Tonight we explore the play If the Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty Against Genocide with our facilitator and its playwright, Robert (Bob) Skloot.
Raphael Lemkin was instrumental in writing the treaty against genocide with diplomats. He was the guiding spirit behind the project. He changed the way the world thought about violence and genocide. He was relentless in his continued efforts — all on his own — to adjust the way that the world thinks.
The treaty itself is a compromised document. (for instance, Skloot said, that Article II is missing the word “political” — because at the time Russia wanted the word removed).
Twenty nations approved the Treaty on the 9th of December, 1948.
As for the play — what is created on stage is another world — and stuff happens on stage which does not necessarily happen in real life. Your job as an artist — is to make what you write believable to the audience.
When you are writing of a historical figure — and putting them on the stage — your job as artist is to make them interesting. For instance, Skloot asked himself in the writing of this play: “What was it that would make Lemkin smile?”
Lemkin was born in 1900 in rural Poland — he had a brother and was home-schooled. He was very close to his mother, Bella. He spoke five languages growing up — including Bellarusse, Polish, Russian, Hebrew — and later spoke fourteen languages.
He earned two PhD’s — on in Linguistics and one in Law.
In his heart he was always Jewish but he distanced himself from organized religion. He almost never mentioned Israel (which was interesting in itself considering that his Treaty was signed on the 9th of December in 1948.).
Raphael Lemkin lost 49 members of his family in the Holocaust.
He faced a lot of anti-Semitism in the Senate.
Probably, a main motivator for Lemkin was a single-mindedness towards his goal — moving past adversaries. It was the adversaries which made him stronger.
He was an outsider, a loner. Everything was an expression of his status as a loner and his concomitant loneliness. He turned the criticism of others into his own motivation. (He was also possibly a closeted homosexual).
He wrote of The Jew as Outsider. This is a them in his life. Raphael Lemkin was clearly a complicated man. Skloot’s play brings into reality echoes of Lemkin’s past — and therefore echoes of our own past.
There were many personality characteristics that he shared with Wisconsin Senator Proxmire — who appears as a character in the play as well.
In many ways, Lemkin was like a prophet. Prophets were not necessarily people that you would want to be friends with….they are dogged in their ideas and they often stirred things up.
Aside from Senator Proxmire, a Woman appears in the play who is possibly Lemkin’s mother. The character of the Girl — is most probably Anne Frank. Skloot has some favorite pieces of dialogue between Lemkin and the Girl — which especially show their relationship — that these two historical figures might actually understand each other:
(taken from page 16-17)
The writer Victor Hugo said: As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being. (Drinks some water). Do you know about the brave Cyrano de Bergerac? He was a very proud Frenchman who once, rather than admitting her was too poor to buy anything to eat, only took a grape and a glass of water from a big banquet.
Der Mann hat einen grossen Geist — Und ist so klein van Taten!
The spirit of man is great — how puny are his deeds.
(Thinks) Wenig brauche, so ess, ich glaube, Nur Nip und klein Traube.
Little I need, I’ll take a plate. Have a sip plus one small grape.
(They laugh together)
Here they were, both Lemkin and Anne, finishing each other’s sentences and understanding the same references…
The ultimate questions here, are, of course — how does one write history into a play?
And how does one make it captivating?
For more information about If the Whole Body Dies — here is the link to the website: http://www.ifthewholebodydies.com
And here is a link to a stage reading of the play — (47 minutes in length) for your interest: Vimeo Stage Reading of Play Here