Yiddish play manuscript draws attention to early Holocaust commemoration in Finland

In 2005, when I was working at the National Archives of Finland, I was commissioned to do an inventory of archival material found in a cellar of a building owned by the Jewish Community of Helsinki. Amidst thousands of documents, I found the manuscript of a tableau called Muter Rokhl un ire kinder (Mother Rachel and Her Children) written by Helsinki-born Jac Weinstein in 1948. The tableau depicts the 2000-year-long suffering of the Jewish people culminating in the death camps of the Third Reich. This blog discusses the content and meaning of Weinstein’s tableau, and recent performances of the piece as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’.

The tableau, typed in Latinized Yiddish, is a fascinating document from a community that had survived the Holocaust intact in a country that was de facto allied with Nazi Germany during 1941-1944. After the war, members of Finland’s Jewish community felt that they had to keep a low profile in order to protect Finland’s interests in eyes of the Soviet Union. While avoiding all publicity, the Jewish community sought and found many ways to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, including Yiddish performances by survivors. Weinstein’s tableau draws our attention to these early years of Holocaust commemoration, its significance, and its evolution.

The author of the tableau, Jac Weinstein (1883-1976), established a Jewish amateur theatre in Helsinki in 1922 and wrote satirical plays for it. During the war he became the secretary of the Jewish Community of Helsinki and followed closely the Swedish press for news about the fate of European Jewry. In summer 1944, Finnish Jews’ role as distant observers or bystanders was nearly changed into that of victims as they prepared for escape to Sweden in fear of a Nazi German coup and deportations. This never took place, and after the Moscow Armistice on 19 September 1944, Weinstein was involved in shaping the Jewish narrative of wartime circumstances in Finland.

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In quest for a catharsis

Weinstein’s Mother Rachel belongs to a particular period of Communal Memory (1945–1960) in Holocaust literature. This was a response to what had just happened and provided grieving individuals with a literature in which to mourn. After the war, when members of the Jewish community in Finland became fully aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, there was a need for artistic performances that resonated directly with the thoughts and feelings that people were processing. However, as Weinstein’s personal archives and the archive of the Jewish Drama Society have been mostly lost, it is not known whether Mother Rachel was ever performed.

The tableau is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and folklore. It is centred around biblical texts from the Book of Lamentations and the Book of Jeremiah, placing the destruction of European Jewry (in Yiddish Khurbn) in line with the other major catastrophes of the Jewish people. The tableau features images of the destruction of the Second Temple, a biblical scene of a valley of dry bones, hardships of exile, crusades, massacres, expulsions and pogroms. By including the first chapter from the Book of Lamentations and liturgical songs from Tisha be-Av service, it is likely that Weinstein meant the piece to be performed around this solemn fasting and mourning day, the ninth of the month of Av. The day commemorates a number of disasters in Jewish history but especially the destructions of the First and Second Temples. It seems that Weinstein saw this date, which usually falls in July or August, as an appropriate day for mourning and commemorating the destruction of European Jewry.

The emotional climax of the tableau is a scene of a death camp and a gas chamber. The narrator of the tableau addresses God by asking ‘Say, where are You now?’ In front of the people stands a mother with a child in her arms begging to go home. As the mother and the child disappear from the scene, the choir sings Eyli, Eyli, lomo azavtonu (My God, my God, why have you forsaken us), echoing the first words of Psalm 22. Weinstein was likely intending these scenes to provide a catharsis. Even though Finnish Jews had not experienced the horrors of the Holocaust directly, except for a small number of survivors who immigrated after the war, many had lost close family members and relatives and were trying to cope with the pain of the loss.

Although the dominant theme of Weinstein’s tableau is mourning the victims, it also includes an element of heroism with a scene of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Besides this, Weinstein also included an element of redemption and renewal. Towards the end of the tableau, the Jewish people, ‘the wanderers’, are led to Mother Rachel’s grave. Weinstein named the whole tableau after the biblical motif of the matriarch Rachel weeping for an end to her children’s sufferings and their exile following the destruction of the temples. In the scene, Mother Rachel shows pity on her suffering children and implores God to let ‘his people return to their land’. At the very end of the tableau, the choir sings Hatikvah (The hope), the anthem of the Zionist movement, which soon became the national anthem of Israel. With this Weinstein justified the Zionist concept of Jewish nationhood. Ultimately, for the She’erith Hapletah, the survivor communities as well as for Finnish Jews, Zionism offered an explanation of past tribulations, and hope for the future.

An example (page 8) from Weinstein’s Yiddish play manuscript. See fullscreen visualisation…

The visualisation was made possible by Neatline (an Omeka plugin).

Bringing Weinstein’s tableau to the stage

Jac Weinstein’s tableau was performed in 2016 at festivals organized by the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research project titled ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ . The goal of this multidisciplinary project, led by Dr Stephen Muir (Senior Lecturer, School of Music, University of Leeds, UK), is to research and perform recently re-discovered music and theatre created by musicians and authors living in conditions of displacement during the twentieth century. Material from other researchers in the project includes plays from the Terezín/Theresienstadt ghetto, classical music that was composed by Czech, Polish and Austrian musicians who perished in the Holocaust or lived in exile, and liturgical music composed by East-European cantors in exile.

Through research and performance, the project aims to ‘create a relationship between past and present by engaging explicitly with the multiple possible meanings of these artifacts from the past, both for their original audiences and ourselves.’ Documenting audience responses has been an integral part of the project, using a variety of methods including filming audiences during performances and post-performance ‘talkbacks’. The aim of performing Mother Rachel was to explore the meaning and impact of the tableau on contemporary audiences. After each performance, the audience had the opportunity to engage in a talkback with the producers and actors. The piece is in many ways a time capsule, and in performing it we also gain an understanding of the meaning of the piece to Weinstein’s contemporaries.

The first production of Mother Rachel was part of the ‘Out of the Shadows’ festival in Madison, Wisconsin, on 4 May 2016. After that it was staged in the ‘Out of the Shadows’ festival in Leeds, UK, on 9 June 2016, and finally in the ‘Ze stínu’ festival in Prague, on 22 September 2016. Each performance of the piece in these three festivals was directed by a different person and played by a local cast and choir. The venues were also quite different, ranging from an opera theatre, to a former church and a concert hall. The stage directors were provided with a transliteration of the original Yiddish manuscript and a versified English translation, and then given free rein to choose the language and interpret Weinstein’s text and stage directions. Because the manuscript indicates only the names of the songs, without actual sheet music, I chose as accompaniment to the tableau a number of arrangements, mainly from the archives of the Jewish Choir Society in Helsinki (Juutalainen Laulukuoro ry.), which is part of the Finnish Jewish Archives at the National Archives of Finland. Paintings by contemporary Czech artist Ivan Bukovský were chosen as a backdrop for the images described but not actually specified in Weinstein’s tableau.

The responses after each performance were markedly different. For example, in Madison the audience critically analyzed their position in relation to the Zionist tendencies of the piece (performed in an effective combination of Yiddish and English), and someone questioned whether such a ‘political’ piece should be performed at all. In Leeds the audience fully embraced the tableau (performed in English), and in a way became agents of a commemoration. Because the audience of the performance was chiefly from the Leeds Jewish community, it gained the character of community theatre, and was reminiscent of the work’s original purpose. In Prague the audience took a more guarded stance to the tableau (performed in Czech), possibly reflecting the country’s historical culture with regard to the Holocaust, which is very different to that of the US and the UK.

Another aim of ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ is ‘to create a new and sustainable archive for the future’. To achieve this, the project is working on an interactive public web resource featuring an online database of our project performances, with links to supporting archival artefacts, associated publications, audience response data etc. Whilst the database will not be launched until later this year, the videos of the performances of Weinstein’s Mother Rachel and her children are already available on Vimeo.


The author would like to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council,  members of the ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ project, organisers of the ‘Out of the Shadows’ festivals, and the directors, conductors, actors and choirs, who have made it possible to stage Mother Rachel and her children, and moderators of the talkback sessions and the film crew for the documentation. Also I would like to thank the Weinstein family for granting permission to perform the tableau, the Jewish Choir Association in Helsinki for permission to perform music from their repertoire, and Ivan Bukovský for making his paintings available for the project.



Performing the Jewish Archive, http://ptja.leeds.ac.uk/

Performances of Mother Rachel and her children:

  • Madison, Wisconsin

  • Leeds

  • Prague

National Archives of Finland, http://www.arkisto.fi/en/frontpage

Finland in EHRI portal, https://portal.ehri-project.eu/countries/fi

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