Rediscovered voice of the Holocaust
A play about two young people who escaped Auschwitz comes to Yorkshire to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Sheena Hastings reports.
Milos Dobry and Hana Pravda’s young lives took them to many of the same places, but they never met. Whether it was to do with chance or some incredible gift of fortitude and optimism that they both possessed, both survived the Nazi concentration camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Both lost almost everyone, but they both went on to live happy, fulfilled lives in spite of this dreadful sorrow.
Hana was an actress. She’d met her husband Sasha, a young lawyer, at a political meeting in Prague and they married shortly after Hitler’s invasion. Hana was Jewish and Sasha was not, but they were deported together with thousands of other Jews including many of their own family, first to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, where they arrived on October 1, 1944.
The couple were immediately separated. Hana was spared the gas chamber because she was young and strong, fit enough to be sent 200 miles north-west along with 10,000 other young women to build defences and trenches to stop the Russian tanks. After three months’ hard labour the project was abandoned. At that point anyone who was unable to walk was shot, including one of Hana’s best friends.
Early in 1945, Hana and a friend escaped from the German soldiers who were supposed to be supervising the building of a wall. The two women seized their chance when a guard wasn’t looking and ran. One soldier spotted them but gave them a second chance.
They took refuge in a house where the owners offered food and water, and soon afterwards joined a crowd of Poles and Russians who were slowly making their way home.
In May 1945, Hana, who had remained optimistic that Sasha was still alive, heard that he had perished in an open wagon the previous month. Her entire family were dead, too. The diary she kept for the five months around her journey back to Prague tells of how she considered suicide. What saved her was an acting job in a theatre in the city.
Hana eventually remarried and had a son, whom they named after Sasha. She and her husband George first moved to Melbourne, where they set up a company to perform classic European theatre. Later Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir John Gielgud visited and persuaded them to do the same in London. Hana was married to George for 39 years, and they lived happily with their son in their adopted land.
Hana died in 2008, aged 92, having suffered the further blow of hearing that Sasha, her first love, had actually been a casualty of Allied bombing.
Fifty years after her escape from Auschwitz, Hana Pravda received a package out of the blue. It was the diary she had kept for five months as she made her way back home. Hana had lost track of it, and a friend had sent it to a relative in Australia concealed inside a music box.
Hana’s grand-daughter, Isobel Pravda, remembers her very well and the two were close. Isobel, now 33, says: “She was a very big figure in my life, although she was physically very small. She cut straight to the heart of a problem and she was good to go to for advice. She was a great actor and director and her hobby was painting. Her home was full of paintings of Prague.”
When Isobel said, at a very young age, that she wanted to act, Hana was a great source of support and encouragement, although she was also a stern critic at times. Isobel has gone on to act widely on stage and TV, including roles in Silent Witness and Murphy’s Law and the US series Dark Matters.
“Hana talked little about the war, except for the odd little story,” says Isobel. “My memories of her are of a happy woman who was courageous and cheerful. Once or twice I did ask her how could she live with some of the brutality she must have gone through in those terrible years of beatings, starvation and hard labour, and she said ‘You didn’t know how to deal with it because you were not used to being with people who were not human beings...But somehow you had to remain optimistic’.”
With Hana’s blessing, the Prague theatre company Svandovo produced a docu-drama play based on the 1945 diary and interviews. The play was a two-hander, telling the parallel stories of the survival of Hana Pravda (her surname means “true”) and a Czech man called Milos Dobry (which means “good”). The two never met, yet their stories of concentration camps, loss and survival against the odds are similar.
The production has been running in repertory for two years. The company went on to commission Leeds-based theatre producer and playwright Brian Daniels to bring it to the UK to mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27.
The play The True and The Good, with an English script adapted by Brian Daniels will be at Leeds Carriageworks for five nights next week and a performance will also be staged at Leeds Prison before heading to London then Brussels.
Veteran actor Saul Reichlin was cast as Milos, looking back at the path of his life before and during the war, and from the female actors who auditioned for the role of Hana, Isobel was chosen. Before travelling to Leeds she will perform with Reichlin at the theatre where Hana actually worked after the war.
“It’s such an honour to play Hana, and it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would,” says Isobel. “But I really wanted to do it, ever since reading the diary. In one way it’s very upsetting, but it also makes me feel very close to her, as though I am bringing her back to life. She was a tremendous person who lived a hard life for a long time, I am so glad that I get to tell her story.”
The drama unfolds via two intercutting monologues, says Brian Daniels. “Unlike many Holocaust dramas, which don’t have a happy ending, these are two uplifting stories. The horror is there, but so too is the survival. We have no way of knowing why Hana and Milos did survive, but it makes you wonder if they had some special quality.
“Both certainly had a great sense of optimism, even in the most terrible circumstances...but then other habitually optimistic people died. Hana did say that she ‘acted her way through it’.”
Both Miloz and his younger brother Pepe survived. Milos worked in the kitchen at the camp and smuggled food to his brother. He was a strong, athletic sportsman and had talent as a comedian. At the end of April 1945 he and thousands of others were marching out of the camp they’d been in at Schwarzheide, with no idea where they were heading. Those who fell along the way were shot.
Clothes in tatters, falling down with exhaustion and hunger, they went on and on, then on May 7 the SS guards simply disappeared. It was over. At midnight on May 9 Germany’s unconditional surrender was ratified in Berlin. Milos and Pepe were free to make their way home.
Milos’s fiancee Zuzana and her mother had also been in the camps, and they eventually arrived back in Prague, although the father had perished. The three lived together for 60 years, and Milos regularly taught schoolchildren about the Holocaust until his death two months ago.
Why does Brian Daniels think it is important to keep telling new stories about the Holocaust?
“When discrimination begins, where does it end? We need to be aware that even the most educated of us can discriminate, if only internally.
“When I was about seven and my dad worked for a butcher in Chapeltown, I saw a man in a turban and made a fuss about pointing him out to dad. He said ‘We are all the same underneath’.”
• The Good and the True will be at Leeds Carriageworks from January 22 to January 26. Info and box office: 0113 224 3801. The performances will be followed by a discussion led by Lilian Black, daughter of Holocaust survivor Eugene Black, Fabian Hamilton MP and Alistair Ross of the Anne Frank Trust UK. www.goodandtrue.co.uk
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