What the world calls the Holocaust, many Jews call the Shoah. By whatever name, it is still very much alive in Jewish hearts. Some of us turn away, trying to put it from our minds. Some move closer, perusing every book, movie, miniseries, or Web site that probes a world plunged into unspeakable horror. More than fifty years after the liberation of the camps, Jews and non-Jews alike sift through the rubble, hoping for some resolution or closure. How could rational, civilized people resort to such methodical savagery? And how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again? It’s the sort of research that can make a person numb and bitter.
But while the atrocities — and the lessons — of the Shoah must not be forgotten, neither should the heroes. These were people who stood up, however they could, and tried to stanch the vicious tide. Some of their names are well-known: Oskar Schindler, Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara, Jean-Marie and Benoît Musy. Sometimes it was more than one or two people hiding refugees or arranging exit visas. For example, Emmy Werner’s wonderful book A Conspiracy of Decency describes how in 1943 virtually the entire population of Denmark banded together to spirit its Jewish citizens away to the safety of Sweden the night before German ships were due to arrive. Known to the Holocaust memorial organization Yad Vashem as “The Righteous of the Nations,” these people put their careers, reputations, even their lives on the line to protect victims of Nazi persecution.
But there were smaller “conspiracies of decency” that are not as well-known, and two plays currently up in the East Bay explore Shoah stories that are smaller and more personal. They’re also much different in tone and content than the usual run of Holocaust plays set in the concentration camps (I Never Saw Another Butterfly, Bent) or the Jewish ghetto. One is set in the swank, modern apartment of a couple living in Berlin before the war breaks out, the other in the office of an American Army major trying to sort things out after the war has ended. While both are about as depressing as you might expect, they are engrossing and timely glimpses into the Third Reich, exploring as they do how a democratically elected government can still turn on its people. They’re also both based on real people and real events, which gives them added poignancy and the occasional welcome flash of humor and spirit.
The first, local playwright John O’Keefe’s Times Like These, is being presented by Traveling Jewish Theatre at the Julia Morgan. The play itself is brilliant and unsparing; the performances are topflight. A celebrated German Jewish actress and her gentile husband react to Hitler’s surge to power, watching in dismay as the Reichstag burns and their freedom of speech and mobility are curtailed. One by one, all the things they took for granted are taken away, until they are left with a single, horrible choice. Meta Wolf (a fiery, stunning Laurie O’Brien) and Oscar Weiss (an equally powerful Norbert Weisser) are based on the real-life couple Meta Wolf and Joachim Gotschalk, who took their own lives and that of their son the night before they were to be sent to the Teresienstadt concentration camp.
It sounds like a grim premise, and it is, but the play mostly focuses on the relationship between Meta and Oscar, and the way their love for each other is deepened by the adversity they face. Most telling is the choice Oscar makes to stay with his wife, no matter what, when it would be easier for him (and better for his career) to separate from her. O’Keefe deftly captures the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere in the chic apartment as Wolf paces like a trapped animal, eventually coming up with a scheme to pit two powerful Nazis against each other. Dangerous as her plan is, Weiss is willing to help, and together they wreak a small vengeance through a clever adaptation of Hamlet.
My one quarrel with this play is the ending, which I think is spelled out more than is absolutely necessary. Were the play to stop right after a particular sound cue, it might be more haunting. But otherwise Times Like These is a powerful portrait of love transcending tyranny, and a tour de force for the actors involved.
The second play, Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides, examines the wartime behavior of Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Considered one of the greatest conductors of his time, Furtwängler was even tapped to take up Arthur Toscanini’s baton in 1935 when the latter was preparing to retire. But he would never take Toscanini’s place in New York. As a result of clever manipulation by the Nazis, Furtwängler’s reputation was so distorted that the American public, thinking him a collaborator, raised a major hue and cry. It wouldn’t be until December 1946 that Furtwängler would be cleared of all allegations of collaboration with the National Socialists. Taking Sides is set in the earlier part of that year, and provocatively raises the question of whether Furtwängler did in fact support the Nazi cause.
Working on the theory that “repetitive evidence covers conspiracy to defraud,” Major Steve Arnold is systematically interviewing musicians who have worked with the beloved Furtwängler, looking for some sign that the conductor was in fact a tool of the Reich. One of those musicians is pathetic second violinist Helmut Rode (Robert Hamm). Rode is twitchy and obsequious, but also offers clues about how people begin to turn: “You start by censoring what you say, then censoring what you think … until all that remains is an obedient husk.” It’s a process that we also see unfolding in Times Like These, as Oscar finds himself fighting his own rising anti-Semitism when he angrily refers to Meta as “a Jew bitch.” All the evidence Arnold has received suggests that Furtwängler is a hero, intervening on the behalf of his Jewish musicians with little thought for his own safety, but Arnold doesn’t trust what he’s hearing.
The major glories in his single-mindedness and lack of culture. When told that artists Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Eisenstein all stayed in Russia when it would have made sense to leave, he responds “I don’t know who they are; they’re not on my list.” He’s also patronizing. Referring to his secretary, he says, “She’s a good German, aren’t you, Emmi?” as though he is talking to a dog. He’s vindictive, coarse, and abusive. Yet he isn’t entirely unsympathetic, and Raffi Kondy lets us see that Arnold is a man trying to do his best at a job he’d rather not do. At one point, and this could easily go unnoticed, he tries to send Emmi out of the room when he knows something unpleasant is about to happen. We also learn that his determination to root out Nazi sympathizers is a result of his horror at the sight of a death camp.
Here the very nature of heroism is questioned. We learn that a German regarded as a hero of the Resistance “only joined the Resistance when he realized we were going to lose the war.” Furtwängler is revealed as not having any great love for Jews who weren’t also brilliant musicians. Arnold may be a hero as a member of the Occupation force, but he behaves in an ugly, abusive fashion.
Playwright Harwood plays with the audience’s expectations to powerful effect. Ordinarily we expect to see certain reversals take place — petty tyrants will either have a change of heart or their comeuppance by the end, while those people who had seemed saintly will be revealed as having maggots at their core. Harwood sets up this dynamic, but then delivers something very different. And to her credit, director Lois Grandi doesn’t try for a clean, upbeat resolution, choosing instead to leave important and troubling questions unanswered. Meanwhile, her actors deliver raw, impassioned performances. Jonathan Farwell is stately and compelling as Furtwängler, and Nina Auslander is strong as Emmi Straube, who has her own secrets to keep.
Playhouse West’s move into the Knight 3 Stage at Dean Lesher continues to reap benefits in the quality of staging. The set for Taking Sides is the best I’ve seen from the company (although a working clock would have been less distracting), and having more physical space also seems to give the actors room to stretch out theatrically.
Neither of these plays should be dismissed as “just another Holocaust play” when they offer so many insights into what happened half a century ago, and from different perspectives than we usually see. A curious point that is raised by both plays is the talent drain in German culture as Jews left or were taken away. With Jewish actors and musicians leaving the arts, many vacancies opened up for less talented performers, a point made in both plays. There also is much discussion of why people stayed when it was clear that it would be safer to flee; the protagonists of both plays love their country too much to leave, and too much to believe that things are really going to get as bad as they do. More than fifty years after the fact, it’s clear that the world has not learned the lessons that are the grim gifts of the Shoah. Thinking people still stand by in the face of atrocity, and governments still tighten the vise on individual liberty, a point that is made repeatedly in these two powerful works by playwrights anxious about the state of affairs in modern America.