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Auschwitz on stage

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Author:Paweł Mielczarek

“Kamp” by Hotel Modern, Dutch theatre group, was one of the most interesting theatrical productions that occurred this year at the Great Small Works 9th International Toy Theater Festival at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in June. It is a unique mixture of animation, puppetry, sculpture, visual arts, performance and art installation which attempts to show the horror of Auschwitz.

 “Kamp” by Hotel Modern, Dutch theatre group was one of the most interesting theatrical productions that occurred this year at the Great Small Works 9th International Toy Theater Festival at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in June. The festival celebrates miniature and puppet theaters, a popular 19th-century art form, from around the world.

“An enormous scale model of Auschwitz - reads the official “Kamp” press release - fills the stage. Overcrowded barracks, a railway track, a gateway with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Hotel Modern attempts to imagine the unimaginable: the greatest mass murder in history, committed in a purpose-built city. Sixty years after its evacuation, Auschwitz has become a dark icon of the modern era, a mythical catastrophe, almost a fairytale. What occurred there is difficult to believe, sometimes even for those who experienced it. In CAMP, Hotel Modern attempts to re-enact the historical reality. The model of the camp is brought to life on stage: thousands of 8 centimeter tall handmade puppets represent the prisoners and their executioners. The actors move through the set like giant war reporters, filming the horrific events with miniature cameras; the audience becomes the witness.”

“Kamp” is a unique amalgamation of animation, puppetry, sculpture, visual arts, performance and art installation. It features a large model of Auschwitz made of paper and cardboard populated by 3,000 three-inch-tall figures of hand-made puppets, representing the prisoners and their executioners.

At performances of “Kamp” three artists are moving and manipulating the puppets around the scene while the other is filming the figures in close-up using a small camera and projecting the images on the screen. The audience is seated around the model and is looking at the camp from outside but thanks to the screen has at the same time an insider’s view of what is happening in the camp.

The performance reveals imagined scenes from life at Auschwitz. Prisoners sweep, shovel rocks, line up to be counted, fall out of the trains. They are beaten, executed, worked to death, directed into the gas chambers. There is no dialogue in the piece only some sound effects.

It was the publication in 1986 of “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed graphic novel, in which Jews were portrayed as mice and Nazis as cats, which helped to pave the way for Holocaust stories to be told in genres that once might have been seen as too idiosyncratic or irreverent - writes Herman Helle of “New Yor Times”.

After a critically acclaimed 2001 show about World War I that featured miniature figures, Hotel Modern team realized that it could approach Auschwitz in a similar way as they possess a medium which have a special way of telling the war theme.

 “It works - writes Ian Buruma on “The New York Review of Books Blog”. I think, precisely because of the artificiality, the stylization of the performance. The details evoke reality, often to horrifying effect, without trying to mimic it. Puppets can seem more real than actors, because they leave more to our imagination. Stripped of his striped camp garb, the naked puppet becomes transparent, as he is pushed into the gas chamber with the others, looking terrifyingly vulnerable. No dialogue or action is needed to illustrate the atrocity of the scene. Actors can never reenact what happened in a place like Auschwitz, at least not realistically, because what happened cannot be recreated. The more we aim for a realistic portrayal of such extreme violence, the more likely we are to produce a form of kitsch.”

“The harder we try to show what cannot be shown, the more elusive reality often becomes. Some things must be left to our imagination, not because it allows us to share the experience of real victims, for that, thankfully, we cannot do, but because a poem, or an oblique image, a faded photograph, a discarded suitcase, a child’s broken toy, or a plasticine puppet, can jolt our emotions by suggestion, which somehow is more effective than attempts at direct portrayal.”- Buruma concludes.


Hotel Modern is a theatre group established in 1997. Its members are actresses Arlène Hoornweg and Pauline Kalker and visual artist Herman Helle. In Kamp, they collaborated with sound artist Ruud van der Pluijm. They blend visual art, puppetry, music and film in evocative productions. Scale models are of central importance in their theatrical universe: these provide an opportunity to view the world, literally, from a macro perspective. This is unique in the theatre world and allows them to approach the subject in a completely new way. Hotel Modern performs worldwide and has won several national and international theatre prizes.


Did you know...
History Meeting House (Karowa 20 Warsaw) carries out an interesting educational program. Schools can apply to organize special lessons based on House’s exhibitions. They can also use House’s resources and multimedia equipment. Schools can present their own projects as well.