The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - Review

When Northern Ballet asked me to be involved with a proposed new ballet depicting the Holocaust, I had misgivings to say the least. I had read the book and seen the film, but importantly I am the daughter of Holocaust survivor Eugene Black who survived selection at Auschwitz and was eventually liberated from Bergen Belsen. Sadly, my grandparents who were aged 57 years perished in the gas chambers there. I grew up with the Holocaust in its various guises, in heavy silences, forbidden watching of TV film footages of the camps and parties where there were no relatives from my father’s family. All we had was one small picture of one of father’s sisters Blanka taken pre 1939. I am also Chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association which delivers Holocaust education through our survivors and soon through a newly created Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre to be located at the University of Huddersfield. (holocaustlearning.org)

As my father used to say, the actual story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas could never have happened at Auschwitz and this is why the actual book and film are considered by survivors to be contentious. Any inaccuracy can fuel holocaust denial. So I had to think carefully about our involvement. When I met with Director of Development Crys Whitewoods and Choreographer Daniel de Andrade  I was impressed by how much research had gone into the Holocaust and many of the examples I had taken to the meeting were already known about. This was reassuring. We talked about the design, costumes, how and if to show the last scene as the two boys go into the gas chambers. Part way through the development phase I saw the dancers rehearsing.

And now to the opening night! With much trepidation I sat in the audience with two survivors. I was amazed that the level of interest was so high, with a packed theatre and diverse audience of all ages. When we talk about the Holocaust, for me it is very personal and so to be ready to see an interpretation of my own family’s experience is not easy. Also one of the accompanying survivors lost her father in Auschwitz.

Northern Ballet has produced courageously a most moving ballet. The interpretation, lighting, costumes and dance were outstanding, communicating accurately the power, despair, humanity and inhumanity of people in a way which words cannot. The image of slave labour and use of simple equipment like the wheelbarrow were just so accurate. The attention to detail of the SS uniforms, so well researched. The final scenes of people undressing and the use of gas masks were very uncomfortable for me, but this is what happened, so my discomfort must be overcome.

And the music, well how do you write music for the Holocaust? But Gary Yershon did. It was entirely fitting. All I can say is a big thank you to Northern Ballet for an amazing piece of creativity and hard work. Our lost families were truly honoured and you have contributed to the legacy going forward when our survivors are no longer with us. I hope that more can be done on this theme for future teaching and learning. The use of the medium of ballet has found its place in helping our communities to better understand the consequences of persecution and where this can lead, ultimately to genocide.

Lilian Black, Chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association


This article was first published in Inside magazine, Northern Ballet’s exclusive member’s magazine. To enjoy articles like this, ticket discounts and regular Company updates, please click here to find out more about becoming a Friend or Patron of Northern Ballet.

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