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A CurtainUp InterviewThe Playwrights of Camp Holocaust: Adam Melnick and Josh Tarjan
by Les Gutman
CurtainUp: So two kids of Holocaust survivors decide to write a play about two kids of Holocaust survivors. Your play seems like an analog of its subject. How did the idea come about?
Josh Tarjan: I had been reading the Helen Epstein book, and I told Adam about it. [The two met as theater students at Columbia.] The book really was a revelation, at least to me. I suddenly realized my whole life was running along this algorithm of the Holocaust. Adam said, if we are all jumping out of airplanes and doing that sort of thing, then why not -- he said it jokingly -- create an actual concentration camp? We laughed about it and said, “Hey, that's an idea for a play.” (Adam thought we should make it a musical.) Later, we were on the subway and I said we have to do it as a play. Right then and there on the train, we basically came up with all the major plot points.
Adam Melnick: I had read a long time ago -- I don't know if it was the National Enquirer or The Sun or something, I assume it was made-up -- that there was a place in England where people had gone and paid to be in a prisoner-of-war camp or concentration camp. And we started talking about it.CU: Lot's of possible plays get talked about on the subway. When did you actually start writing it?
JT: Spring of ‘97.
AM: We wrote it in six weeks in the spring and then Josh did a workshop production in the fall.
JT: December of ‘97.CU: Some of what you wrote, I assume, is autobiographical, or at least based on personal observation. What is the reality base you were working from?
JT: My father survived the Holocaust, and lost his family. He grew up in Communist Hungary and then came to the United States in 1956. I spent time in Poland after college -- I went there to study theater -- and when I came back, I did have a conversation with the rabbi of the synagogue that my parents belonged to. He's a Holocaust survivor himself, and he did say to me [as the rabbi in the play echoes] that Jews have no business going back to Poland. So there are certain autobiographical elements, but we did change things around.CU: What about the other Jews in the play? Are they rooted in specifics? I'm thinking, as an example of Yael, a woman who fits in the category I called militant earlier.
AM: Well I have a friend who was not at all religious -- I was brought up a Reform Jew and he was not -- and later on he became very religious. I visited him in Israel once and a bunch of his friends were part of this whole new movement of people who become religious from non-religious families -- there are a couple of Yeshivas that cater to these people. I was amazed at how much of their education, their ideology, was centered around the Holocaust. I was blown away that it was central to their idea of what a Jew was. To me that's what the play is about. It is about the Holocaust but it is about how we relate to the Holocaust as Jews -- more generally about identifying with any one thing so strongly it becomes your whole identity.CU: The character of Ed's mother had survived the Holocaust, but was not supportive of the project. In fact, she pulled out her full arsenal of guilt to try to keep Ed from going to Poland. I'm not certain if she was trying to suppress the memory or just against the idea of going back? Josh, you said you were obsessed. What was your father's reaction to that, and how does that track with his reaction to the play, if he's had one?
JT: My father was very open -- he'd tell you whatever you wanted to know about his experiences even though he may not have come to terms with his own sense of loss. When he read the play, he was appalled by it, but he's going to come see it. I think he's very much like the mother in that sense. I don't think Ed's mother is unwilling to talk about the Holocaust. I think it's just the idea of building the camp that's an appalling idea.CU: Now you also have an older Jewish man, Mr. Bromowitz, who's on this journey. Who does he represent to you?
AM: We wanted someone, a typical person who is absolutely identified 100% as a Jew as victim, as the oppressed -- "My people were victims". Everyone else had the attitude, "we are this, they are them, and we've got to protect ourselves".CU: Both of you have spent some time in Poland. Do the play's Polish characters have roots in your experiences?
JT: The Polish stereotypes we're looking at-- I did a workshop with a Polish theater group called Gardzienice. They live in a remote area outside of Lublin. They run through the woods late at night, they go to farm villages and collect material -- indigenous folk material, songs and so on -- and make these fantastic pieces, but the locals don't know what to make of them. Someone told me the farmers often referred to the theater company as a bunch of Freemasons and Jews because they make no sense to them. But as far as the young Poles, I found that there was a fascination with Jewish culture. When the theater runs, say, The Magician of Lublin, it's always sold out.CU: And what about the Germans?
AM: The sensitive Germans -- I've known German people like that, of course we pushed to extremes.CU: You certainly didn't shy away from ideas that might leave some people squirming some. Speak a bit about how that fits in your view of theater: should it be a way of broaching subjects that aren't always easy for people to talk about?
JT: There was recently an article in Harper's, an essay by an art historian talking about how art in America has become this very safe, banal haven whereas what art really can be is a place where we can examine the anxieties of a society. We don't build an actual concentration camp. It's a thought experiment in theater, which people still react to as though we have actually gone and built the camp. That's what you can do in art, and that's what more art should be doing, I think. I would say there's very little political consciousness that we see in theater. That's not to say our play is political but certainly we are talking about issues. I wish people would talk more about actual world events, things that are happening in our society, rather than just entertaining. I think that's why people think theater is dead. It's not because theater is inherently dead; it's because of the material people are choosing. You have to read outside of conventional media -- there's so much material to be harvested.CU: You can have your quote. I'll just say I was impressed with the play's honesty, and its willingness to step up to the plate and take a chance -- a real chance -- of getting hit by the ball. Sorry for the metaphor, but it's the dominant paradigm of the season.
Helen Epstein's Children of the Holocaust