The dispute between characters Gens and Kruk in the first act of Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto embodies a central tension, which is a foundation for the moral questions and struggles that unfold throughout the entire play. The debate about a theater’s place in the Vilna ghetto manifests Sobol’s overarching goal to express the desperate condition of those who must answer an unanswerable question. By exploring the various perspectives, arguments, and personifications of art’s function in Vilna as portrayed in Ghetto, it is evident that Sobol hopes to illustrate a complicated existence, which intertwines both horror and creative beauty simultaneously. While various characters harbor strong beliefs about the role of a theater in the ghetto, the audience is forced to deal with the discomfort of ethical uncertainty. Ghetto deprives the audience of a definitive answer to the debate between Gens and Kruk, aiming to emphasize the infinitely nuanced complexities of humanity, hope, and evil as expressed through art.
In multiple instances during the play, art serves a practical function in ensuring Jewish survival. The character Hayyah personifies this reality in the very opening of the piece, as her singing for Kittel spares her from punishment after stealing beans. Gens harnesses this method for survival in his proposition for the creation of the ghetto’s theater. For Gens, who is constantly seeking ways to save Jewish lives, artistic performance offers a solid route to survival. He says to Srulik, “If you set up a theater with them, I can get you those work certificates. And bread. And fat. And potatoes. And soap!” (27) Gens understands these work certificates as tickets to survival and a better lifestyle. Yet even with work permits, the Jews of Vilna never escape the sustained fear of forthcoming death. In these circumstances, art in the ghetto provides a basic function of sustenance, constantly nuanced by an environment of impending doom.
On an emotional level, art allows many characters in Ghetto to express themselves in ways that are otherwise impossible. Srulik is only able to communicate his romantic affection for Hayyah through the performance of his dummy. While Srulik never openly admits his feelings for her, he is able to convey them to Hayyah with the words of his dummy, “I love you too! From the moment I set eyes on you” (22). As an artist, Srulik’s inner reservations are set free. Art serves a similar purpose in the ghetto’s theater. Hayyah’s song is a communal call for resistance with the lyrics, “If we’re doomed, let’s die while fighting. Let our courage show! Should we face their sword in silence? Never! Never! No!!” (76) Such sentiment is not permitted as common speech within the ghetto, but art enables Hayyah to more freely express her concealed beliefs. Yet even this expressive function of art is compromised in the Vilna ghetto. Gens reacts to Hayyah’s indicative song with harsh words that demand the suppression of this free expression: “You think you can carry on with songs like that and jeopardize the entire ghetto? All we need is for the Germans to hear about this!” (76) While performance allows an outlet for expression in the ghetto, this freedom is continually smothered by ever-present, silencing danger.
As an all-encompassing argument for the healing function of art in the ghetto, theater is often represented in Ghetto as a method for asserting Jewish humanity. Both of the previously mentioned artistic roles, survival and expression, amplify this vision for the theater’s goal in the ghetto. In his introducing the idea for a Vilna theater, Gens demonstrates the moral necessity for a creative place as a source of hope and harmony, as he says to Kruk in their initial debate, “I want to give everyone in the ghetto the feeling of solidarity. To remind them that they all belong to one people, a great people, with culture and fortitude and the power to be creative even under the most difficult circumstances” (32). Gens strongly asserts that art will empower the ghetto residents to feel confident in their creative humanity and to identify as a hopeful and united community. Kruk, of course, disagrees with this argument at first, but he eventually changes his mind by the end of the play after the theater’s successes. Kruk is ultimately struck by art’s power to resist the Nazi’s goals of dehumanizing the Jew, as he later states, “Whatever cultural activity we carry out in the ghetto, including theater, is a part of our battle to retain a semblance of humanity” (79). With these moments throughout the play, Sobol hopes to illustrate art’s most elevated function—the establishment of proud humanity even in the lowliest circumstances. But, just as art’s capacities to ensure survival and free expression are constantly stained by the ghetto’s unavoidable complexities, the humanity that is grasped through art is also significantly nuanced by the evident terrors in the Vilna ghetto.
While Kruk later understands the theater’s humanizing effect as a resistance against the Nazis, his initial argument against Gens criticizes art as a weak submission to Germans. Gens and other characters may see the role of the theater in a different light, but Kittel introduces the idea for a Vilna theater with a singular goal—his own entertainment. Kruk originally sees the theater as an outlet to “fraternize with the Germans” (32), which he believes is morally incorrect and damaging to a strong Jewish fight for survival against their persecutors. Kruk’s argument is based in his worry that normalizing life through the production of a theater will dull the Jews’ awareness and alertness about their dangerous and cruel environment. If art’s role in the ghetto is meant to regain Jewish humanity, will the Jewish population become complacent in their struggle against the Germans? If so, art in the ghetto may actually enable the Nazis to achieve their goals. With these worrisome nuances about art as an instigator for Jewish submission, Sobol continually complicates the debate about theater’s place in the Vilna ghetto.
An additional nuance is consistently attached to the notion of art in this play—evil. The capability of art to exist in partnership with evil is personified by the character Kittel. He is often carrying two cases with him. One case contains a saxophone, with which Kittel frequently accompanies Hayyah’s songs. The other case contains a gun, which he eventually uses to slaughter the entire ghetto. With such objects, Kittel represents the simultaneous duality of the goodness of art with the harshness of evil. These two realities are permanently intertwined. Kittel asserts, “I am an artist,” and Srulik responds that artists love “Truth. Goodness. Beauty” (36). Kittel identifies strongly with the humanity and expression within art, but, at the same time, he associates with the ancient, repeated symbol of wickedness, “A snake!” (38). With this multi-faceted character, Ghetto demonstrates that the function of art transcends definitive boundaries between good and bad. The various roles of art are constantly complicated by their meddling in the gray area of indefinable morality.
As the audience continually sways back and forth between opposing opinions about the place of a theater in the Vilna ghetto, Sobol illustrates the central theme of the play. Ghetto aims to depict the unrelieved tension caused by being forced to make impossible decisions about unanswerable questions. This phenomenon repeats in many incidents throughout the entire play. The debate between Weiner, the Rabbi, and the Judge about the allotment of insulin medication is never solved and leaves the audience anxious and unwilling to confidently support any party’s argument (44). When faced with the choice to join the resistance movement, Weiner expresses the overarching feeling of Ghetto with his words, “I don’t have the courage to make the decision” (48). Gens, on the other hand, does have the courage to make morally impossible choices. Motivated by his goals to save as many Jews as he can, Gens simultaneously forces many Jews to their deaths. His choices are constantly nuanced by the inseparable duality of hope and evil.
The role of art in Ghetto provides a tangible illustration of the complex moral and human condition in the Vilna ghetto through its various, conflicting functions. Sobol never provides a definitive answer to Gen and Kruk’s debate about the theater, since no definitive answer exists. Every decision in the Vilna ghetto is tainted and blurred with hope and horror, creativity and fear, strength and submission. Ghetto forces us to contemplate, debate, and struggle with the entangled disparities that shape the torn, nuanced existence during the Holocaust.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Israeli Theater and Drama with Professor Edna Nahson at the Jewish Theological Seminary.