How pictures of Nazis partying in Auschwitz sparked a new drama

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It began with a photo album deposited on the transom at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and an archivist who understood its extraordinary historical value. In the customary story arc of such discoveries, photographs – of Nazi officers, their families and associates drinking and eating and relaxing in the sun at the Auschwitz concentration camp – are certified and put into collections for inspection by scholars and museum-goers. is given. ,

However, this stunning album was also destined for the stage.

News of photographs obtained in 2006 by museum and archivist Rebecca Erbelding from a retired counter-intelligence officer in Virginia came to the attention of Moises Kaufman, an American stage director and son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Venezuela. Along with Amanda Gronich, a longtime collaborator in Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project—producer of “The Laramie Project”—he set about reimagining the photographs as dramatic art.

The result is the world premiere of the play “Here There Are Blueberries” at the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California until August 21, with New York-based Tectonic’s sights set on its East Coast debut. The 90-minute drama, directed by Kaufman, featured eight actors in multiple roles, and centrally featured Elizabeth Stallman as Erbelding.

“You know, I’m not used to being a hero,” Erbelding said in a recent Zoom interview. “So, talking about Rebecca’s change in character became a really weird, out-of-body thing.”

Envisioning how 116 snapshots could be the source of anything more dynamic than a detailed PowerPoint presentation was the challenge Kaufman and Gronich faced when they started the project several years ago.

“I never thought I’d write a play about [the Holocaust]His Romanian-born father, Kaufman said, spent the war hiding in a basement, and later sought asylum in Venezuela, in an era when the United States curbed Jewish immigration.

“This is a truly historical event about which much has been written in the history of literature,” Kaufman said. “So the idea of ​​doing something about it seemed redundant. But then I was shown those pictures, and some really struck a chord. These people are sunbathing next to a concentration camp, or eating blueberries. I Felt like this is a discourse that hasn’t really been addressed. How do you eat blueberries and celebrate next to a concentration camp?”

So Kaufman and Gronich executed an inventive flex for the theatre, making photographs more than mere projections on a set and turning them into what are essentially half-characters with their three-dimensional partners. Sometimes, according to the script “Here There Are Blueberries”, the action depicted in a picture is animated on stage: an image of an accordion player, for example, accompanied by a real accordion player, or one in nature. The view is magnified by the sounds the subjects of the photographs may have heard.

As with many previous “nonfiction” tectonic projects, dialogue is drawn from interviews and other records. For “Blueberry”, the museum’s investigation into the album itself is the key to the story. The play tells how an anonymous donor found it in the trash in the basement cell of an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt in 1946 and kept it away for decades. Its unusual quality lives on in its monotonous pictures of the officers’ entertainment at Auschwitz, the largest death camp of the Nazis, synonymous with worldwide genocide.

Erbelding and other researchers discovered – painstakingly resolved through the fascinating process “blueberry” – that the album belonged to the Obersturmführer Karl Hucker, the right-hand man of Richard Baer, ​​the last commandant of Auschwitz. It is the “memory book of his time in the camp” of a Nazi, says an archivist in the play. The photos, taken over the six months between June 1944 and January 1945, are outwardly mundane: snapshots, for example, of what looks like a family trip to a resort. (The Nazis built a nearby one for officers, guards and secretaries who were given days off from their murderous actions). Of course, knowing the context, you pay attention to them with a mixture of disgust, bewilderment and anguish. But also curiosity.

“Here there are blueberries” – the title comes from one of the handwritten photo captions in German, “Heire Gibb es Blaubeiren” – it takes pains to explain that an album containing no photographs of the horrors occurring within earshot of its subjects. Not included, deserves public attention. Or, for that matter, the energy of one of the world’s most important stores of evidence of Nazi atrocities. (Later sequences in the play are devoted to the fate of the Auschwitz victims.)

“You can’t understand the Holocaust without seeing the criminals,” says a character modeled on Judy Cohen, who was the curator of the museum’s photography collection at the time of the acquisition. “Six lakh people did not kill themselves. The Holocaust did not happen in a passive voice.”

In a Zoom interview with Kaufman, Gronich said he saw it as a point for dramatic exploration.

“The truth of history is that it happened,” she said. “So as a playwright, as a storyteller, how can we start to look at it in a way that the audience can really start to consider it in a way that makes sense? And as much as we treat these people as sociopathic monsters. As we want to see, he is an out, which gives us excuses.

“We don’t need to look at ourselves in the mirror’ something the character says,” Gronich said. “So how do we process this content so that viewers can be invited to it and make a connection to it?”

The museum recognized sensitive issues in illuminating the album’s content. “When we presented the album to the public, we also wanted to make it clear that these people in the album looked normal,” said Erbelding, now a historian in the museum’s Department of Education. “They don’t look bad; they are smiling. They are playing with their dogs. It sounds like they might be the same as your neighbor. And, yes, that’s right, that humans have this ability.”

It is Rebecca Erbelding’s voice that sets the play’s respectable tone. “We hear from people who’ve been through things—whose family members have gone through experiences I can’t imagine, and they count on us with their stories,” she says initially. Erbalding traveled to La Jolla last week to see the show, and met with the New York-based Stallman, a Yale Drama School graduate, who speaks his words.

“She’s amazing — she’s very real with it,” Stallman said of their encounters. “Now that I know he is in the audience, it is a different dimension. I wonder how it will subconsciously make its way into my performances.”

In a follow-up talk from California after watching “Blueberry,” Erbelding—who directed and stage-managed the plays in college—reflected on the experience. “I think it’s a very dark piece, and so for me personally, I’ll process the questions the play asks for a long time, and process it differently from the rest of the audience.”

The biggest surprise came after the performance, when his presence was discovered and theater-goers approached him with stories about Holocaust survivors in their families, whose letters and mementos they still have. Would you be interested in the museum?

“I’ve handed over all my business cards,” Erbelding said. “Hopefully people who’ve seen the show think about what’s in their closet—and other searches will result from a play about discovering something that’s in a closet.”

Here are blueberries, By Moises Kaufman and Amanda Gronich. Directed by Kaufman. Through August 21 at the La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, Calif.