and playwrights and comics of Terezin who created a vibrant cultural life, a comedic cabaret, a living theatre in the midst of the Kingdom of Night ... our understanding of the very meaning of resistance and courage is transformed."