The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings

SEARCH CurtainUp





NEWS (Etcetera)

(with Amazon search) 

DC (Washington)
Los Angeles




Free Updates
Type too small?
NYC Weather


A CurtainUp Interview

The Playwrights of Camp Holocaust: Adam Melnick and Josh Tarjan

by Les Gutman

Lest the Lower East Side gentrify itself out of all institutional memory of the Holocaust, The Present Company brings us Camp Holocaust, described as a “darkly comic and deadly serious” play. Its two main characters, Dave and Ed, both children of Holocaust survivors, decide to build a concentration camp in Poland as an “adventure” destination for American Jews. It's a notion prompted by Helen Epstein's book, Children of the Holocaust [see link at end of interview], which suggests (among other things) that the children of survivors have a penchant for extreme activities. 

The play brings together several different groups of people; in most cases, with several points of view even within each group. We see American Jews: a survivor parent and a rabbi, both of whom are against the boys going to Poland; some people who seem to want to put the Holocaust out of their minds and others who are militant about remembering the Holocaust as it was -- insisting that they be subjected to cruelty and that the camp be run by Germans. Dave and Ed meet some interesting, and humorous, Poles. Some of the younger generation are curious about Judaism and hostile to things Germanic, while their older counterparts are less welcoming, more suspicious and maybe even anti-Semitic. And then there are Germans: some anxious to confront their demons -- they become the major investors in the camp -- and others, neo-Nazis among them, who insist the Holocaust never happened. It's these characters and their interactions that drive the play.

Disgraceful, or an intelligent step in learning the lessons of the Holocaust? The experiment becomes a laboratory for contemporary reactions to the lingering residue of the 20th Century's darkest hours. CurtainUp sat down recently with Camp Holocaust's bright young playwrights, Adam Melnick and Josh Tarjan, to find out what motivated them to venture into such controversial territory. They had a lot to say, and we let them do most of the talking.

Camp Holocaust continues through 10/28/00 at The Present Company Theatorium, 196-8 Stanton Street (bet. Ridge and Attorney) Telephone (212) 420-8877.

CurtainUp:  So two kids of Holocaust survivors decide to write a play about two kids of Holocaust survivors. Your play seems like an analog of its subject. How did the idea come about?
Josh Tarjan: I had been reading the Helen Epstein book, and I told Adam about it. [The two met as theater students at Columbia.] The book really was a revelation, at least to me. I suddenly realized my whole life was running along this algorithm of the Holocaust. Adam said, if we are all jumping out of airplanes and doing that sort of thing, then why not -- he said it jokingly -- create an actual concentration camp? We laughed about it and said, “Hey, that's an idea for a play.” (Adam thought we should make it a musical.) Later, we were on the subway and I said we have to do it as a play. Right then and there on the train, we basically came up with all the major plot points.
Adam Melnick: I had read a long time ago -- I don't know if it was the National Enquirer or The Sun or something, I assume it was made-up -- that there was a place in England where people had gone and paid to be in a prisoner-of-war camp or concentration camp. And we started talking about it.
CU: Lot's of possible plays get talked about on the subway. When did you actually start writing it?
JT: Spring of ‘97.
AM: We wrote it in six weeks in the spring and then Josh did a workshop production in the fall.
JT: December of ‘97.
CU: Some of what you wrote, I assume, is autobiographical, or at least based on personal observation. What is the reality base you were working from?
JT: My father survived the Holocaust, and lost his family. He grew up in Communist Hungary and then came to the United States in 1956. I spent time in Poland after college -- I went there to study theater -- and when I came back, I did have a conversation with the rabbi of the synagogue that my parents belonged to. He's a Holocaust survivor himself, and he did say to me [as the rabbi in the play echoes] that Jews have no business going back to Poland. So there are certain autobiographical elements, but we did change things around.

AM: My mom was born in France, the daughter of two Polish immigrants, and she was there during the occupation. She and her mother -- my grandmother -- escaped to Vichy and from there to Morocco and then to America. I don't think I have the same issues -- the “danger” thing [in Epstein's book] didn't resonate for me. But what resonated for me in that book was -- there's always this thing in the back of your head that the whole world might fall apart, and that you look in a mate for someone who might help you survive this major catastrophe. Josh and I would joke about keeping silver under the bed just in case the monetary system collapses. It's a joke but [for us] there's an element of truth in it. 

JT: I think I was closer. I would do extreme things; the reason I was going rock climbing and white water kayaking was because of the Holocaust, and I have to say I was obsessed -- I was always reading books about the Holocaust. After we wrote the play, I felt my mind had somehow cleared. So for me I know those things were definitely linked.

AM: I think the issues manifest slightly different for me. I remember when we moved to my town up in Westchester, it was a small village then, and the Police came to the door to welcome us as new people. My mother totally freaked out and brought us all into the kitchen and huddled us together. She wouldn't answer the door for about five minutes because the cops had come. I think that kind of fear is inherited, that fear of authority, fear that something dreadfully wrong can happen at any moment.

JT: I think you grow up with a sense that the world is not a safe place. I have to say I over-reacted to Y2K. While most Americans believed nothing bad could ever happen, I looked at the  rest of the world and at World War II and thought horrible things can happen.
CU: What about the other Jews in the play? Are they rooted in specifics? I'm thinking, as an example of Yael, a woman who fits in the category I called militant earlier.
AM: Well I have a friend who was not at all religious -- I was brought up a Reform Jew and he was not -- and later on he became very religious. I visited him in Israel once and a bunch of his friends were part of this whole new movement of people who become religious from non-religious families -- there are a couple of Yeshivas that cater to these people. I was amazed at how much of their education, their ideology, was centered around the Holocaust. I was blown away that it was central to their idea of what a Jew was. To me that's what the play is about. It is about the Holocaust but it is about how we relate to the Holocaust as Jews -- more generally about identifying with any one thing so strongly it becomes your whole identity. 
CU: The character of Ed's mother had survived the Holocaust, but was not supportive of the project. In fact, she pulled out her full arsenal of guilt to try to keep Ed from going to Poland. I'm not certain if she was trying to suppress the memory or just against the idea of going back? Josh, you said you were obsessed. What was your father's reaction to that, and how does that track with his reaction to the play, if he's had one?
JT: My father was very open -- he'd tell you whatever you wanted to know about his experiences even though he may not have come to terms with his own sense of loss. When he read the play, he was appalled by it, but he's going to come see it. I think he's very much like the mother in that sense. I don't think Ed's mother is unwilling to talk about the Holocaust. I think it's just the idea of building the camp that's an appalling idea. 
CU: Now you also have an older Jewish man, Mr. Bromowitz, who's on this journey. Who does he represent to you?
AM: We wanted someone, a typical person who is absolutely identified 100% as a Jew as victim, as the oppressed  -- "My people were victims". Everyone else had the attitude, "we are this, they are them, and we've got to protect ourselves".

JT: And we found that in a cantankerous old man from New York. 
CU: Both of you have spent some time in Poland. Do the play's Polish characters have roots in your experiences?
JT: The Polish stereotypes we're looking at-- I did a workshop with a Polish theater group called Gardzienice. They live in a remote area outside of Lublin. They run through the woods late at night, they go to farm villages and collect material -- indigenous folk material, songs and so on -- and make these fantastic pieces, but the locals don't know what to make of them. Someone told me the farmers often referred to the theater company as a bunch of Freemasons and Jews because they make no sense to them. But as far as the young Poles, I found that there was a fascination with Jewish culture. When the theater runs, say, The Magician of Lublin, it's always sold out. 

AM: Josh used to say, before I went, imagine if one day all of the black people in America were gone. The buildings and the neighborhoods were there, and the music. Young people would ask, where did this form come from? Where did this music come from? This slang? And we would say, there used to be this people, but they are no longer around. So Josh explained that's what the young Poles felt--that it was "a part of their soul" --that's a line we used actually in the play.
CU: And what about the Germans?
AM: The sensitive Germans -- I've known German people like that, of course we pushed to extremes.

JT: I had a German girlfriend. I met her in Poland. She was coming to Poland to work in a concentration camp: picking weeds, working in the archives. She was remotely with a group of young Germans who were coming to Poland to do the same thing. They would meet whatever remaining Jews were left and there is this sense that they want to atone. 

AM: If you look at it, everyone is a stereotype, and it's purposeful. Everyone besides Ed. And even the relationship Ed has, the romance, is like a movie, and then it goes wrong. These stereotypes have an energy that goes in a certain direction and that causes everyone to accept this totally insane situation as normal. And in this crazy world where we are all told these things to be by the dominant paradigm, what happens when you step outside? Maybe there is this idea of a Platonic ideal -- that there are some things that have power and if you touch them and create them they reproduce themselves. So the Germans become guards, the Poles go outside and the Jews want to be prisoners.
CU: You certainly didn't shy away from ideas that might leave some people squirming some. Speak a bit about how that fits in your view of theater: should it be a way of broaching subjects that aren't always easy for people to talk about? 
JT: There was recently an article in Harper's, an essay by an art historian talking about how art in America has become this very safe, banal haven whereas what art really can be is a place where we can examine the anxieties of a society. We don't build an actual concentration camp. It's a thought experiment in theater, which people still react to as though we have actually gone and built the camp. That's what you can do in art, and that's what more art should be doing, I think. I would say there's very little political consciousness that we see in theater. That's not to say our play is political but certainly we are talking about issues. I wish people would talk more about actual world events, things that are happening in our society, rather than just entertaining. I think that's why people think theater is dead. It's not because theater is inherently dead; it's because of the material people are choosing. You have to read outside of conventional media -- there's so much material to be harvested. 

AM: To me what's interesting about the play and what the play addresses is how we live our lives, and how we do so dominated by certain ideas. That is political, though not political in terms of nation-states. For the most part, people doing off-off-Broadway and off-Broadway want to be doing Broadway and movies, and so we are all a part of this machine that Brecht talks about that's handing out this same material over and over again, with the same way of approaching things. Most people are not questioning the dominant paradigm -- if I can say that twice in this interview -- on a national, social or personal level. That's what I hope this play is beginning to touch. Theater is cheap, and that's its power. And it's alive--it can change from performance to performance. And that is also its power. 

JT: So I guess you could say our play is revolutionizing theater -- just kidding, but you can put that in quotes in the interview anyway. 
CU: You can have your quote. I'll just say I was impressed with the play's honesty, and its willingness to step up to the plate and take a chance -- a real chance -- of getting hit by the ball. Sorry for the metaphor, but it's the dominant paradigm of the season. 

Helen Epstein's Children of the Holocaust

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from