One of the institutions that 20th-century totalitarian regimes had in common was the concentration camp. Such camps were used to isolate political opponents or those who were considered to be socially unfit. Prisoners were given an opportunity to change through re-education and physical labour. If they failed to use it, however, they were in danger of dying slowly from exhaustion and hunger or being executed on the spot.

It seems that, as a topic, the concentration camp first appeared on the stage on 30 December 1934 in The Aristocrats by Nikolay Pogodin directed by Nikolay Okhlopkov in Moscow’s Realistic Theatre. The comedy showed one of the labour camps that had been operating in the Soviet Union for ten years. It was an apology for the way the camp re-socialised not only criminals and prostitutes, but also political prisoners, peasants who resisted the collectivisation of the agricultural sector and adherents of different religions. On the other hand, a German concentration camp as a place where the Nazis repressed communist and social democratic activists was first portrayed in Paris on 21 May 1938 by the émigré leftist writer Berthold Brecht in one of the episodes of his play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich.

As for the Nazi death camps, the theatre took a long time to find a way to address the topic. It was only on 19 October 1965, 20 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, that The Investigation: Oratorio in 11 Cantos by Peter Weiss, directed by Piscator, premiered in West Berlin’s Freie Volksbühne. The play ran simultaneously on 14 other stages in the Federal Republic of Germany and the Democratic German Republic. Weiss, a leftist writer of Jewish origin, wrote his play in blank verse, combining poetic idiom with the convention of documentary theatre, to present the trial of Auschwitz-Birkenau officials that took place in Frankfurt am Main between 1963 and 1965. It consisted of statements by judges, attorneys, the accused and the witnesses, dramatising the helplessness of the justice system faced with the crimes committed by officials of a totalitarian state. Incidentally, it portrayed a mechanism whereby the camp operated as an element of capitalist economy bringing profit to German companies. What Weiss mainly wanted to recreate, however, were the living conditions of its inmates and the journey from the railway ramp to the gas chambers of those who were instantly put to death. The Investigation opens with The Loading Ramp. It closes with songs about Cyclone B and The Fire Ovens.

On 6 July 1966, The Investigation, directed by Erwin Axer, had its Polish premiere in the Współczesny Theatre in Warsaw. Axer had all the participants sit in the proscenium in three rows and all the Accused wear dark glasses instead of masks suggested by Weiss. The only character seated among the audience is the Judge. The Investigation was performed only 30 times and was the only Polish production of Weiss’s play.

Before that, on 10 October 1962, the 13 Rzędów Theatre in Opole premiered The Acropolis, an adaptation of a play by Stanisław Wyspiański produced by Jerzy Grotowski with set design by Józef Szajna, an erstwhile prisoner of Konzentrationslager Auschwitz. Grotowski transposed Wyspiański’s play set in the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków during Easter to the Auschwitz reality. Living on the border of life and death, Muslim prisoners played out episodes from the mythical past of mankind, the Bible and the Iliad, to highlight the collapse of European culture that took place in Auschwitz. Bent pipes hung on the wires surrounding the scene brought camp fences to mind, and metal wheelbarrows were the basic instrument of work and torture. In the final scene, all characters entered the great chest/gas chamber carrying the dead body of a prisoner hailed as the Messiah. After a moment of silence, a single sentence could be heard from inside the chamber: ‘They went – leaving rings of smoke wafting’, which, in the context of Auschwitz, referred to the cremation of dead bodies. It was the most suggestive metaphor of Auschwitz in the Polish theatre.

Szajna’s work did not stop there. Three years later, in 1965, as a director and set designer, he staged The Empty Field, a play by another Auschwitz survivor, Tadeusz Hołuj, in the Ludowy Theatre in Nowa Huta. It showed events in the area of the camp in the period of the Polish People’s Republic – setting up a museum, building a monument and shooting a film. Szajna’s play intentionally blurred the boundary between historical events recreated for the purposes of the film and the present time. A group of naked and shaved women entered a gas chamber. Supervised by camp guards, the prisoners pushed metal wheelbarrows. Another play directed by Szajna was The Reply prepared for Warsaw’s Studio Theatre on 8 October 1973. It offered a more metaphorical picture of camp life, involving several actors who did not recite literary texts. The play was more of a pantomime piece presented with the use of visual props and avant-garde music. Dressed in rags, the prisoners would gradually climb out of a rubbish bin from beneath a heap of broken mannequins and damaged objects. They were supervised by a superman who eventually died.

Over time, camp life became a topic even for the opera. In the Soviet Union in 1968, Mieczysław Weinberg, a composer of Jewish origin, wrote the opera The Passenger with a Russian libretto based on a novel by a former Polish prisoner, Zofia Posmysz. The opera is set around a meeting between a former camp guard Liza and a Polish prisoner Marta on a cruise liner. Both women were linked by an emotional bond and involved in a game whose stake, for the Polish prisoner, was survival. Naturally, the German guard went back to the events from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Before Posmysz published her novel in 1962, she wrote a radio play entitled Passenger from Cabin Number 45 in 1959, a play for the TV Theatre in 1960 and, in 1961, a screenplay for a film that was left unfinished due to the death of its director Andrzej Munk in a car crash. Two years after Munk’s death, the material was used to edit only the recollections of the SS woman filmed in the camp with utmost attention to historical details. As for Weinberg’s opera, it was not staged until 8 October 2010, i.e. over 40 years after it was composed, in the Grand Theatre in Warsaw.

Previously, on 7 April 1990, the Silesian Opera in Bytom showed Maximilian Kolbe by the French composer Dominique Probst with a libretto by Eugene Ionesco. The opera recounts how the Polish monk Maximilian Kolbe sacrificed his life and died a martyr’s death to save a fellow prisoner in 1941. It shows the triumph of Christian neighbourly love over the violence used by the Nazis in the camp, a symbol of the ultimate evil that mankind is capable of. Kolbe was the first camp inmate to be canonised as a saint by the Catholic Church in October 1982.

On the contrary, the Soviet forced labour camps received little attention in European theatres even though some plays were set in such camps, for instance Anna Ivanovna by Varlam Shalamov, an eminent Russian writer and a prisoner of Kolyma. It was only on 4 February 2007 that the Odeon Theatre in Paris premiered Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, produced and directed by Lev Dodin and performed by the Maly Drama Theatre from Saint Petersburg. In Dodin’s play, like in Grossman’s novel written in 1958 and published after 30 years, the system of Soviet prisons and camps was equated to German death camps liberated by the Red Army at the end of the war. Grossman was familiar with the places of mass crimes such as Majdanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz because he described them as a war correspondent right after the Soviet front line moved on. Life and Fate is set precisely in 1942-44, its protagonists being members of a Jewish family. During the rehearsals, Dodin and his Petersburg actors visited both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Norilsk, a town inside the Arctic Circle built by camp prisoners.

Translated from Polish to English by Mikołaj Sekrecki
Proofread by Dr Ian Copestake