The World War II Jewish ghetto at Theresienstadt, forty miles northwest of Prague, was the site of an uncommonly active cultural life. Survivor testimony about the prisoners’ theatrical performances inspired a question: why were almost all of the scripts written in the ghetto comedies? The recent rediscovery of several scripts has made possible a detailed analysis that draws from recent research on the psychological effects of different types of humour. This analysis reveals that, regardless of age, language or nationality, the Theresienstadt authors universally drew upon two potentially adaptive types of humour (self-enhancing and affiliative humour) rather than two potentially maladaptive types (aggressive and self-defeating humour). Perhaps instinctively, they chose the very types of humour that have a demonstrated association with psychological health and that may have helped them preserve their psychological equilibrium in the potentially traumatising environment of the ghetto.
Dr Lisa Peschel is a Senior Lecturer in Theatre at the University of York. Her articles on theatre in the Theresienstadt ghetto have been published internationally and her reconstructions of Theresienstadt performances, including those created for £1.8 million project ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’, have been staged on four continents.