“The latrine [at Auschwitz-Birkenau]was like our coffeeshop . . . it’s where we could laugh and gossip,” the woman recalled, visiting Auschwitz sixty years after her imprisonment there.
That quotation hit Doron Ben-Atar, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of History, like a clap of thunder; not just because he is a Jew, but because the woman who spoke the words is his mother. Although Ben-Atar had written a book about his mother’s Holocaust experiences, What Time and Sadness Spared (University of Virginia Press, 2006), and thought he knew his mother’s story “better than everybody else,” that little detail — gossip in the midst of such unbearable atrocity — had escaped him.
“I remember thinking, this has to be a play,” he said. “That the latrines would be the place where these people, who had to act like machines all day long, could go to gossip, and bicker, and do what other human beings do, was absurd. But there they could be themselves.”
On April 28, Ben-Atar’s play, Behave Yourself Quietly, premiered at the Little Theatre in New Haven, Conn. The three-act play explores the lives and dreams of three women prisoners who, in an intimate moment, share their hopes for freedom after getting word that an inmate has escaped and will help get them liberated. Ben-Atar based the play on his mother’s experiences. As a young woman, Roma Ben-Atar had been at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, when Mala Zimetbaum escaped from the Nazi’s with the help of her boyfriend and a stolen SS uniform. Zimetbaum, who had been chosen to work in the camp offices by the commander Maria Mandl, was a heroine among the inmates. She had stolen medicine for them and was rumored to have saved some of them from the gas chambers by changing numbers in the death logbook.
“When she escaped, the inmates were elated,” said Ben-Atar. “But for the commander this was the worst betrayal of all. Mala was her weak spot.”
The play, which starts on a humorous, hopeful note with the latrine scene, takes a dramatic turn when Zimetbaum is captured and brought back to the camp to be executed. Without giving away the details, Ben-Atar says the ending speaks to “what is the meaning of heroism, of resistance.”
Behave Yourself Quietly is Ben-Atar’s first attempt at playwriting. As a historian, his publishing resumé includes three scholarly books and a large collection of articles; not the prerequisite for a creative writing project. But the Holocaust has been a topic he always wanted to tackle on a personal level. Although his mother didn’t speak of it, “everybody knew what the number on her arm meant.”
He worked on the script for two years, saying that his first draft was “very intellectual.”
“But we don’t talk in high-falutin’ language. Some of the lines I thought were the best turned out to be the worst lines in the script,” he said. “I learned to think of dramatic moments, rather than a history lesson I want to teach.” He credits his director, Jane Tamarkin, with helping him hone the work.
Proceeds from Ben-Atar’s play will provide scholarship money for The March of the Living, a program that sends students to Poland for a first-hand look at the concentration camps. The students walk the two miles from Auschwitz to the site of the gas chambers, Ben-Atar said, “so that we don’t not forget where it [anti-semitism] leads: it leads to Birkenau.”
– Janet Sassi