One actress performs another actress's personal survival

Six concentration camps and two death marches.


Six concentration camps and two death marches. These are the milestones in the extraordinary story of Zdenka Fantlova, to be told on stage in London next week.

First Fantlova, now 95, wrote a memoir, My Lucky Star, about how she survived Terezin, Auschwitz, Kurzbach, Gross-Rosen, Matthausen and Bergen-Belsen. Then the BBC filmed her reunion with fellow nonagenarian George Leonard, one of the British soldiers who liberated Belsen.

The latest version of the epic tale takes the form of a one-woman play co-written and performed by actor Jane Arnfield at the Southbank, where The Tin Ring makes its London debut on Wednesday.

Arnfield was artistic director for Newcastle's Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations in 2011 when she first came across Fantlova, the event's keynote speaker.

"I read her book in one sitting. There is a section where she goes to Auschwitz and she's in a warehouse where clothes are being sorted - a ball-gown, a child's jacket, a long sock and pair of patent shoes. There was something that felt just so - and I say this very carefully - performative and theatrical."

So, after asking Fantlova, a former actress herself, if she would consider her story being adapted for stage - "Have a go. I don't mind" was the unhesitating response - Arnfield and dramatist Mike Alfreds, who directs the piece, set about adapting the book into a show. The title takes its name from the ring given to Fantlova by Arno, her first love at the age of 17, which she kept with her from Terezin to Belsen.

Arnfield well remembers the first time she performed the piece during a try-out in front of an invited audience five years ago. Fantlova was at the performance.

"For me it was important that Zdenka endorsed it. It was important that she saw what we were doing with it."

Fantlova remembers that performance vividly.

"I wasn't present at rehearsals so it was the first time I saw it," she says. Though she lives in London, she is speaking from the Czech republic, which she still visits regularly.

"I went through four different reactions. The first was as a member of the audience watching a play that I knew nothing about. And then suddenly there was a second reaction when a voice in my head said to me: 'But, Zdenko, don't you realise that this is your story? This is about you. You wrote it, you went through it.' And it gave me a shock. Because suddenly I started to remember where all the scenes originated and how it happened.

"The third reaction was as an actress," continues Fantlova with a chuckle. "I started to criticise it! This scene is too short… this detail, that detail. And then, towards the end, came the fourth reaction. It was as though it all happened in a different life; as if I went through it, died, was reborn and am now viewing it as someone else. It was as though it almost had nothing to do with me today. So you see it was a very complicated and rather colourful reaction."

"People say it must be very difficult material to perform," says Arnfield. "But I can honestly say that I don't find it depressing in any way. It doesn't have any ill effect on me because it's so full of hope and Zdenka's resilience is so extraordinary.

"It's her pragmatism that I'm drawn to rather than her heroism. In terms of everyone being able to relate to an individual story, that's so important. Of course, many people would say Zdenka is heroic. But the point is, she doesn't see herself that way."

Fantlova settled in Sweden after the war, then moved to Australia where she married and worked as an actress.

But it was not until she revisited her home town of Roxcany in what is now the Czech Republic that the idea of writing a book first took hold.

"I met old neighbours and school mates and they said 'How come you were the only one out of your family and [other Jews from] the town who survived the Holocaust? What did you do for the four years in the camps?'

"And I thought that was a very interesting question, to which there is a long answer. I decided there and then to write the book."

For Arnfield, the fact that the play version is being presented as part of the Southbank's Festival of Love is something of a joy.

"Often The Tin Ring is billed as a Holocaust play," she says. "And I remember when I first saw that I thought, 'No, it's not a Holocaust play. It's a Zdenka Fantlova play. So the fact that it's in the Festival of Love feels the perfect place for it."

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