by Andrew Friedman
It is the type of tortuous dilemma the Nazis were famous for, one that could have been worthy of the Talmud itself: Ten German Jews, forced into a room in 1942, given one hour to sign a statement that Nazism is the “ultimate philosophy” for mankind. A unanimous declaration will earn the group a ticket to Switzerland and freedom, but the deal is all-or-nothing.
The resultant exchange of views forms the core of The Statement, the one-act English-language adaptation of French author Claude Salama’s novel Une heure pour dix Juifs-La Déclaration.
Although the ensuing discussion focuses immediately on the group’s efforts to achieve consensus before their Nazi captors return for a verdict, the group’s composition – a rabbi, a communist, university professor, two patriotic Germans, a well-known poet and a Zionist activist – aims to illustrate the rival factions that have been competing for Jewish hearts and minds for the past century or more.
This it does well for the most part: If assimilated German Jew Issachar Weiller’s cries of loyalty to Hitler and the Nazi Party as a patriotic German seem slightly far-fetched, Hauptmann Ernst Hagger’s sense of betrayal and sadness as a decorated World War I veteran who now finds himself on the wrong side of the German war machine is not.
Particularly compelling are the repeated clashes between Rudy Kohn, a devoted Communist, and Ya’akov Be’er, a rabbi who does not look up from his study of the Talmud until half-way through the play. Kohn’s condescending ridicule of religion as “superstition” and his poignant, cynical jabs at Be’er – “where’s your ‘God’ now, rabbi” – are poignant and compelling, as is Be’er’s quiet study and ultimate response that the Jewish people had “made a covenant with God for the advancement of humanity.”
If the play has a weak link, it is Salama’s presentation of Ze’ev Levi, a member of the Hagana paramilitary group then operating in pre-state Palestine. While the main premise of Levi’s character is powerful and accurate – a young, well-built pioneer who advocates building the Jewish state in Israel as the correct way to save Jews who are under threat around the world – the character’s monologue is not as strong. As the one member of the group who refuses to sign the statement (that’s not a spoiler; it’s a detail that surfaces in the opening minutes of the play), Levi’s fealty to the Land of Israel is strong, as is his belief in the Jewish people.
But Levi also speaks passionately both about God and rails against the proposed statement as an abandonment of everything Jews have also stood for and believed in – with little acknowledgement of secular Zionism’s rejection of Jewish tradition and commitment to fashioning a “new Jew” in a reborn homeland.
All of which, says author Salama, forms his connection to all the characters. “I seem to have lived with these characters and shared their suffering,” he says in a quote printed on the playbill. “I do not see them as fictitious but, strangely, as totally real. Their virtual presence has imposed itself on me and I feel friendship and affection for many of them.”
The Statement runs at the Jerusalem Khan Theater on April 12, 24, 25 & 26.