Part II: The Mountain
This is the second of three short pieces on engaging our times against the background of fifty years of teaching and writing about the Holocaust. The first piece, “The Cliff,” was published in the July 17th issue of The Times of Israel.
In a time of mass death—shaped by structures of privilege as well as accident—the relationship between the dead and the living takes on a different cast. Death is not simply expiring but being erased or consumed. Living on is not simply being alive but survival amidst loss too extensive to grieve. Death is a mountain, above ground rather than below, and always on the horizon whether we look at it or not.
During the year before the pandemic, I started a new play entitled “Death / Play, or the Mad Jester of the Warsaw Ghetto,” centered on Rubinstein, the “mad jester.” Although one of the best-known people in the ghetto during the months he was there—between early 1941 and Spring, 1942—no one knows his first name or particulars about his personal life. What we know is some of what he said and what he did. His ironic quips—often directed at the ghetto elite and even at the Germans—were “daily news,” recorded in many ghetto diaries and in the Gazeta Zydowska, the German-supervised ghetto newspaper.
So also his antics. Among them—and one that is central in the opening scene of my play—is his leaping into carts that carried corpses to what remained of Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, mostly mass graves by 1941. Lying with the dead, Rubinstein talked and joked with them as though they were still alive, or at least capable of hearing. His “madness”—itself a subject of speculation—was epitomized in these episodes.
No one knows what actually motivated Rubinstein or whether he was, in fact, insane. In my play—and this is consistent with the little we do know—he realized early that essentially no one would survive. The piece opens with his performing a comedy routine upscale ghetto nightclub, as he sometimes did. He exclaims to the audience: “Are you dead? OF COURSE YOU ARE DEAD! I will say Kaddish for you.”
As I present Rubinstein, he believed that the division between the living and the dead was only temporary. His antics transgress that division—not to take down the living but to raise the dead; that is, to restore them to the community of which they had been members.
In the ghetto, the dead were literally everywhere. Every morning, corpses littered the street, to be collected for transport to the cemetery. While physically everywhere, they became emotionally nowhere. In August 1941, Emanuel Ringelblum, historian of the ghetto, noted in his journal: “There is a marked, remarkable indifference to death, which no longer impresses. One walks past corpses with indifference.”
Most of the Holocaust survivors whom I’ve known—I have been teaching and writing about them since the 1970s–recall a similar numbness. In the midst of the terror, grief was necessarily suppressed. Leon told me, “When you are in it, sorrow and grief are a luxury which you cannot generate.”
Why, then, was Rubinstein different? First, because—as a kind of “court jester”—he enjoyed a degree of immunity. His humor was humored. He was tolerated (and patronized) not only by the ghetto authorities but even by the SS. For the Germans, Rubinstein was an organ grinder’s monkey.
Second, and essential in the play, Rubinstein lived beyond hope for personal survival. To say it most plainly, he had nothing to lose. His antagonist in the piece is Abraham Gancwajch, the ultimate survivalist. Gancwajch and his gang openly collaborated with the Gestapo. Their rationale was that cooperation would allow at least some to survive. In practice, they were gangsters who used every form of threat, extortion, and corruption to enhance their wealth and power.
The dramatic action of the play turns on the duel between trickster and gangster. More generally, it turns on the claims of “life goes on” and the claims of all, and what, do not. Gancwajch challenges Rubinstein’s allegiance to the dead—“always the dead for you, Rubinstein”–and asks him directly whether he had wanted to survive. Rubinstein answers:
“Yes, if it were possible, I wanted to survive. But it is not possible. We are over the cliff. The ghetto is falling through the air. The only question is when we hit the rocks.
And survival is boring. You live another day just to live another day. You are a slave to schemes and masters
I am free. I can do everything because I have nothing. All my antics. The people see me, and they also feel free. They say, ‘Rubinstein is going to play with death. Death is nothing to fear. It will be a good show.'”
In an earlier scene, Rubinstein describes himself, not only as the “mad jester,” but also as “the undertaker of the Warsaw ghetto”:
‘I play with death. I play against death. I play in spite of death.
I never win. And I never lose.
I pretend we can still pretend.”
The mountain of pandemic dead has risen since I finished this scene. The best estimate of the toll in the United States is over one million. Globally, the number is well over eight million, and it will continue to grow. Even as we speak of recovery—and begin to live it—we carry memories of makeshift morgues, crematoria hellscapes, suffocation, sirens wailing through the night. Those who remember loved ones dying alone rarely speak of recovery at all.
Almost certainly, the great majority will survive our own catastrophe. Corpses don’t litter the streets as part of an obscene carnival of degradation and terror has that characterized genocides. Vicious indifference, corruption, and deceit have played significant roles in our disaster, but no group has been directly targeted for erasure.
Still, Rubinstein—or the Rubinstein I created—has been one of my guides. What is the potential of radical play in our own time? How should we—and, more interesting to me, how do we—mediate the claims of survival and the claims of the dead? More personally—as an artist—ought I embrace the role of “mad jester,” which has never been far away?
In a later scene, I imagine Rubinstein and Gancwajch meeting again, in the rubble of the club where Rubinstein performed. Neither survived. Rubinstein was killed sometime in the spring of 1942. He was in one of the first deportations to Treblinka. Based on what we know, Gancwajch was killed in 1943 on the “Aryan side,” most likely by his former Gestapo masters.
In the late scene, in which they are both wearing half-skull masks, they rekindle their debate. Gancwajch’s murder vindicates Rubinstein’s insistence that his obsession with survival was misguided. Gancwajch insists that a few did survive, and that Rubinstein’s efforts to retrieve the dead were that much more insane. There were too many—hundreds of thousands in Warsaw alone. Even grieving a single person—genuinely grieving—can take a lifetime. For a community, one may recall a few names and light a few candles. But the lost are lost, and the majority will remain lost, even to memory. The world will always belong to the survivors, Gancwaych insists, that is how it is and how it must be.
In this scene, Rubinstein cannot fully disagree. Rather, he suggests that Gancwajch is arguing too literally. Of course, the dead cannot be retrieved, let alone grieved in specificity and depth—which is what actual grief requires. But it matters that we grieve our inability to grieve. It matters that we remember our forgetting.