GORHAM, Maine — Germaine Tillion counted how many women went out each morning on work detail. In the evenings when the groups returned, there were often fewer.
During the final years of World War II, Tillion was locked in Ravensbruck, one of Nazi Germany’s nightmarish concentration camps, built to systematically kill legions of Jews and others victimized by the Nazi agenda.
She secretly kept records of the atrocities, from photographs of women mutilated by torturous medical experiments to notes about how many fellow prisoners disappeared. She also wrote a play.
With the liberation of the camp in 1945, that play — a dark comedy operetta — was smuggled out of the facility and stayed hidden for decades. This month, after nearly two years of translation and preparation work, University of Southern Maine theater students will stage the first-ever English language version of the production.
“If she had been found with it, I have no doubt she would have been killed. It was incredibly inflammatory, and it was a harsh, searing critique of the Nazis, the camp and horrifying environment,” said Meghan Brodie, director of the USM production and an assistant professor of theater at the school.
“She had been very active in the French Resistance, and she was betrayed by a priest,” Brodie continued. “She ended up in Ravensbruck, where she had access to tiny bits of paper, smaller than a small index card, and a pen.”
The operetta focuses on a Ravensbruck woman playing an anthropologist-type role, studying the lives and social interactions of her fellow prisoners, known in the play by the German word the Nazis used for them: Verfugbar. That’s roughly translated in English to “disposable.”
The English rendition of the play is titled “In the Underworld,” and it will be performed at Russell Hall at the university’s Gorham campus from April 18 to 27.
“It was really, really interesting to see how this woman portrayed her life and the lives of others in this camp,” said Jonathan Marro, the play’s musical director and a 2012 USM alumnus. “Writing this dark comedy was a coping mechanism. It was a survival tool.”
Marro speaks German, has done extensive research into the Holocaust and has visited the concentration camp sites on multiple occasions.
“I can see how the [dark comedy] title could be confusing when it’s set about the Holocaust — ‘Well that’s not very funny. I don’t want to sing about that,’” Marro said. “The comedy is really in the irony and the sarcasm of the characters.
“They express the fear and the hate and the anger and the sadness and the hope, and the moments of joy and the innocence of the people that has been lost,” he continued. “You can never recover from something like that. And I think despite the facade of the operetta and the dark comedy, she’s telling a real story, and it’s not hard to grasp. It’s right there.”
The Augusta-based Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine and the Remember the Women Institute of New York are among the operetta’s co-sponsors. French composer Christophe Maudot arranged and composed the music for the original French-language production, which was staged in 2007, and the music also will be used for the USM version.
Philadelphia couple Annie and Karl Bortnick, fluent French speakers and arts supporters, translated the original script from French to English for the Gorham production.
Marro and Brodie, who speaks some French, subsequently tweaked the translated script to make it more accessible to English audiences, trying not to lose Tillion’s nuances.
Marro said, for instance, the prisoners call one of the guards a “bloody cow,” a colloquialism in the language used at the time, but one not common in English today.
“When the song lyrics [say], ‘bloody cow, bloody cow,’ it just sounds silly and doesn’t translate well,” he said.
Tillion was imprisoned at Ravensbruck in October 1943. She left the camp in April 1945 as part of the Swedish Red Cross’ liberation of the site, smuggling out film showing pictures of women deformed by their captors.
A friend snuck out the play and later gave it back to Tillion, who kept it hidden at her Paris home for decades. Tillion died in 2008 at the age of 100, just a year after her play was performed for the first time.
“This fantastic and historic artifact has never been available to English readers,” Brodie said. “I’m not aware of anyone else who wrote a play that survived while in a camp, much less an operetta.”
Brodie said it’s unclear how Tillion managed to acquire the small bits of paper and writing instrument she used to record her operetta, but she said part of the play takes place in a warehouse where prisoners are forced to sort out possessions plundered from countries the Nazis occupied.
The director said it’s possible Tillion took the paper, pen and other items from that warehouse, unbeknownst to the guards.
“I’m not sure where she hid it, but she hid it well,” said Brodie, who is directing her last play at USM as one of several faculty members laid off in response a school budget shortfall.
“I think we’ve done far more research than most folks do on a production so we can really understand it all, and it’s been a far more emotional process than a lot of productions,” she said.
Tillion would write portions of the play and stage small-scale, secret performances for her fellow prisoners during the rare moments when they weren’t forced into hard labor.
“There’s nothing I’ve ever read or seen [about the Holocaust] that has been specifically supposed to be funny the way this one is,” Marro said.
“There’s a song about diarrhea,” Brodie said. “It gives you a bit of whiplash, but I think that’s what her intention was, because that’s what life was like in the concentration camps.”
Caroline O’Connor, a senior women and gender studies major at USM, plays Nenette, a well-heeled French aristocrat who starts the play in shock at how she’s treated in the prison, hits rock bottom and then matures into a nurturing leader of the group.
“These lines, they’re overwhelming,” the actor — part of an 11-person, all-woman cast — said. “The only way you can read them is in complete exhaustion. There are points where she’s feeling broken and she’s given up.”
The emotional highs and lows experienced by Nenette, the anthropologist character and others were autobiographical for Tillion.
“The women don’t know if they’re going to live or die, and this [play] was probably one of the only ways they could cope and have control,” O’Connor said.
Nenette is described in the play as the Paris wife of a French military general and the president of the local Society for the Protection of Animals. It’s plausible that Tillion wrote real fellow prisoners into her play, and O’Connor is researching whether Nenette was based on a real person.
“This was an extremely well-off woman who was arrested, possibly tortured, held against her will in her own country for months and then transported across the border to her death,” O’Connor said. “This is something I had never been taught about in all my years learning about history or the Holocaust. How many other stories aren’t being told? How many people just vanished during the course of these events?”
David Greenham, program director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, said that “any time that a population is marginalized as in the case of the Holocaust, the stories take a while to work their way out.”
“Once stories come to light, it’s a matter of finding different ways to share them,” he continued in a statement. “We’re very excited that professor Brodie and the students are bringing this story to life through the performing arts.”