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Phyllis Zimbler Miller
Writer of Nonfiction Holocaust Material to End Antisemitism

The Oberammergau Passion Play and Antisemitism Today

In the fall of September 1970, my US Army officer husband and I arrived in Munich, Germany, for our duty station. This was right after the close of the Oberammergau Passion Play in the nearby village of Oberammergau. (See Wikipedia explanation at the end of this post).

This was the year in which a participant survey had been used to ascertain how antisemitic the play currently was. Through US Army contacts we learned from people who had seen the survey results that the play was not considered antisemitic because it was true – “the Jews killed Jesus.”

(And, yes, since 1970 the play’s producers have worked to reduce the antisemitism conveyed by this passion play festival.)

This brings me to reporting the unsettling response I received from the editorial director of Virago Modern Classics for my query regarding the five antisemitic comments in Angela Thirkell’s re-issued novel HIGH RISING as discussed in this previous Times of Israel blog post.

The editorial director’s response reads in part (boldface mine):

Angela Thirkell was a writer of her time and class, and although many readers today, and when the books were first published, take pleasure in her writing, some of her descriptions and characterisations, which were acceptable in the 1930s and 40s, would be wholly unacceptable in a book written today. As we publish for an adult market, though, my instinct is almost always to leave text unedited, rather than to deny that these prejudices existed.

The editorial director’s response ends thusly:

In some of Thirkell’s later novels, we do publish a notice acknowledging that today’s readers are likely to find some expressions and opinions offensive, and following your email, in future reprints we will include this notice in High Rising, too.

The more I thought about this reply, the more I pondered the Oberammeragau experience of 1970.

Here is what I replied back in part to the editorial director after making a distinction between nonfiction books written at the time of WWII and novels written then:

I have now come to believe that even a message at the front of a novel is not enough to prevent, for example in the case of HIGH RISING, the five instances of antisemitism to consciously or unconsciously sink into the minds of readers. Unfortunately many people reading the novel now will have no idea that Thirkell repeatedly saying that Jews are greedy is anything but a fact even today.

It would be extremely easy, especially in the Kindle format right now, to remove those five instances. There is no reason in a fiction book — even in the Virago Classics imprint — to unnecessarily fuel antisemtism.

HERE IS WHY THIS PERHAPS SEEMINGLY UNIMPORTANT ANTISEMITIC ISSUE IS REALLY QUITE IMPORTANT:

All the efforts of individuals and organizations to combat rising global antisemitism today may not reach down “into the weeds” where people are continually subject to conscious or unconscious portrayal of Jews within antisemitic tropes.

We must work on whacking out these weeds in order to eliminate the roots of antisemitism.

And here is how you can help from the comfort of your phone or computer:

I have posted a monitoring Google doc to report antisemitic tropes in books and plays – see www.millermosaicllc.com/antisemitism-books-plays/ — and would appreciate any data submitted via this form.

The next step is for me to get an influential organization on board that will commit to following up these reports with the appropriate book publishers or play productions. Any volunteers?

Combatting antisemitism is a responsibility of everyone. As the Claims Conference’s hashtag #ItStartedWithWords says, we must stop the words before antisemites move on to much more harmful actions!

From Wikipedia:

The Oberammergau Passion Play (German: Oberammergauer Passionsspiele) is a passion play that has been performed every year from 1634 to 1680 and every 10 years since 1680 (with a few exceptions) by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany. Since its first production it has been performed on open-air stages in the village. The text of the play is a composite of four distinct manuscripts dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.

The play is a staging of Jesus’ passion, covering the short final period of his life from his visit to Jerusalem and leading to his execution by crucifixion. It is the earliest continuous survivor of the age of Christian religions vernacular drama. It has also frequently been criticized as antisemitic. However, a multi-decade effort to reduce antisemitic content led by the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish and Christian allies, has, in recent decades, led to substantial revisions in the play. The play’s current director, Christian Stuckl, has collaborated extensively on this effort with such organizations.

The 2020 play has been delayed until May 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe.

About the Author
Phyllis Zimbler Miller is a Los-Angeles based writer who is the co-author of the Jewish holiday book SEASONS FOR CELEBRATION, the founder of the nonfiction Holocaust theater project www.ThinEdgeOfTheWedge.com and the co-host of the NEVER AGAIN IS NOW podcast about antisemitism -- https://b.link/NeverAgainIsNowpodcast
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