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Life inside the Ghetto

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, a play about the story of Dr Emmanuel Ringelblum. By Silvia Dropulich

Your son plays volleyball against a Jewish school and comes home wanting to know why there are security guards at the school. For Associate Professor Neil Cole there was no easy way of explaining anti-Semitism, which is what he proceeded to do.

The innocent question inspired Associate Professor Cole’s play the Trial of Adolf Eichmann. That play, in turn, prompted the Jewish Theatre of Chicago to ask Associate Professor Cole, who is based at the University of Melbourne’s Mental Health Research Institute, to write another play – Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Story of Dr Emmanuel Ringelblum.

In 1940, soon after invading Poland, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto. They forced the Jews (around 30 per cent of the total population) to relocate into a so-called “Jewish quarter” (2.4 per cent of the total area of the city).

The area was walled off and the population inside were persecuted; they faced constant starvation and the threat of possible transportation to death or labour camps.

“Risking their lives Dr Emmanuel Ringelblum and a team of 200 assistants set to the task of documenting life inside the ghetto,” Associate Professor Cole explains.

“He was an incredible man before the war, an archivist and an academic.

“What has struck me in writing this play is the value of history and archivism.

“There are a lot of holocaust deniers who create history.”

Associate Professor Cole describes Dr Ringelblum as a very courageous and astute man. He recorded the actions of the Nazis as well as what people did to keep their culture, hope and humour alive.

“Creating the notes was an heroic and inspired act of resistance, but one that cost Ringelblum and his family their lives,” says Associate Professor Cole.

“Ringelblum’s actions ensured that future generations would know the story of the Warsaw Ghetto.”

Dr Ringelblum’s notes – tens of thousands of pages – were condensed into Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. The play is based entirely on the book.

Associate Professor Cole, a prolific playwright, works at the Mental Health Research Institute where he is investigating the links between creativity and mental illness. A former lawyer and a member of the Victorian State Parliament for over decade, Associate Professor Cole was the first politician in Australia or overseas to admit to having a mental illness, namely bi-polar mood disorder.

Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Story of Dr Emmanuel Ringelblum, written by Associate Professor Cole and directed by Domonique Bongiovani, is on until May 16 at the Carlton Court House Theatre.

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