Holocaust theatre historian, Samantha Mitschke, spoke with Jane Arnfield about her stage adaptation of a Holocaust survivor’s story for the blog.

The Tin Ring

“The Tin Ring,” by Zdenka Fantlova, adapted from the book by Mike Alfreds and Jane Arnfield, Produced by The Forge

The Tin Ring is adapted from the memoir of the same name, written by Zdenka Fantlova, a Czech Holocaust survivor. In the hour-long, one-woman play, performed by Jane Arnfield, Zdenka recounts her life as a teenaged girl in Czechoslovakia and her experiences during the Holocaust, from incarceration in Theresienstadt through to liberation from Bergen-Belsen, and tells of her post-war life in Sweden, where she tries to rebuild her shattered life as the sole survivor of her family.

Jane Arnfield and Zdenka Fantlova in The Journal. 
The Tin Ring, 2013.

The play can be, and has been, performed anywhere – from halls and classrooms to lecture theatres and sitting rooms. With just one performer, one chair, one costume and two sound cues, it allows spectators to engage with a true story through the living, breathing medium of theatre.

Suitcase of Survival

The play can be performed as a standalone piece, but Jane has developed a curriculum project called Suitcase of Survival (SOS) that can be run in conjunction in schools and colleges. One of the key aspects highlighted by Jane is the play’s ability to work across cultures. It also enables spectators to develop a keener sense of empathy, in terms of identifying aspects of Zdenka’s life in their own (such as having siblings and going to school), as well as imagining how they might have reacted in her situation.

“It’s about the ‘before,’ ‘during’ and ‘after’”

In addition, the play and SOS focus on how humans cope with crisis; Jane notes that “We try to save the ‘before,’ and then we experience the ‘crisis,’ and then ‘after.’ What we can take from ‘before’ that leads us to, and supports us in, the ‘after’?”[1] Spectators, especially young people, are able to use Zdenka’s story as an “entry point” into seeing not just her life and theirs, but the lives of others undergoing ‘crisis’ throughout history and the contemporary moment.[2] Likewise, they are able to develop an understanding of how they – and others – cope from ‘before’ to ‘after.’

Refugees in the Play

While The Tin Ring is, ostensibly, a narrative of Holocaust survival, Zdenka’s story is peopled with refugees – including herself. The central thread of both play and memoir is Zdenka’s love affair with Arno, a German-speaking Czech-Jewish refugee whom Zdenka meets in her hometown after he and his family, like many others, flee inland away from the Nazi advance. Spectators are encouraged to sympathise with Zdenka by relating to her, and Arno, in human terms. Jane observes that in the play Zdenka is in her late teens, and “a lot of people identify with that stage in their life. Whether that’s a first love or family – there’s a parallel there.”[3]

Mike Alfreds, Zdenka Fantlova, Laura Cull, and Jane Arnfield on the set of The Tin Ring.
The Tin Ring, 2013.

When she is in Sweden, Zdenka and her friend Vera encounter hostility from local factory workers when neither girl is able to work as quickly as the “old hands,” folding and packing boxes of biscuits. When she and Vera hit upon the idea of taking boxes home and practising, they soon master the best technique and far exceed the output of the other workers; her fingers nimbly demonstrating the folding of invisible boxes, Jane as Zdenka wryly observes: “Those who had disliked us before positively hated us now.” This raises laughter from the spectators as we enjoy Zdenka’s triumph, but it hits home in its echo of common misconceptions of refugees as ‘taking our jobs.’[4]

“Theatre offers a place where we can examine what it is to be alive”

Equally, Zdenka’s gutsy pretence of speaking fluent Swedish in order to get work at the Czech Embassy, when in reality she speaks little, shows the struggles refugees face to master new languages in order to build a new life. Zdenka speaks Czech, German and English, but it isn’t enough – she must learn yet another language. Many refugees find themselves having to learn at least the basics of several different languages to get by. Asylum in a particular country is not always guaranteed, and many refugees face moving from country to country before they are able to find the refuge that they seek.

In addition, Zdenka’s fight to survive is motivated by her determination to find her loved ones after the war. In Sweden, she learns of Arno’s death and discovers that she is the only surviving member of her family. She talks of not wanting to live, and in this we find reflections of the situation faced by so many refugees, who survive hardships and trauma only to find that there is no-one left.

“If you understand the story, it doesn’t matter where you are”

Importantly, The Tin Ring reminds us that those who are/were refugees are not wholly defined by those experiences. We learn about Zdenka’s life from childhood right through to her time in Sweden; at the play’s end, she tells us that it will be fifty years before she goes back to her hometown – “but that is another story.” We are reminded that when we focus on individuals as ‘refugees,’ we only focus on a segment of their lives, and there are so many more chapters to come.

[1] Personal interview with Jane Arnfield, 25 November 2017.
[2] Jane Arnfield, ‘Suitcase of Survival: Performance, biography and intercultural education.
[3] Personal Interview.
[4] Personal Interview.

Sam Mitschke, B&WDr. Samantha Mitschke is a playwright and theatre historian, specialising in British and American Holocaust theatre. Her research engages with both conventional and alternative ways of representing the Holocaust, particularly in the context of empathy theory. Her forthcoming work includes articles about the concept of the ‘Holocaust musical,’ and stage portrayals of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando. She is an Outreach Educator with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) in the UK, works with the British Refugee Council, and is a volunteer with the Wiener Library in London. Check out Samantha on Twitter at @SamMitschke to follow her work.

Be sure to check out the Tin Ring on Twitter and Facebook @thetinring and the production company @theForgeUK.