An unshaven man stumbles onstage, clad in a raincoat covering his pajamas. He is barefoot and shuffles among the dried leaves that litter the stage area, a long rectangular set with the audience on either side. It is a most intimate performance area, uncomfortably so. He tells us he was a Red Cross representative, stationed in the Berlin suburb of Wansee, during the war, and had been sent to inspect a civilian internment camp in Nazi Germany. Now, he is guilt ridden, confused and sleepless. A tortured soul remembering what it was like to play-act to do his job, unaware he was but a manipulated audience himself. As he describes the entire visit and the episode unfolds before us. He cannot sleep.
Next, boys play with a top and quarrel, a couple argues over a gift, each actor perfecting his or her lines, cueing each other to get the dialogue right. We notice they all wear a yellow star. The young woman complains of constantly hearing trains in the night.
The Nazi commandant strides on stage; confident, charming, understanding, his evil arrogance is barely masked by his civilized and rational demeanor.
Finally, Gottfried is brought in and sits before the Commandant. He is a prisoner, powerless to resist the orders of his captor. He must become an actor, learn his lines and collaborate, in order to give outsiders the impression of a benign internment camp. His play-acting seeks to convince them that conditions are relatively good and, considering the war, humane. As for the ramp from the railway station to the infirmary, well, everyone just calls it the “way to heaven.” The play has begun.
The Nazi Commandant attempts to beguile us with his assurances of European civilization, the books he has in his library, how he distains war and how once it is all over, we will all speak one language and celebrate one culture. His monologue constantly slips between past and present, chilling our confidence in the distance of the past horrors. Suddenly all the lights go out and in the pitch-blackness the Nazi asserts that all of the killing camps are gone now, “There’s none of it left now, but they’re still here. All of them, every single one.” The ghosts of the murdered Jews remain because, “Every train in Europe terminates here.”
Further into the past, we are plunged into the complex and tortured relationship between Gershom Gottfried, the “mayor” of the Jews, and the Commandant who is both the author and director of the little piece of theater that will convince the Red Cross that there is no mistreatment of the prisoners. Gottfried’s role is to make sure everyone acts his or her part exactly as the script says, that they understand that their lives depend upon their performance. Gottfried says the people want to know what to expect. The Commandant answers, “Focus on one thought, Gottfried. ‘I’m not on that train. As long as I’m here, I’m not on that train.’” The play-acting becomes instantly clear; their performance is a bargain with the devil himself.
Gottfried is told that one scene is too crowded, “Cut them down to a hundred.” He is told to take them to the “infirmary,” that closed shed at the top of the long ramp, at the end of the “way to heaven.” Gottfried balks, he can’t choose which of his fellow Jews will be condemned. He rebels and spits out, “What if we refuse?…[what if] He arrives and there’s no one there Or we tell him the truth “ The Commandant calmly reminds Gottfried that the Red Cross man may not understand the gesture or the symbol. Jewish rebellion would hardly make an impact, and would only result in more death.
Sitting so close to the actors, finally understanding their dilemma, understanding that Gottfried and his Jews have no choice, understanding that no one wants to assure their own death, I still ask myself, what would I do? What would I do?
Finally Juan Mayorga’s stunning play brings it all home. Gottfried and his Jews resume practicing their parts, reassuring fellow actors, “we’ve all had to pretend some time, haven’t we?” The little girl with her doll enters and is comforted by Gottfried. “If you do it well, we’ll see Mummy again. She’ll come on one of those trains. If we do what they ask us We’ll do it as many times as we have to, until Mummy comes back.” She softly sings her haunting song again. Ani Ma’amin. Yes, I believe, I believe with a perfect faith.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.