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On artistic and moral experience

The Trials of John Demjanjuk: a Holocaust Cabaret sparks outrage in Kyiv
18 May, 2017 - 10:02
A SCENE FROM THE PLAY THE TRIALS OF JOHN DEMJANJUK: A HOLOCAUST CABARET / Photo by Oleksandr ANDRIEIEV

The Trials of John Demjanjuk: a Holocaust Cabaret is a play by the Canadian Jewish (important!) playwright Jonathan Garfinkel, which has already been staged in the US, Canada, and Germany. It is about the trial of Ivan Demianiuk (John Demjanjuk), an ethnic Ukrainian and a US citizen, whom the survived Nazi camp inmates recognized in the 1970s as the Sobibor death camp overseer nicknamed Ivan the Terrible who was implicated in the killing of about 28,000 prisoners, mostly Jews.

There were in fact several trials of Demjanjuk – particularly in Israel (1983-93), where he was sentenced to death but then acquitted after an appeal, and in Germany (2009-11), when the court also convicted the defendant but the appeal was not heard completely due to the death of the defendant in 2012 at the age of 91.

Demjanjuk came down in history as the last exposed World War Two criminal. Yet his guilt and identity with the Nazi henchman were never proven with 100-percent certainty.

The playwright says that what prompted him to write a play about the trial of Demjanjuk was the information that a theater had to be rented in Munich owing to an immense inrush of those who wished to attend the trial. “Stage show,” “international conspiracy,” “wild spree,” “hype” – these epithets, so often used in the world media about the trial, caused the author to resort to the genre of tragigrotesque or even tragifarce.

PREHISTORY

A Holocaust Cabaret premiered at Erarta, Russia’s largest private museum of contemporary art in Saint Petersburg. Ilya Mokshitsky and Dmitriy Saratsky were the stage director and the composer, respectively, and actors were invited from the local Aleksandrinsky Theater, Maly Drama Theater (Theater of Europe), and others.

It is important to emphasize the main point which most of our mass media omitted when spotlighting the situation: the Kyiv production is a guest performance. What links it with Ukraine is only the name of Kyivite Dmitry Saratsky and Kyiv’s private theater Misanthrope (Saratsky and Mokshitsky are its founders). In other words, the performance immediately got into a somewhat faulty context: it was regarded as a national product, which is only true to some extent, rather than as a cultural “incursion” from Russia.

THE KYIV CONTEXT

It was decided to hold the play’s Kyiv premiere at the concert club Bel Etage. A big Holocaust Cabaret billboard was put up on the building’s facade, which aroused burning indignation of the public because there is the Central Synagogue a hundred meters away and the Sholom Aleichem monument in front, and the “premiere” took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the words of critic Anastasia Haishenets, “this triggers aggression and looks like a provocation pure and simple.”

Among those who strongly oppose the performance are Ukraine’s chief rabbi Moshe Azman, other prominent Jewish figures, and many Kyivites who are searching for associations and asking how Ukrainians would react to a billboard such as, say, “Holodomor Vaudeville.” Quite predictably, those who have never seen this play are adhering to the old principle: “I haven’t read Pasternak, but I’m deeply outraged at the way he reviles Soviet reality.”

Some odious newspapers, particularly Moskovsky Komsomolets and Komsomolskaya Pravda v Ukraine, further whipped up the scandal. At last, the billboard was removed, and organizers said that a “truce” had been reached with the Jewish community. The organizers more than once emphasized that they were sincerely unwilling to hurt anybody and that the play’s author and most of the producers were of Jewish origin.

Meanwhile, Bel Etage refused, in the last minute, to offer its premises for the performance. The Les Kurbas Center, which had allegedly agreed to stage the play, and a dozen of other sites did the same. The organizers put this down to “pressure from the very top.” The Ukraine Crisis Media Center canceled the announced press conference, explaining this as follows: “The performance is banned in Kyiv, and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) is taking a certain stand on this.” The SBU did not comment on the situation officially, although its likely “interest” in this production can be hypothetically explained by the arrival of an “organized group” of Russian citizens in Ukraine and the current stir in society. Saratsky threatened to put on the play all over the world if there was no performance in Kyiv. “And we’ll be saying everywhere that my native Ukraine is now a place where there is no freedom of expression and contemporary art is being suppressed by radical religious organizations,” he said.

Finally, A Holocaust Cabaret was shown twice (instead of once – in order to admit all the ticket holders and the accredited press) at Vozdvizhenka Arts House in the presence of the author.

The impression is that, if it were not for these events, the performance would have aroused interest among only a narrow – compared to the urban community as a whole – circle of Misanthrope theater aficionados that has formed in the less than two years of the existence of this brilliant and original team. And those who managed to get into the small hall in Podol could see with their own eyes that the stir was not commensurate with the subject that caused it.

“COOL”

Owing to Saratsky’s powerful music and live instrumental accompaniment, the performance quite justified the announced format of cabaret. It was “cool” and expressive, at a high vocal and plastique level, with a wide range of actors’ “masks” and “changeovers” of genres and styles.

And all these efforts are used to put and endlessly juggle, without answering, questions like these: “How could such a sweet person be a sadist or a killer?! Is he a killer at all? Is it true or false?!”

The play is focused on Demjanjuk (played by Yosyp Koshelevych). He is in a wheelchair from which he gets up only twice during the action. In the rest of time, the actor only has mimicry, intonation, hands, cap, and black glasses at his disposal.

In the view of Haishenets, “Demjanjuk emerges in the play as a miserable creature. He has no chances to be acquitted. He is guilty but tries to evade responsibility. He cuts a poor figure, you can’t believe him.” Oddly enough, my opinion is just the opposite: Koshelevych’s character is the only living creature among the animated caricatures, the only one capable of reflecting and feeling. He is surrounded by burlesque, circus, and eccentrics. Even the ex-prisoner, who seems (seems!) to recognize the protagonist as the brutal overseer 30 years later, arouses no particular sympathy due to his immanent prejudice. And the confrontation of the Israeli prosecution attorney (played by Andrii Kondratiev) and defense lawyer (played by Filip Mogilnitsky) is presented in a totally parodical key.

There seem to be two lines here: the objective and impersonal horror of Nazism and the subjective and personal experience of one’s own history. But they cannot cross one another because simulacra, hype, and provocations stand between them like a concrete wall. The incessant selfies during a tour of the death camp are the quintessence of these simulacra.

So the question of Demjanjuk’s guilt still remains open here. Each of the assumptions is immediately denied. After addressing his mother with true tears on his face, the hero suddenly bows. After the Israeli court rules to acquit him, he asks, also suddenly: “And if I was really a camp guard?” Like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, the hero even has a “devil” of his own (Alisher Umanov), but it remains unclear whether it is his own animated inner voice or the personification of all of his Nazi bosses whose voices have been ringing in his head over all these years.

The same applies to all the others. Naturally, the play does not and cannot deny the Holocaust (the most heartfelt scene is a simple announcement of the sky-high number of railway cars that carried the clothes, footwear, and personal belongings of prisoners from Nazi camps after the “disposal of human material”). But every other “risky” moment always finds a counter-response.

The play has what can hurt or encourage Ukrainians. For example, the monolog of little Ivan’s mother sounds like a bombastic parody, when she is trying to save his life during the Holodomor. This causes outrage, but it is good that the Ukrainian is not shown as a monster, although this could have happened. There is both fascination of and disappointment with America and its values in the play as well as what can “lay that flattering unction to the soul” of both patriots and critics of Israel (“There is no better business than the Holocaust,” says the defense attorney among other things).

In other words, total relativism prevails in the play. In spite of the overall “Brechtian” style, there is no clear, also “Brechtian,” statement of one’s own attitude – the performers deliberately refuse to articulate it.

Therefore, the overall “jigsaw puzzle” always crumbles, for it is not bound with a linchpin idea, a prevailing emotion, and an expressive message. We seem to be watching a set of finely “painted” and reproduced pictures about something indefinitely far from us today, about a war that finished long ago. As a result, we are not so much able to reflect on other people’s reminiscences because they are eclipsed now by a real war that has covered our own destinies and souls with entirely “non-theatrical” wounds in the past three years.

The profession of an actor envisages “appropriation” of other people’s feelings and thoughts, but the young St. Petersburg actors (in addition to the abovementioned, Anastasia Baluyeva and Anastasia Kipina also play in the production) do not seem to be deeply concerned about the problems raised in the play. This may be caused by the particularities of the genre: cabaret requires virtuosic simulation rather than profound feelings. Or, maybe, it is a psychological substitution of sorts, when you try to get immersed into ancient history in order not to reflect on the real war (even wars) your country unleashed and continues to wage now, in this very minute.

So what’s the bottom line of this whole story? A Holocaust Cabaret was put on. Those who saw the performance can confirm that it has no faults of which some tried to accuse it in a fit of temper – on the contrary, its esthetic standards are high.

The producing team and organizers are satisfied, for they think they have managed to defend the freedom of speech and independence of the artist from societal stereotypes. But, as they put it, there is an aftertaste. As Saratsky said in a social website, “I find it both bitter and sweet to think about what has happened. Bitter – because there is less and less freedom left in Ukraine and ideological censorship – a sickening echo of the Soviet era – has suddenly begun to show in a country that has shed blood for the freedom of thought.”

One can argue, of course, about what our country is really shedding blood for – for the “freedom of thought” or for being free of colonial dependence on the “thought” of the former (as we hope) “Big Brother.” One can also add some of the conspiracy theory, noting that, by an odd coincidence, the scandal, in which Kyiv (even though it was a tour of “non-locals”) emerged as one that “profanes the Holocaust,” was provoked right on the eve of the Eurovision Song Contest and the granting of a visa-free treatment to Ukraine by the EU…

But I will just say: it is good that it is now a thing of the past. And let each of the play’s authors and spectators, the related organizations and institutions, decide what experience – both artistic and moral – they have drawn from this situation.

Anna Lypkivska is a theater expert

By Anna LYPKIVSKA
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