Marionettes and Puppetmasters Tell of Nazi Atrocities in Poland

Czech-American Company Uses Klezmer To Tell History

Puppet Master: Vit Hořejš, Czech-born founder and artistic director of the internationally acclaimed Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, is producing “King Executioner,” based on a novel by Tadeusz Nowak.
Adele Bossard
Puppet Master: Vit Hořejš, Czech-born founder and artistic director of the internationally acclaimed Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, is producing “King Executioner,” based on a novel by Tadeusz Nowak.

By Simi Horwitz

Published March 25, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
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Having worked at Jewish festivals in Poland, I know there are deep wounds that are felt. And despite the popular Jewish narrative, not everyone was out to get the Jews, and the Nazi occupation was a trauma for the Poles, as well, that each family — and their descendants — has had to deal with.”

Hořejš himself has been keenly in tune with Jewish sensibilities for a long time. Launching his career as an actor-director and translator, the first lap of his journey out of Communist Prague was Italy, where he served as Primo Levi’s translator on “The Periodic Table.”

In 1979 he made his way to New York’s community of Czechoslovakian émigrés on the Upper East Side, and five years later he discovered 69 marionettes in the attic of the Jan Hus Church, the house of worship for many Czech expatriates. Creating a marionette theater almost felt inevitable, not least because puppetry had been so much a part of his early life.

As in many totalitarian countries where censorship in theater was routine, the censors overlooked Czechoslovakian puppet shows because these productions were viewed as children’s fare, and therefore theater artists were free to use puppetry as vehicles for political commentary and satire.

Audiences are still not quite sure how to interpret puppets, Hořejš commented. Some people continue to think they’re designed exclusively for children. Others are actually afraid of puppets. “It’s a recognized phobia: puppaphobia,” he said.

Hořejš admitted he’s wondered how theatergoers would interpret the piece, suggesting that the affirmative ending will put to rest, or at least mitigate, any notion that the production is taking an anti-Resistance position.

“People swear they see the puppets’ expressions changing,” Hořejš said.

“Look at the faces,” London said, gesturing at the hanging marionettes. “Are they smirking? Are they angry? It’s never clear, and that’s part of the ambiguity.”

Simi Horwitz writes frequently about theater for the Forward.


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