The problem of distance. Samantha Mitschke, a PhD student in Drama and Theatre Arts

The difficulties in researching a PhD in Holocaust theatre include the use of language, sensitivity (is there a ‘right’ way to interview a Holocaust survivor?), the ethics of portrayal, and, even, the perception of others (I have been asked more than once, ‘Is there any Holocaust theatre?’ though there are plays on the theme by writers such as Arthur Miller, Peter Weiss and David Edgar, among others). Initially, these issues were ever-present. My two main concerns were fear of asking the ‘wrong’ questions, and how to be appropriately respectful but this has had a function in my research: for instance, one of my thesis chapters explores how some theatre sets out to cause offence in order to make the audience look more closely at the Holocaust. In fact, these issues – which once caused me to question my (suit)ability as a researcher – are now as inherent to my work as breathing: I am not conscious of their presence, but were they to suddenly cease, I would immediately know it.

The main concern is that of emotional distance from the material. Author Philip Hallie addresses the problem in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed : ‘[…] When I was not desiring to be cruel with the cruel, I was a monster […] who could look upon torture and death without a shudder, and who therefore looked upon life without a belief in its preciousness’ (1979: 2). I made the conscious decision very early on to maintain distance. I reasoned that if I was going to spend my days with Hitler and Anne Frank, it would be very easy to become overwhelmed. The irony in my situation is that I attempt to maintain distance while writing a thesis that explores how to make audiences engage more with the Holocaust.

Preparing for 'Kindertransport' (photo taken by David Crisp, University of Birmingham)

Preparing for ‘Kindertransport’ (photo taken by David Crisp, University of Birmingham)

Like Hallie, I often find myself to be a ‘monster’: I have learned about persecution and pogroms, read accounts of the camps, even spoken with survivors – and I have looked upon it “without a shudder”. Yet it is ultimately impossible to maintain complete distance: there were tears in my eyes as a European colleague wept at the crematorium in Auschwitz, finally able to pay tribute to her murdered grandparents; there was wavering between tears and smiles as I watched a Dachau survivor embrace an American liberator nearly seventy years on and thank him for his life.

We are distanced from the Holocaust by almost seven decades, and the challenge is to find effective ways in which to maintain that distance and, contemporaneously, find ways to bridge it so that, as Alvin Rosenfeld (2011) observes, we can understand not just how the Holocaust affects awareness and cultural memory now, but the place of the Holocaust in the lives of generations to come.

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