The horrific story of history’s largest genocide has been told in countless ways: through the first-person testimony of Holocaust survivors, in literature, in movies, in documentaries, in music. Theater has helped tell the story of the Nazis and their World War II atrocities, too, through plays such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Bent, and through musicals like Cabaret.
Anyone who wants to learn about the Holocaust can access an impressive trove of archival material online, much of it via the Washington-based United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (www.ushmm.org). Yet in all this gathering of art and evidence, there hasn’t been a central online repository for information about Holocaust-related theater. On Tuesday, that will change.
During a free launch event from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, the new Holocaust Theater Catalog will be introduced and demonstrated by Arnold Mittelman, president and producing artistic director of the National Jewish Theater Foundation/National Jewish Theater. The Soap Myth, a filmed version of a Jeff Cohen play that Mittelman directed Off-Broadway in 2012, will also be screened.
Housed on the site of UM’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, the Holocaust Theater Catalog has been transformed from idea to reality over the past four years by Mittelman, an impressive scholarly advisory board, a small group of researchers and funding from the Miami-based Knight Foundation.
As Dennis Scholl, vice president of arts for the Knight Foundation, observes, “Arnold put it together. He got some of the best scholars in the world involved. You have to give props to him for taking a passion project and giving it substance and meaning.”
Mittelman, who spent 21 years as producing artistic director of the Coconut Grove Playhouse until mounting debt forced the theater’s abrupt shutdown in 2006, credits Miller Center founding director Haim Shaked and Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, with giving him the idea and igniting that passion.
Berenbaum, who played a key role in the creation and content collection of the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum from 1988 to 1997, said to Mittelman about a theater archive, “Gee, why the hell didn’t I think of that?”
Over lunch in 2010, Shaked told Mittelman that the one subject area not gathered into an archive was theatrical works related to the Holocaust — and that someone needed to salvage all that material.
“He looked at me and said, ‘That sounds like an interesting idea.’ I said, ‘Never mind interesting. It’s important,’” Shaked recalls.
Challenged by Shaked and Berenbaum to find an existing repository of such theater material, Mittleman says, “I searched for six months for a comprehensive archive but couldn’t find one. ... So I strategized about how the National Jewish Theater Foundation now might have the most important mission it would ever have.”
The work of Alvin Goldfarb, the now-retired president of Western Illinois University, helped launch Mittelman on the path to the creation of the Holocaust Theater Catalog. The son of Holocaust survivors, Goldfarb has a doctoral degree in theater history, and with Rebecca Rovit he edited the 1999 book Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs.
“That book had an international bibliography of plays since the Holocaust,” says Mittelman, who now counts Goldfarb among his advisory board members.
Mittelman then took the idea to Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen and was awarded a planning grant for a 2012 Miami conference with experts to determine what form and function a Holocaust theater archive should take. At a total cost of $260,000 (with some funding from the Knight Foundation, the rest raised by Mittelman), the Holocaust Theater Catalog is now a reality.
The catalog is officially a project of the Holocaust Theater International Initiative. The initiative was, Shaked says, “my idea, but it’s really Arnold’s baby. Without his diligence, it would have remained an idea. Arnold will be the motor of it. He’s a theater person. He breathes, eats and drinks theater.”
The catalog exists as a resource for anyone: scholars; students; teachers; producers; theater companies. The catalog has more than 550 titles and counting, most in English, some in Hebrew, with works in other languages still to come. The online listing doesn’t contain a play’s full script, but it provides the title, author’s name, his or her nationality and date of birth, a synopsis, a dramatic category or theme, character breakdown, original language, production history and contact information for the publisher and the person who holds the rights.
The hope, say Mittelman and others involved with the catalog, is that the resource will help spur productions, translations, new work and, now that so few survivors remain, the use of theater in teaching the truths and lessons of the Holocaust.
“The survivors are in their mid- to late 80s. How will their stories remain?” asks Eugene Rothman, associate director for academic development at the Miller Center. “Theater is one of the most important ways of bringing their stories to the world.”
The Knight Foundation’s philosophy, says Scholl, is that “the arts can play a significant role in preserving the stories and sensitizing people in a different way ... delivering a historic message that resonates.”
Berenbaum, whose work has led to the creation of many different Holocaust archives, agrees that having one devoted to theater is important.
“If you build it, they will use it. It makes everything public and permanent. Theater is an enormously important public manifestation of the consciousness of the Holocaust. ... It has an immediacy and humanity to it,” he says.
Goldfarb, whose bibliography sent Mittelman off on the quest that became the Holocaust Theater Catalog, believes that the resource will grow in different ways.
“It will expand out. It will catalog dramatic works that deal with other genocides,” he says.
Adds Mittelman: “I think it has limitless possibilities.”
And, in a sobering truth, endless relevance.
“I would prefer to live in a world in which my work was irrelevant,” Berenbaum says. “The saddest fact is that what I study isn’t irrelevant. The urge to commit genocide has maintained itself. ... We can all agree that these things are evil. We call it ‘Holocaust-like.’ We believe that those who study the Holocaust develop a sensitivity and feel a call to personal action.”
If you go
What: Free launch event for Holocaust Theater Catalog and screening of ‘The Soap Myth.’
Where: Cosford Cinema, University of Miami, 5030 Brunson Dr., Coral Gables.
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Information: RSVP to 305-284-6882 or email@example.com; after the launch, view the catalog at www.htc.miami.edu.