Sylvanus, Erwin

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Nationality: German. Born: 1917. Awards: Leo Baeck Preis, 1959; Jochen-Klepper-Medaille, 1960; Joseph-Winkler-Stiftung prize, 1961. Died: 1985.



Drei Stücke (includes Korczak und die Kinder ; Jan Palach ; Sanssouci ). 1973.


Korczak und die Kinder. 1957; as Dr. Korczak and the Children, 1968.

Emil Schumacher. 1959.

Jan Palach. In Fünf moderne Theaterstücke: Volker Braun; Marieluise Fleisser; Ödön von Horváth; Erwin Sylvanus; Peter Weiss, 1972.

Sanssouci. In Drei Stücke, 1973.

Victor Jara. In Spectaculum: 26 Acht moderne Theaterstücke, 1977.

Exil—Reise in die Heimat [Exile—Travel in the Homeland] (produced 1981). Published as Ein Purim-Spiel oder Badische Heimatkunde [A Purim Play or the Local History of Baden].

Leo Baeck: A Radio Play Based on Authentic Texts, edited by David Dowdey and Robert Wolfgang. 1996.

Radio Play:

Leo Baeck, 1988.


Der Paradiesfahrer. 1942.


Der Dichterkreis. 1943.

Die Muschel. 1947.


Familie in der Krise, with Robert Bosshard. 1974.


Critical Studies:

"Erwin Sylvanus and the Theatre of the Holocaust" by Anat Feinberg, in Amsterdamer Beitrage zur Neueren Germanistik (Netherlands), 16, 1983, pp. 163-75; "'Toleranz? Noch spur ich sie nicht': Erwin Sylvanus' Modern Sequel to Lessing's Die Juden " by Alison Scott-Prelorentzos, in Seminar (Canada), 21(1), February 1985, pp. 31-47; "Sylvanus" by Walter Olma, in Literatur-Lexikon, edited by Walther Killy, 1991; "German Theatrical Responses" by Edward R. Isser, in Stages of Annihilation, 1997.

* * *

Erwin Sylvanus wrote three plays explicitly about the Holocaust, though he also wrote other plays dealing more generally with the subjects of anti-Semitism, racism, and other prejudices. In each of his three Holocaust plays he uses documentary evidence as his starting point. He did not, however, choose to create documentary theater; on the contrary, he often chose nonrealistic theatrical conventions, such as those popularized by Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello, to forge a unique theatrical experience for his audiences.

His first play, Dr. Korczak and the Children (1957), was one of the first plays produced in Germany to deal with the Holocaust. Sylvanus wrote the play not so much in response to the atrocities committed during the Third Reich. Rather his play was a protest against the rapidity with which the German public seemed to have forgotten or covered up the past during the 1950s, the years of the "economic miracle." The play, based on the true story of Dr. Janusz Korczak, utilizes a presentational style of playing. The narrator speaks directly to the audience and casts the actors in various roles. The actors are not pleased to be playing SS officers or Jews, but they must confront their own fears and prejudices and question their own complicity in the events of the past as they take on various parts. This play, Sylvanus's most famous, has often been labeled Pirandellian because of its philosophical questioning of moral issues and its use of a play-within-a-play format. The actors stepping out of their roles and questioning what they are doing is also characteristic of Brecht's epic theater.

Sylvanus's next play about the Holocaust was presented in 1981, having been commissioned by a German theater that annually presents plays about regional history. The play is based on Paul J. Schrag's book Heimatkunde: Die Geschichte einer deutsch-judischen Familie, the history of a local Jewish family during the Holocaust, whom the author traced through eyewitness accounts, both written and oral. Sylvanus's version has two titles: the official published version, called Ein Purim-Spiel oder Badische Heimatkunde ("A Purim Play or the Local History of Baden"), and the performance text, entitled Exil—Reise in die Heimat ("Exile—Travel in the Home-land"). Sylvanus once again uses documentary evidence as his starting point but takes some poetic license in his own version. For example, the book involves the Jewish businessman Fritz Kusel, whose family was murdered in the Holocaust. One of his best friends, Wolfgang Imhoff, was arrested for homosexuality and imprisoned in a concentration camp where he was later killed. In Sylvanus's version, however, Imhoff commits suicide after the war because of his realization that society is still just as intolerant as it had been during the Third Reich. The play, like Dr. Korczak and the Children, shifts back and forth between the present and the past, presenting not only the events of the Holocaust but also drawing parallels between contemporary prejudices and the atrocities of the past. The play also utilizes theatrical conventions such as presenting a play within a play and having an angry youth come out of the audience and ask questions about the performance, a technique often used by Brecht to increase audience involvement in the issues. Sylvanus also uses the format of the Jewish festival of Purim to structure the events of the play.

In his third play about the Holocaust, Leo Baeck: A Radio Play Based on Authentic Texts, Sylvanus traces the life story of Rabbi Leo Baeck, the chief rabbi of Berlin who later became a prisoner in the concentration camp Theresienstadt. Rabbi Baeck survived the Holocaust and provided succor for many others who did not through his teaching and humane example. Adolf Eichmann himself ordered Rabbi Baeck's death and was en route to Theresienstadt to carry it out personally, but the Russian Army arrived first. The English version of this play was adapted in 1988 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). This play is presented more realistically than the other two and is, as the title suggests, based on documentation, including eyewitness accounts, of the rabbi's life.

Sylvanus, who spent his youth writing poems in support of Nazism, was seriously wounded in World War II and spent the remainder of his life writing plays, television scripts, and radio plays, many of which pointed out the wrongs of prejudice, hatred, and brutality. His first and most famous play, Dr. Korczak and the Children, was the earliest Holocaust play to struggle with the creation of a new stage language to deal with the unfathomable realities of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

—Susan Russell

See the essay on Dr. Korczak and the Children.