In the third year of the united Germany, the positive consequences of reunification are obscured by ominous reports of marching neo-Nazis whose appeal to sympathetic bystanders, “Germany for the Germans!,” has encouraged average citizens to support violence against asylum-seekers. “The boat is full,” right-wing groups preach, as policemen and politicians appear unable to deter arsonists from attacking refugee shelters. When German politicians attribute such acts not to intolerance, but merely the expression of East German frustration at the existent social problems, we may question both the responsibility and sensitivity Germans have to their history and to their image abroad. Redefining the recent violence only vindicates the perpetrators. Was it then a victory for those dissatisfied citizens that the Bonn government struck a deal with Bucharest to “deport” Gypsies seeking asylum back to Romania?
In 1992, the German proposal to “transport” a group of people they once deemed sub-human evokes haunting images of the past. These days, however, when “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia continues without much foreign fuss, neighboring countries choose to close their borders to the flow of refugees from what was Yugoslavia. Perhaps this harsh climate has emboldened Germany’s most recent actions, making officials forgetful of lessons past.
IT IS PRECISELY such a climate that demands historical retrospection. The recent Berlin commemoration of Hitler’s Wannsee Conference attempted such a task. It may seem grotesque that a German city would host a festival on “Jewish Cultural Life” only 50 years after Germany plotted the destruction of European Jews. But given the increasing skepticism of the “other,” the festival underscored an ongoing national debate, implying that all Germans are answerable to a mutual past marked by collaboration within totalitarian regimes. Supervised by the Berliner Festspiele and supported by state subsidies and donations from abroad, the four-month program of art, film, music and theatre reflected Jewish life in many guises. But above all, the events expressed a central preoccupation with Jewish-German history and its consequences–World War II and a divided Germany, the Shoah, Israel and the preservation of memory. These historical events are especially relevant within the tumult of post-unification Germany.
The festival’s varied program included concerts, symposia and a significant exhibit on German-Jewish theatre artists during the Third Reich. Membership in the Juedischer Kulturbund enabled artists to practice their craft, but also forced them to collaborate in their artistic ghettoization. Surviving members of the Kulturbund attended Berlin’s festival to bear witness, while younger practitioners dramatized remembrances, revived docudrama and theatricalized Jewish fables. And the Israeli Akko and Chan theatres staged a second generation’s critical perspective on Israel’s relationship to the Holocaust and Palestinians.
After Auschwitz and Buchenwald, it seems impossible for modern theatre artists to ignore the Shoah in their work. Even Moni Ovadia’s operatic The Golem, about a legendary protector of the Jews, is a reminder of those unprotected Jews who suffered pogroms. Ovadia relied on non-verbal means to evoke the Prague ghetto. Against a setting of cavernous silhouettes and a solitary gravestone, Klezmer musicians intoned an emotional spectrum from grief to joy. And in a melodic fusion of German, Yiddish and Hebrew prayer, Ovadia incorporated the eternal Jew.
More directly associated with post-Holocaust experience are George Tabori’s biting comedies Mein Kampf and the “Jewish Western,” “Weisman und Rotgesicht. Tabori’s combination of social commentary, popular myth and wit proves that theatre can comment on the Holocaust without alienating an audience. In the Western, Weisman is lost in the desert with a spastic daughter and a bag of ashes (his wife). “Here, hold your mother,” he tells his daughter. Tabori breaks through stereotype and taboo by making fun of them. Indian Joe’s entrance propels the action in the grotesquely funny comment on how society victimizes the outsider. At a “high noon” confrontation between an Indian with an identity-crisis and a Jew who “survived Hitler,” the audience can gasp, then laugh. For the shootout is a verbal competition of suffering from Redface’s “My uncle was lynched in Disneyland!” to Weisman’s “My aunt was burned at Treblinka!”
To what extent can and should a topic like Auschwitz be used as the basis for creativity? Neither Ovadia nor Tabori used the Holocaust as their main focus, but two other productions featured Auschwitz: Georg-Maria Pauen’s Love Song of the Alphabet from Auschwitz (adapted from Armand Gatti) and Akko Theatre’s Arbeit Macht Frei. Pauen’s work-in-progress depends on language to speak the unspeakable. The non-German actors play letters of the alphabet (in German). Having collaborated in the creation of Auschwitz for language and man are equal the letters reassemble to seek their raison d’etre in words. It becomes clear that “M” is missing: “M” is for music, medicine, Mengele and mankind. The letter’s collaboration in Auschwitz indicted society. But the alphabet now recreates the memory of Auschwitz and poeticizes “Auschwitzman.” Perhaps this is why the project’s noble mission fails as performance. The semantic confusion of shifting meanings and fragmented description is restricted by spoken language.
Love Song’s nonverbal language of space, however, succeeded. Staged in Kreuzberg’s Art-Center, spectators wandered through six rooms. The main acting area suggested a crematorium in its narrowness, bricks and red light. Other environments evoked the journey to the ovens: a living-room where spectators perched on packing-boxes, a room strewn with timbers for railroad tracks, and a room with planted dirt and grass. I left the scenic-reading with sharp recollections of these environments, but the performance-text “giving back speech to the speechless” seemed shallow.
Unlike Pauen’s pontifications, David Maayan’s six-hour Arbeit Macht Frei did not theorize Auschwitz; it went beyond spoken language to express the memory of Auschwitz and how one remembers it. In this “close-up theatre,” actors mingled among spectators and shared a meal with the performers.
Unquestionably, the unusual structure of the event added to its success: The city of Berlin became both backdrop and character in the production which began as a sightseeing tour. Thirty spectator-participants boarded a bus at the former site of the Gestapo, drove to the Villa-Wannsee museum, and spent Act 2 in the cellars of a dilapidated East-Berlin brewery. Behind locked electronic gates, guides led the audience through dank, labyrinthine corridors toward the smells of incense. Documentary footage of troops liberating concentration camps flickered on the room’s floor. The museum guide/survivor appeared underneath the light beam unbandaging her arm. She caressed and spat on her “wound” (a tattooed number from Auschwitz). And hurling herself onto the floor, she joined her body and memory with the film. This emblematic scene suggests the criticism with which these actors address Israel’s penchant for “licking the wounds” of the past. This startling accusation recurred. A caustic scene played literally on top of a cardboard mockup of Auschwitz ridiculed an Israeli school ceremonial for Holocaust victims. “We are victims!” sang the “children” against a cacophony of sound and images of war.
Does Israel thrive on the German-directed horrors of the past? If Akko’s actors were not Jews, they might be considered anti-Semites. But the actors did not trivialize the past, nor did they profess self-hatred. Their sympathy for survivors was obvious, even in the simulated rites of Israel and Nazi Germany (a mock selection of audience members, interrogations). Provocative scenes within an Israeli household, however, implied an intrinsic bond between Israeli life and the Holocaust that bordered on the grotesque. The actors undercut sentimentality with irony, de-poeticized images through nudity, and thus created a carnivalesque finale: a hellish orgy of “Shoah business.”
It is risky to contemplate Auschwitz through a theatrical lens. Imposing artistic concepts on the Holocaust may result in trivializing the horrific. The inadequacy of words to express the inexpressible suggests that nonverbal means are necessary to convey a metaphor, mood or memory of the Shoah. Akko’s theatrical statement about Auschwitz engaged both the senses and the intellect. It was especially resonant with the bitter irony of history in the theatrical locus Berlin the city where Auschwitz was conceived. Fifty years later, the recently burned-out memorial at the former concentration camp, Sachsenhausen just outside of Berlin indicates the more disturbing irony of German history: The Germans, presumably, have not understood the importance of preserving memory.