Role Play


Our Daily Correspondent


A still from Holiday in the Protectorate.

Readers of the New York Times may have noticed a recent story about a new Czech reality show. In the tradition of Victorian House and other total-immersion programs, this one sticks modern people in another time—specifically a 1939 “remote mountain farm” in what was then the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Hilarity does not ensue. As the article explains,

There, they must not only survive the rigors of rustic life with dated appliances and outdoor plumbing, but navigate the moral and physical dangers of life under Nazi rule.

German troops (played by actors) kick down their doors in the middle of the night. Local villagers betray them to the Gestapo. Food is scarce. Conditions are crude.

Everything about this show sounds distasteful, certainly. Besides the obvious objections, the basic flaw in these time-travel shows—the assumption that you can switch off modern mores along with central AC—seems doubly true here. Reading about it, I was reminded of when my father and I had gone to an exhibit featuring artifacts from the Titanic. To enter, we’d had to show a “boarding pass,” and they’d made us pose for an obligatory picture together at the top of the stairs they’d re-created, just like Rose and Jack in the movie.

When you consider that Holiday in the Protectorate has a “winner”—those who “survive” the eight weeks of voluntary labor and master farm chores get a sizable cash prize— it’s not hard to see why the show has prompted an outcry from Czechs and non-Czechs alike.

I don’t find it as shocking as I probably should. You see, in our house, growing up, we’d sometimes play a game not unlike this. It was a variation on another dinner-table game, “Titanic.” Both involved picturing various people we knew in historical situations that tested their mettle and imagining how they would react; we always included a local politician whom my father considered a toadying sellout, casting him as a collaborator or imagining him dressing as a woman to nab a spot in the lifeboat. (The two had had a falling out over a matter of principle.) “History is stories of people,” my dad liked to say.

But these exercises were not merely about settling scores. We tried to play with rigorous honesty. My dad would often reference the part in The Sorrow and the Pity when a former resistance fighter is asked if he was surprised by his neighbors’ actions, good and bad. Non, he says. Not in a single case. In other words, it was possible—given the chance, in theory—to predict how people would act in moral extremis.

“I don’t know what I’d do,” my dad would say. “I like to think I’d do the right thing, but I might be a coward. Of course, now, I wouldn’t pass the initial inspection.” (My dad thought about The Sorrow and the Pity a lot—also Sergeant York, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon. “Movies about character,” he would say.)

We also agreed that my mother would try to be heroic, screw it up with her terrible lying or unpredictable temper, and end up getting herself and other people killed in the process—a scenario that also applied to her hiding the victims of Nazis in occupied Europe. Invariably, these conversations ended with her storming upstairs and slamming the door dramatically, before returning a few moments later. I don’t suppose my brother and I, as children, were really expected to make those decisions.

When my dad and I visited a concentration camp in Poland many years later, he was disappointed by the hundreds of tourists, and the fact that the barracks had not been left wholly intact and unadorned. They showed us an informational video. “They seem,” said Papa loudly, “to assume total ignorance about the Holocaust.”

I whispered, “I think that some people really didn’t know. That woman over there seemed really shocked that Hitler wanted to wipe out the Jews.” She had been dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, looking pale with shock.

Talking about Holiday in the Protectorate, one Mikulas Kroupa, a historian of the war, told the Times, “It has nothing to do with history or telling the stories of that time … It is just a game.” He meant this as a defense.

 Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.