December 19, 2018

Dutch Performance Artists Re-Create Life in Auschwitz … in Miniature

The atrocities at Auschwitz cannot be contained by any existing theatrical space or any single 60-minute performance, no matter how innovative, which is one reason why critics have found “Kamp,” the mixed-media work by the Dutch company Hotel Modern, so audacious. The scope of the project may be immense, but the company works — quite literally — in miniature, using puppets and models to depict the working life of the Nazi concentration camp.

“Using models, you can bring the whole world into the theater literally, very big themes, not only emotionally but physically,” said Pauline Karker, one of the three performing artists who created “Kamp.”

Audiences witness what might have been a typical day at Auschwitz, with the horror of the camp on full display. Trains arrive with new prisoners. Hundreds of Plasticine figures in black-and-white-striped pajamas are gathered for “roll call.” A garish sign over the entrance proclaims, “Arbeit Mach Frei” (Work makes you free). Here, it doesn’t. You witness people scrubbing floors and toting sandbags. You also see prisoners beaten or murdered in the gas chambers.  

All of this plays out on a cardboard stage filled with scale models of buildings and more than 3,000 miniature figures manipulated by three performance artists. There is a soundtrack but no dialogue. Cameras zoom in to bring elements of the action into close-up on screens surrounding the action.

“If you say, ‘They’re using puppets and miniature buildings and dolls to examine the Holocaust,’ it sounds like a terrible idea. But as you can see from the reviews and the ways that people have responded to it, it’s highly effective, profoundly moving and very sensitive.” — Mark Murphy

Photo by Redcat

“The stagecraft is ingenious,” said Mark Murphy artistic director of the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts (REDCAT) Theater , where “Kamp” will play for four performances Sept. 20-23. “But also there’s the incredible sensitivity to the horror of the material they are addressing. They are very matter-of-fact in the way they approach it.”

“If you say, ‘They’re using puppets and miniature buildings and dolls to examine the Holocaust,’ it sounds like a terrible idea,” Murphy conceded. “But as you can see from the reviews and the ways that people have responded to it, it’s highly effective, profoundly moving and very sensitive.”

“Kamp’s” inspiration was Joseph Kalker, a doctor who died at Auschwitz, and the grandfather of company performing artist Pauline Kalker. Following the success of their World War I project, “The Great War,” Kalker felt the need to produce a work that had a stronger personal connection to the Holocaust.

Her two fellow Hotel Modern company members, Arlène Hoornweg and Herman Helle, were receptive to the idea, but Kalker still had some lingering doubts.

“It was difficult on many levels, first because my father was Jewish and my mother is not,” Kalker said. “Also, I had this feeling of ‘Am I allowed to tell this story?’ But later I thought, ‘That’s stupid. My grandfather was killed and my father was in hiding,’ but I felt like I had to ask permission of the Jewish community to see how they would feel.”

Photo by Redcat

The artists began to build the piece, researching the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and re-creating the layout via models created by Kalker’s husband. They brought Auschwitz survivors and members of the Jewish community into the studio to discuss the concept of the show and to look at the models. Even on the miniatures, several survivors were able to identify barracks where they had been housed. According to Kalker, some survivors have said they found “Kamp” to be cathartic and have seen the show multiple times. Others have given the performance their blessing but couldn’t bring themselves to watch it.

After each performance, audiences are invited to come down to the stage to take a closer look and to ask questions. “There’s a chance to speak directly with the artists and also to break that fourth wall and for a moment commune with the set and the objects that were used to convey such a difficult story,” Murphy said. “That’s a very important part of the experience.”

Hotel Modern created “Kamp” in 2005 and has taken the performance across Europe, and to Canada, Japan and Australia. In 2019, dates scheduled for France and in Kalker’s hometown of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Photo by Redcat

Kalker has not been part of every engagement and she notes that the work is by no means easy to perform. Seven years ago, she had to return to “Kamp” a few months after giving birth to her daughter.

“That was hard. To tell this horrible story again,” Kalker said. “Sometimes I’ve felt I wish I could leave it all behind, but then I think I can’t do that. It’s such a part of my father’s life and a part of my life. It’s been very rewarding to have found a way to share this history with an audience.”


“Kamp” will be performed at 8:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday at REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., Los Angeles. redcat.org.