The Jewish Nomad: Talking to Alice Abracen about the Holocaust history that kicked her playwriting career into gear with ‘The Covenant’

Montreal playwright Alice Abracen is a name to look out for. She’s a graduate of Harvard University, as well as the National Theatre School of Canada’s playwriting program.

One of those plays is The Covenant, winner of the 2017 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition, which was followed by a staged reading that summer at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts.

And all this happened before she finished theatre school, which she attended after graduating from Harvard. (Kol Hakavod!)

Coming full circle, a production of this Holocaust-themed piece is slated for the Segal Centre’s studio theatre, starting this month. It’s being produced by Abracen’s new theatre company, Theatre Ouest End, which she co-founded with three other women in 2019–including her own mother, playwright Ann Lambert.

The Covenant is inspired by the events that took place in 1944 Czechoslovakia at the transit camp called Theresienstadt. It’s a place where Jews were forced to masquerade as happy citizens who lived rich cultural lives, as a propaganda tool to convince the Red Cross that all was well. 

In truth, it was a ghetto and concentration camp.

Abracen takes us into the lives of some of those Jewish prisoners, including cabaret artists, a young girl, a politician and a doctor.

“I’ve been aware of the story of the Red Cross visiting Theresienstadt for a number of years,” said Abracen when we spoke over Zoom. “A friend of mine actually shared it with me back in high school. She was performing the opera Brundibár with her children’s choir, and that caused me to do some research.”

(For context, Brundibár was written by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása and was performed by the children in the Theresienstadt camp.)

Inspired by what she found, Abracen kept exploring the subject matter, with the idea that it may turn into a play… someday.

“I was fascinated. Horrified by the idea of that creative resistance being reappropriated and used by the Nazis into a tool for propaganda, to actually distort the cruelty that was being inflicted.”

Abracen explained that one of the other calls to action to write the play was the Syrian refugee crisis.

“I was seeing a lot of rhetoric that reminded me very much of the reaction that people had nearly 100 years ago, to letting in Jewish people fleeing the Nazis. The kind of attitude of ‘one is too many’. This was not a fact that was lost on the Jewish community. I was seeing reactions from the Holocaust Museum of Montreal, among others, saying we are making the same fatal mistake that we made all those decades ago.”

The playwright expressed gratitude to her dramaturge, Sarah Elkashef—they worked together on the piece while she was studying at the National Theatre School, for helping flesh the story out.

Elkashef encouraged Abracen to inspect the lives of the camp’s inhabitants, which led to the wide array of characters that now inhabit the play.

“I was really interested in how there were these former activists, these youth leaders, these movers and shakers, these young socialist idealists, who were eventually co-opted into leading this ghetto. And how all that youthful idealism, all that determination to lead and assume the burden of moral leadership got turned against them. They were forced to assume this horrific position of being the elder and deciding who gets to go on the trains.”

In her research, Abracen read the transcript of an interview of a 25-year-old member of the camp. She discovered his sense that “even if they had told anyone, even if they had alerted the international community, there may not have been any action.” And this realization heavily informed her writing, especially the frame of mind of one particular character in the play.

While it explores a dark story, Abracen assured me there’s also humour and lightheartedness in The Covenant.

She hopes that audiences will walk away with a sense of duty to never turn a blind eye to those in need. With the Montreal Holocaust Museum just across the street from the theatre, Abracen hopes audience members will be inclined to pay it a visit after seeing the show.

The Covenant is very much a Jewish story, but I think that what it explores is applicable to many different communities, sadly, and many different realities across the world today. It’s a story about people trying to keep to their high standards of ethical behaviour, living in an immoral world. It’s about two people whose belief systems bring them together, but also drive them apart. And it’s about the moral corrosion that you suffer living under fascism.”

Be sure to catch The Covenant at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts from Nov. 13 to Dec. 3. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit their website.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at [email protected] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

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