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The Holocaust

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The horrors of what happened to the European Jews under the control of the Nazi regime in the 1930s–1940s were so intense that it was not until the 1960s that most writers were able to approach the topic, and this delay was even more evident among playwrights. The immediacy of drama made portrayals of the Holocaust on stage particularly disturbing, and, some felt, inappropriate. Many felt that anything less than the reality of what went on in the extermination camps actually occurring on stage, which would be impossible for any actors to perform, would only lessen the impact of what had occurred and would be an insult to those who died. However, an increasing number of dramas have attempted to speak to those horrific events, exploring them from every angle, some to bear witness and ensure we have an historical record of what happened, others in an attempt to understand how people could so brutally murder their fellow human beings in such numbers.

Some dramas explore the stories of those who survived, such as Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time; others those who perished, such as Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank . Some consider those whom they saw as responsible, and the few who worked against them, as in Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy . Whatever their focus, these dramas are universally disturbing in their portrayals of people’s inhumanity to one another. All the plays in this chapter are based on real people and real events, which makes the stories they tell all the more disturbing on one level, but on another, inspirational, in the hope offered by those who resisted.

Written by wife-and-husband team, Goodrich and Hackett, The Diary of Anne Frank is based on the original diary written by Anne Frank, who died at the age of fifteen in Bergen-Belsen during March 1945. It covers just over two   years of her life, when she lived in an attic above a factory in Amsterdam with her own and another family. It ends when they are discovered and taken away by the Gestapo. Although many of the lines are direct quotes from Anne’s diary, the play offers a more objective version of events, which is less centered on Anne, and allows us to better see the stories behind all the characters involved.

Playing for Time is an adaptation of the memoirs of Auschwitz survivor, Fania Fenelon. Not intended to be an accurate historical record, Miller uses the event of the Holocaust to reflect on issues he saw plaguing American society in the 1980s, with its increasing tendency toward alienation, violence, and social irresponsibility. For Miller, Auschwitz is a powerful symbol of contemporary life, with its accustomed violence, lack of communication and social responsibility, and dehumanization of feelings. Miller wanted the play to warn us to remain vigilant against evil, and to inspire audiences that such evil can be overcome if people will allow themselves to care for one another and connect. He uses Fania’s story as a lesson in how to survive and maintain a sense of humanity in the face of the worst possible dehumanizing force.

Written in free verse, The Deputy is a lengthy play, which takes over six hours if performed in its entirety. The text includes a sixty-five-page appendix that documents many of the events and people being dramatized. Although based on real people and events, Hochhuth alters some details and characters for dramatic effect. Pointing out that it is impossible to realistically convey the atrocities of the Holocaust on a stage, Hochhuth nevertheless includes some harrowing scenes that have forced many to see the Holocaust with new eyes. Woven throughout the action are lengthy discussions of the intricate policies and religious and national politics behind the various alliances and events of World War II, mostly highlighting the intrinsic immorality of the conflict, which Hochhuth sees based on secular concern rather than moral imperative.

This controversial play suggests that Pope Pius XII, Christ’s deputy on earth, whose role should be to take on the suffering of others, failed to voice a fundamental Christian principle by not publicly condemning Hitler’s program; this resulted in the extermination of 6 million Jews. Hochhuth insists that such failure to speak out against evil makes those who stay silent complicit in the deed itself. His play explores why people chose to resist or participate in this atrocity, or, like the Pope, remain neutral. In contrast to the Pope’s inaction, we follow the exploits of Father Riccardo Fontana and Kurt Gerstein—one an Italian Jesuit priest, the other a Protestant German SS officer—both men who risk their lives to save Jews and so take on the burden Hochhuth feels the Pope should have accepted.

Playing for Time depicts Fania Fenelon’s experiences at Auschwitz during World War II. Nazi officials want a prisoner orchestra and Fania, with her musical background, is swiftly recruited, along with Marianne, a girl whom Fania met on the train that brought them to the extermination camp. Their   usefulness saves the musicians from heavy work and being put to death. The orchestra is made up of Jewish prisoners and non-Jewish Poles. All struggle to maintain the Nazis’ interest in their music, living at the whim of evil men like Dr. Mengele, and most survive to see their camp liberated.

The arrival at the camp is a study in dehumanization. Conditions in the boxcar that brought them were bad enough, but now the Nazis attempt to strip away all dignity and identity. These people are literally stripped of everything that allows them to feel human: their luggage, their clothes, even their hair, and then they are tattooed with numbers. These are the “lucky ones” who are not taken straight away to be killed and “cooked” in the crematorium. The contrast between the way the Kapos brutally strike the prisoners and the care with which they handle their belongings is indicative of the way in which things have become more valuable than people. But although treated as worthless, it does not mean they are; it is a definition they must struggle against to maintain their spirits and survive.

To survive is the primary aim in the camps, but Miller wants us to realize that there are different ways to survive, and some routes may lead to a more profoundly disturbing spiritual death, as happens to young Marianne, than the most unpleasant literal death. Survival comes at a cost, but there are certain prices a person should not pay, for to survive without retaining a basic humanity is hardly survival at all. Fania’s survival is both realistic, given the fallibility of human nature, and uplifting, in that she refuses to let go of her basic humanity. We see her vacillate between assertions of independence and obsequiousness; sometimes she makes demands, other times she simply goes along, but she maintains a defiantly humanistic core throughout.

Key to survival in this camp are the notion of identity and the ability to maintain one’s humanity in the face of dehumanizing Nazism. The orchestra women maintain an identity as musicians that buoys their spirits, and they have a strengthened sense of community, which allows them to be more human and humane. When Fania is brought to audition, they greet her with kindness; Elzvieta (a Polish Catholic) wipes her face and Etalina (a Jew) gives her bread. The orchestra plays loudly as much to announce their existence as to protect Liesle (drowning her out because she cannot play the piece). The music has become an outlet for pain and desire, as well as their means of survival; quite literally they are “playing for time.”

Miller has been criticized for his depiction of Nazis as possessing human qualities, from a love of good music to Mandel’s infatuation with the boy who came in on the transports, and her evident distress when she is forced to let him go to the gas chamber. Mandel will one moment take a woman’s child and viciously beat her with a riding crop, and the next display a genuine concern for Fania’s well-being; but such contradictions are essential to her depiction. Miller recognizes that to imply that the Nazis are not human because of their inhumane agenda is to lessen the impact of the lesson of the Holocaust that he so keenly wishes to convey. The fact is, Nazis were human beings, and they   could at times display humane reactions—they were not complete monsters, even when they behaved monstrously.

It is clear that Marianne will have trouble surviving. She has led a sheltered, protected life up until now: “I was in school or at home all my life” (8). Though twenty years old, she acts far younger, and her reactions are childish. She clings to Fania for support, drawing sustenance from her, literally and spiritually, to the point where she starts to drain Fania’s strength. Unable to face even single corpses, as in the boxcar, and later in their bunk, it is not surprising that she remains protectively ignorant of the more massive slaughter taking place. She capitulates to her captors, body and soul, becoming a prostitute and losing every ounce of self-respect. She has no conscience, and so her behavior creates in her no feelings of guilt. She refuses to recognize any responsibilities in her drive to continue living, not even any responsibility to her own self and to her own dignity. Thus, she becomes a mere husk of a human being.

Fania realizes early on that if she is to survive, she must both hold on to a sense of self and have a goal for the future toward which she can strive. Initially, she makes a mistake regarding her sense of self. She denies her Jewishness and insists on her identity as a French woman: “I’m not Jew-shit. I’m French” (15). In this she denies an important aspect of herself that she will need to recognize to survive; it will help provide her with pride, moral values, and a sense of companionship with the other Jews. Luckily she comes to see this before it is too late, and we witness her claim her Jewishness. Her main goal, “to try to remember everything” (17), is highly effective, and further feeds her capacity to survive.

Fania’s sense of commitment to others allows her to think beyond herself as she tries to survive. In the boxcar she had reached out to others, and we also learn that she has been a longtime member of the French Resistance. Fania does not turn away from the dead, as Marianne does, but she also does not want to be associated with them at first. On finding both the corpse in the boxcar and another in the bunk, she calls out to have them dealt with by someone else. In each case her cries are in vain, indicative of the fact that she must learn to deal with the dead herself—this is part of her responsibility as a survivor, which she finally accepts. Fania forces herself to continuously look out the window and take on extra duties so she will see everything that happens. She wishes to be a faithful recorder and firsthand witness to what went on in this place. This play is testament to her victory.

The Diary of Anne Frank begins with Anne’s father, Otto Frank—the only family member to survive the extermination camps—finding his daughter’s diary on a brief visit to their former hideaway in an attic above a warehouse in Amsterdam, before leaving the country. As he reads it, the voice of Anne takes over, and the events of the Frank family’s attempt to escape the Holocaust are acted out before us, from their initial arrival at the attic to their eventual discovery and deportation to the camps. The Franks generously share their   quarters with the self-absorbed Van Daan family and Jan Dussel, an elderly local dentist. We watch as this disparate group of Jews squabble and compromise, fall out and bond, and somehow continue to hope, even as they are captured by the Gestapo.

What many people first get from this account is a tremendous sense of loss. Anne herself is an intelligent young girl, if somewhat willful. She is full of life and curiosity, and might have had a bright future were it not for Hitler’s determination to exterminate the Jews. Indeed, we are drawn to sympathize with all these people who have given up their former lives, and suffered for over two years the privations of living in cramped conditions with little food, privacy, or distraction, unable to go outside or freely move around during work hours, fearful at every moment of discovery. Just as we feel we have got to know them, we learn that all but Anne’s father died at the hands of the Nazis.

These people are not perfect; they have their periods of selfishness as well as selflessness. It is this that makes them all the more human. The mundane details of their day-to-day existence also contribute to this perception. Their will to survive belies the popular myth that Jews did little to save themselves, just as the erstwhile assistance they received from Mr. Kraler and Miep Gies shows that there were those whose morality prevented them from going along with Hitler’s program, despite the risk to their own lives. The pressure under which Kraler lives because of this is indicated by his stay in hospital for ulcers. Kraler speaks of hundreds of Jews throughout Holland being hidden by the local inhabitants, and these helpers do not see themselves as heroic, but act out of compassion and distaste at how the Nazis behave.

The play offers a primer on the treatment of European Jews at that period, as Anne relates what has happened leading up to their going into hiding. The Frank family are German born, but moved to Holland to escape persecution in their native land. When the Nazis take over Holland, Otto Frank is forced to sell his business, and all the Jews are made to wear yellow stars at all times. In addition to this, they are no longer allowed to attend schools; ride on bikes, streetcars, or in private cars; or attend such public venues as the cinema. By 1942 the family were fully aware of their fate if caught, which is why they decided to go into hiding, in hopes that they might stay hidden until the Germans were defeated. We later learn from Dussel, when he joins them two months into their stay, that the Nazis are rounding up all the Jews, searching houses and taking anyone they find. Children arrive home to find their parents gone. No one with any Jewish blood is spared, regardless of their degree of religious observance or affinity toward Judaism.

When we first see Otto, his movements are weak and uncertain, and he appears ill and aged before his time. This is what life at Auschwitz has done to him. Only three years previously, he had looked “much younger” and “his movements are brisk, his manner confident” (10). It is predominantly Otto’s strength, democratic leaderships skills, vision, and goodness of heart that keep this group going. As he tells his daughter when he gives her the diary, “Always   remember this, Anneke. There are no walls, there are no bolts, no locks that anyone can put on your mind” (26). Although they are physically trapped in a small attic, they are never spiritually trapped. Thus, while incarcerated, they all continue to hope for the future, educating the children, and allowing a relationship to develop between Anne and Peter Van Daan.

The inescapability of their fate, and the spirit with which they face it, are indicated in a brief scene when Peter persuades Anne to remove her yellow star, since they never intend to go outside. When Anne removes her star, she points out that the cloth underneath still shows the form of the star, just as they cannot escape being Jewish. But Anne also refuses to throw away the star, as it is the Star of David, and by keeping it she claims her right to be Jewish. We see Anne’s spirit continue to blaze, despite her frequent nightmares about being taken by the Nazis, as she thoughtfully creates gifts for the entire group to cheer them up on the first night of Hanukkah.

Their discovery is a case of bad luck rather than carelessness. A thief comes at night to steal a radio from the warehouse beneath their hideaway, and Peter falls while trying to extinguish a telltale light. Despite our prior knowledge that these people will die, we are drawn in to hope as we hear of the Allied invasion, and Miep brings joyful news about the success of D-Day. But the thief is caught and betrays them to the authorities. Even as the Germans are losing the war, they take these people off to their deaths.

One of the most quoted lines of the play comes from Anne, as she tries to inspire Peter and give their suffering a universal relevance: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart” (168), and she insists that the world is just going through an ugly phase, as she had done in her relationship with her mother. This belief inspires Otto at the close to avoid bitterness and insist on looking for that good in people. However, some critics complain that the line is taken out of context, used by the playwrights to give the play a more uplifting and less political close. The actual diary written by Anne, as opposed to this theatrical adaptation, also revealed Anne’s bitterness toward an indifferent Christian world, frank discussion of her budding sexuality, her sister’s Zionism, and her mother’s deep faith, and such omissions do tend to reduce complex ethical issues to easy platitudes about love and forgiveness.

The Deputy begins in 1942 and takes us from the Papal Legation in Berlin, via Rome, to Auschwitz. Protestant Kurt Gerstein works as an SS Officer to collect firsthand evidence of what the Nazis are doing, in order to help expose them, and his reports motivate Father Riccardo Fontana to try to persuade the Pope to speak out against these atrocities. Against a background of political maneuvering and mounting abuse against even Jews who have been baptized, the Pope stands firm in his decision to stay neutral and say nothing to condemn Hitler’s program. Riccardo decides to join the transports in solidarity with the   Jews and is mortally wounded attempting to kill the evil Doctor, a sadist in charge of selection for the gas chambers and medical experiments at Auschwitz, where Gerstein is also apprehended while trying to help a prisoner escape.

Gerstein is a heroic figure, willingly endangering himself and his family by his involvement. Aware that this involvement may label him as a killer, because he works from within the SS as one of their officers, he explains, “That I can never shed this uniform is my part-payment of the debt of guilt that burdens all of us” (268). He commits acts of sabotage against the slaughter, tries to motivate outside forces to complain, and persuades other officers to delay in order to buy more time. He also hides a Jewish friend, Jacobson, in his apartment, later convincing Riccardo to give him his cassock and passport to facilitate an escape. His brave efforts to free Riccardo and then Jacobson from Auschwitz toward the close culminate in his arrest and probable death.

Gerstein’s time in a concentration camp as a political prisoner has bolstered his sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust, but he is at heart morally opposed to the Final Solution, and feels no ambivalence about his duty: “A man who sets up factories which serve no purpose but to kill his fellowmen with gas—this man must be betrayed, must be destroyed” (77). Still a patriot, he dismisses Hitler as a criminal who is destroying German honor with his behavior, and, wrongly or rightly, believes many Germans are unaware of what is happening or too fearful for their own safety to intervene.

The Catholic Church’s refusal to defend the Jews in any way at first seems based on the fact that Jews were not their congregants, but this becomes less credible as events proceed. We learn of the Church helping Germans to round up Jews, and they even allow the Nazis to take baptized Jews without complaint. The Germans have tested the waters by requesting a huge ransom for the Italian Jews, to which the Pope offered to contribute, an action that only confirmed the belief of the Nazis that they could do whatever they liked to Jews and the church would not speak out against them. The Pope’s offer is a moral sop, and he knows as well as the Nazis that it is an empty offer, for they will not really give up any Jews in return for a ransom. “If the Pope kept his mouth shut then, after such a fantastic demand—why not now?” (185), officer Salzer surmises, continuing to send Jews to their deaths, after he has crudely insulted and threatened them for good measure. A letter of protest from a Bishop, which was actually sent without the Pope’s knowledge, confirms German suspicions that the Pope has given them a clear go-ahead; they assume that the Pope has had an underling write this letter merely to salve his conscience.

Some Catholics have made attempts to thwart the Germans, giving Jews refuge in monasteries, but this is only a small number of those under threat and mostly Jews who have been baptized and thereby renounced their Jewishness. As the Germans round up families of Jews, like the Luccanis, from under the Pope’s own windows, Riccardo feels that the Pope must be forced to speak out, but the Pope is more worried about a Russian threat to his Church should   he speak out against Hitler, who is holding the Russians back. Riccardo plans to go with the arrested Jews to show solidarity, embracing the role as deputy, to sacrifice himself to atone for what he sees as the guilt of the Church. He wears a Jewish star to try to provoke the Pope. However, though angry, the Pope backs away from his challenge, and, like Pontius Pilate, literally washes his hands of the whole business, insisting on his own blamelessness.

The Pope is depicted as a cold man, more worried about Jesuit investments and Church manuscripts than human lives. He describes the deportation of the Jews from Rome as “extremely bad behavior” (198), but no more. When trusted counsels, like Riccardo’s father, Count Fontana, make their indignation felt at his inhumane inaction, he drafts a document that is so vague and grandiose in its verbiage, refusing even to name the Jews, that it is clearly meaningless; he then returns to the financial issues that most concern him. Ironically, throughout, we are led to believe that the Germans would have taken seriously any open dissension from the papacy, but none was ever given.

As diplomats, serving the politics of office rather than human conscience, Church officials embody the true banality of evil, which is manifest through acts of omission as much as acts of commission. Concern for their own survival makes them wary of defending the Jews. Thus Gerstein’s attempts to inform them about what happens to Jews in the extermination camps fall on deaf ears, despite his insistence: “That blood guilt, Excellency, falls upon us all if we keep silent”(27). Hochhuth portrays numerous Nazis as equally banal, despite their more active complicity. Adolf Eichman, in charge of transporting Jews to the camps, is portrayed as a bureaucrat, hosting a bowling party where he calmly discusses the need for more efficient killing techniques, as if he were discussing an industrial production line rather than human beings. Other guests expound upon the Nazi view that the extermination of Jews is a scientific and social necessity. When the Luccani family are taken, the men who arrest them are disturbingly ordinary: a German sergeant who follows orders, and two loutish Italian fascists out to get whatever they can.

The Germans are not portrayed as outlandish figures of evil, with the exception of the Doctor, based on Josef Mengele. His evident relish at the outrages he commits and his utter disdain for humanity allow Hochhuth to compare him to the Devil. His attempts to destroy Riccardo’s faith—mocking him for his weakening resolve to die, telling him how meaningless his death will be amid such casual slaughter, and sending him to work in the crematorium—add to this image. But Hochhuth does not allow him victory; although Riccardo dies, he does so in an act of defiance against this devil and becomes a tragic hero. Though Christianity may have failed in the person and institution of the papacy, the active faith of both Riccardo and Gerstein saves us from dismissing Christianity as dead. Yet Riccardo’s victory is muted by the play’s final announcement about the ineffectiveness of the Papal announcement, and the declaration that “the gas chambers continued to work for a full year more” (285).

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