Reliving the Holocaust Through Documentary Theater

Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it has become more critical than ever before to emphasize the Holocaust’s response beyond the Jewish community. Late last week, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Theater of War Productions, in partnership with National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, presented readings of scenes from Peter Weiss’ play The Investigation, a piece of documentary theater adapted from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65 when twenty-two mid- and lower-level Nazi officials were tried for crimes against humanity in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.

Riding on the coat-tails of the museum’s current “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” exhibit, the play pays respect to the universality of the Jewish experience. It also explores the evil that transpired during the Holocaust. Using a group of fourteen impressive actors, including Josh Hamilton, Jennifer Mudge, Jessie Eisenberg, and Zach Grenier, as well as international performers from communities affected by genocide, the play is focused on the atrocities that occurred during World War 2. The actors performed readings for 60 minutes that revolved around suffering, starvation, disease, denial, resistance, and ultimately survival, cooperation, and strength. Without ever murmuring the words “German” or “Jew” {the play was originally written so that the victims and the perpetrators could be anyone, anywhere and at any time}, the conversations between the SS officers, survivors, and defense lawyers were stirring and somewhat horrifying. 

But as moving as the play was, it was the heated conversation that took place after the show that reminded everyone in the room that the issues experienced before the Holocaust are on display in 2020 with the recent rise in Anti-Semitism. Theater of War Productions’ Co-Founder and Artistic Director Bryan Doerries, conducted a powerful dialogue after the show with a panel that included Holocaust survivors who were just as haunted by the play as the audience members, before taking the discussion to the audience.

Ruth Zimbler, who witnessed Kristallnacht and was on the first Kindertransport out of Vienna in December 1938, said that just as the SS soldiers in the play knew precisely what was going on, they were also told what to do and they did exactly what they were told to do. They were evil people with evil intentions from day one. Shocked by the rise of Anti-Semitism today, she told the audience to “support one another, no matter the color of our skin or what religion we practice.”

Amy Mittelman, an NYC attorney who speaks on behalf of her Holocaust survivor grandparents, said that the play reminded her of the complicated legalities of execution and touched on issues of morality and personal responsibility. “Just because the law says one thing, what does that mean from a morality perspective?” she asked the audience.

Sareve Lawson, a Brooklyn Pastor and employee of the Administrative & Outreach Coordinator at Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, talked about the significance of the play’s words. “The words spoken tonight aren’t memorializing history, but there are people here tonight reminding us of what it means to preserve history,” she said. “This play is not history; it’s our present day. “

Frederick Terna, who survived three concentration camps, explained that he found the play rather painful to listen to, and the events described were similar to his own experience. But he also compared it to a warning. “I’m very concerned. I haven’t got an answer to things that ail us. My lesson is how to live with a very difficult past. I’ve learned we have to live up to our standards,” he said. “The answer is to be involved. You can’t stand by while things happen. Speak up and be involved.”

The conversation was then handed to the audience, as a production manager walked a microphone around the room. Audience members voiced how the experience on stage mirrored much of the inhumanity they are seeing in the news today – from rising anti-Semitism to the threat immigrants are facing both at the border and in NYC. One woman, clearly angry and frustrated by what is happening, said, “We’re hearing the same sorts of excuses, hatred, and fear that we heard in the early 1930s.”

When talk turned to racism stemming from the Trump Administration, several audience members spoke out in dissent about which side blame lies. The overtly white audience became increasingly frustrated and increasingly polarized when talk turned to the recent attacks on Jews by African Americans, to which Lawson spoke up as one of the token black people in the room {she also admitted that she did not like bring a token anything}. “When you ostracize people over a few incidents, you erase the greater truth that there is anti-Semitism on the rise, but there is also just greater discord on the rise,” she said.

It was clear that there are no easy answers. It’s just as difficult to explain what happened then as it is to explain what is happening today.

About the Author
Holly Rosen Fink is a writer and marketing consultant living in Larchmont, New York with her husband and two children.
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