Photos of Nazis near a death camp inspired ‘Here are blueberries’

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It all started with a photo album, submitted over the back board to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and an archivist who grasped its extraordinary historical value. In the usual story arc of such discoveries, the photos – of Nazi officers, their families and colleagues drinking, dining and relaxing in the sun at Auschwitz concentration camp – would have been authenticated and put in the collection, for inspection by scholars and museum visitors. .

But this amazing album was also meant for the stage.

News of the photographs, acquired in 2006 by museum and archivist Rebecca Erbelding from a retired counterintelligence officer in Virginia, caught the attention of Moisés Kaufman, an American theater director and son of survivors of the ‘Holocaust who had immigrated to Venezuela. Along with his longtime colleague Amanda Gronich of Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project – the creators of “The Laramie Project” – he set about reframing the story behind the photos as drama.

The result is “Here There Are Blueberries,” which will have its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California through August 21, with New York-based Tectonic set to make its East Coast debut. . The 90-minute play, directed by Kaufman, features eight actors in multiple roles and, in the center, Elizabeth Stahlmann as Erbelding.

“You know, I’m not used to being a protagonist,” Erbelding said in a recent Zoom interview. “So talking about how Rebecca’s character changes has become a very weird, out-of-body thing.”

Imagining how 116 snapshots could be the source of something more dynamic than an elaborate PowerPoint presentation was the challenge Kaufman and Gronich faced when they embarked on the project several years ago.

“I never thought I’d write a play about [the Holocaust]Kaufman said, adding that her Romanian-born father spent the war hiding in a basement and then sought refuge in Venezuela, at a time when the United States was clamping down on Jewish immigration. .

“It’s actually the most written historical event in the history of literature,” Kaufman said. “So the idea of ​​doing something about it seemed redundant. But then I was shown these photographs and something really struck a chord. These people are sunbathing next to a concentration camp, or eating blueberries. I felt that’s a speech that hasn’t really been touched on. How do you eat blueberries and party next to a concentration camp?”

So Kaufman and Gronich executed an inventive flex for the theater, making photos more than just projections onto a set and essentially turning them into quasi-characters alongside their three-dimensional partners. Sometimes, depending on the “Here there are blueberries” scenario, the action depicted in an image is animated on stage: the image of an accordionist, for example, is accompanied by a real accordion player, or a scene in nature is enhanced by the sounds that the subjects of the photographs would have heard.

As with several previous “non-fiction” tectonic projects, the dialogue is taken from interviews and other recordings. For “Blueberries,” the museum’s investigation of the album itself is key to the story. The play tells how an anonymous donor found it in a trash can in the basement closet of an abandoned Frankfurt apartment in 1946 and stored it away for decades. His unusual quality lay in his leisurely monotonous portraits of officers at Auschwitz, the largest Nazi death camp, synonymous the world over with genocidal depravity.

Erbelding and other researchers discovered – through the fascinating process that “Blueberries” painstakingly uncovers – that the album belonged to Obersturmführer Karl Höcker, right-hand man of Richard Baer, ​​the last commandant of Auschwitz. It’s “a Nazi’s memoir of his time in the camp,” says one of the archivists in the room. The photos, taken over six months between June 1944 and January 1945, are seemingly mundane: snapshots, for example, of what looks like a family trip to a seaside resort. (The Nazis had built one nearby for officers, guards, and secretaries who were given days off from their murderous duties). Of course, knowing the context, you look at it with a mixture of revulsion, bewilderment and angst. But also curiosity.

“Here There Are Blueberries” – the title comes from one of the German handwritten photo captions, “Hier gibt es Blaubeeren” – is careful to explain why an album that includes no photos of the horrors that occur within earshot of his subjects is worth the attention of the public. Or, for that matter, the energies of one of the world’s largest repositories of evidence of Nazi atrocities. (Later sequences of the play are devoted to the fate of the victims of Auschwitz.)

“You can’t understand the Holocaust without looking at the perpetrators,” says a character based on Judy Cohen, who was curator of the museum’s photography collection at the time of the acquisition. “Six million people have not committed suicide. The Holocaust did not happen in the passive voice.

Gronich, in a Zoom interview with Kaufman, said she sees this as a point of dramatic exploration.

“The truth of the story is that it happened,” she said. “So as a playwright, as a storyteller, how do we start to look at this in a way that the audience can really start to sort through and think about in a way that makes sense? And even if we would like looking at these people as sociopathic freaks is a way out, it gives us the excuse.

“‘We don’t have to look in the mirror,’ that’s something another character says,” Gronich added. “So how do we process this material so that the public is invited to it and finds a connection to it?”

The museum acknowledged the sensitive issues in illuminating the contents of the album. “One of the things we also wanted to clarify when we presented the album to the public is that these people in the album look normal,” said Erbelding, now a historian at the Department of History. museum education. “They don’t look mean; they smile. They play with their dogs. They look like a neighbor you have. And, yes, that’s right, that humans have this ability.

It is the voice of Rebecca Erbelding which sets the respectful tone of the piece. “We hear from people who have been through things – whose family members have had experiences that I can’t imagine, and they tell us their stories,” she says upfront. Erbelding traveled to La Jolla last week to see the show and caught up with New York-based, Yale Drama School graduate Stahlmann, who delivered her lyrics.

“She’s amazing — she’s so real with it,” Stahlmann said of their dating. “Now that I know she’s in the audience, it’s a different dimension. I wonder how that will subconsciously creep into my performance.

In a follow-up chat from California after seeing “Blueberries,” Erbelding — who directed and directed college plays — reflected on the experience. “I think it’s a very deep piece, and so for me personally, I’ll be dealing with the questions that the piece poses for a long time, and I’ll be dealing with them differently than the rest of the audience.”

The biggest surprise came after the show, when her presence made itself known and audiences approached her with stories of Holocaust survivors in their families, whose letters and memories they still have. Would the museum be interested?

“I gave out all my business cards,” Erbelding said. “I hope people who have seen the show will think about what they have in their closets – and further discoveries will result, from a piece about finding something that was in a closet.”

Here there are blueberries, by Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich. Directed by Kaufman. Through August 21 at La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, CA. lajollaplayhouse.org.

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