(Photo from the Voices of Terezin reception on March 21, 2010. From left to right: Dorothy Elias, Gail Humphries-Mardirosian, Laura Petravage, H. E. Ambassador and Mrs. Petr Kolar, Czech Ambassador to the United States.)
Interview with Dorothy and Kate Elias
by Kera Package
As a student in the Voices of Terezin Honor's colloquium, I have spent the semester hearing echoes of voices from the Terezin ghetto. While I may never fully grasp the lives and stories of those who created art at that time, I did have the opportunity to interview individuals who were connected to one of the playwrights of Smoke of Home. Kate and Dorothy Elias traveled to American University to see our production of the play and to answer questions about the playwright Zdenek Elias and the voice his play expressed.
"Knowing my father to be a rationalist above all else, I clearly heard his voice in the text of the play being expressed by Casselius. I heard his voice in the exploration of ideas," related his daughter Dorothy who translated the play into English. She described how its script portrays her father's choice to "know rather than believe."
Kate Elias, Zdenek's second wife, further elaborated on her late husband's view of faith and religion. "To his dying day, Zdenek relied on reason rather than faith, and to the extent that he countenanced the possibility of a God, whom he called "ten stary" (the old man), he kept that possibility pretty much under wraps. He used to say that, if there is a God, that God has some explaining to do."
Kate continued to say that "Zdenek's scorn for organized religion, and particularly for its clerical authorities, is evident in the ridiculously pompous character of Father Anselm. He certainly did not expect a personal God to intervene in the affairs of humankind, and this mindset is exemplified by the utterly rational, realistic Casselius. While hope of divine intervention is seemingly dismissed in the production, there is a hope in the ability of man to survive and to continue to express his individuality in the midst of trial."
Dorothy finds hope in the empowering of individuals through expression, and believes that "this play would have been more a means of self-expression for the authors than a stab at public persuasion." She continued to say that, "Art, especially in the context of Terezin, is not sacred as art and certainly can't be separated from resistance or survival. For people who had been stripped of nearly all personal power, who had been deprived of every vestige of their former lives, who had lost everything, having a means to express a sense of self would be enormously empowering."
Kate mentioned that "Maybe they never intended [the play] to be produced -- just wrote it as a catharsis to express their own growing realization that 'home' would never be the same again. I vaguely recall that Zdenek said something like that to me when we talked about the play some twenty years ago. I think he would have been astounded to see the play being produced after all these years."
Why Smoke of Home was never actually performed in Terezin until 2009, we will never know. Nevertheless, the play's themes and message prove universal. Dorothy believes that through her father's voice, we can "learn to face reality without illusions… in any conflict, both sides are capable of wrong and, possibly, brutal behavior. Individuals must maintain ethical standards that adhere to human values, and rise above partisan thinking."
When asked if creating art in the midst of trauma could possibly diminish the value of the art, Kate responded with, "I don't at all think it's disrespectful to those who produce art, music or any kind of beauty amid desperate situations to speculate about whether they are motivated by the desire for resistance or survival." She continued, "I think art arises out of personal imperative: artists create first of all because their souls demand it. Then I think the most logical secondary motivation is psychological, spiritual survival, and this is what I think motivated most of the artistic expression in Terezin…I knew Zdenek more as a passive survivor than as an active resister, so I tend to see this work as something that helped keep his psyche alive."
In staging Smoke of Home at AU, Zdenek's voice takes the stage. The artists of Terezin, most of whom lost their lives but whose work lives on, continue to challenge contemporary audiences that are willing to listen. The voices of the past demand to be heard even today. When given the opportunity to share their stories, these voices of history empower the voice of a new generation of witnesses.