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Theatre in Review: Here There Are Blueberries (Tectonic Theater Project at New York Theatre Workshop)

The cast of Here There Are Blueberries. Photo: Matthew Murphy

It's been a banner year for documentary theatre but, even so, few examples of the genre exert the terrible grip of Here There Are Blueberries. Not a play in the conventional sense, it recounts the astonishing real-life discovery of photos that cast a revealing light on day-to-day life at Auschwitz, posing questions that will trouble the most settled conscience. For the most part, this isn't the familiar parade of horrors associated with the Holocaust; rather, it's a scrapbook of good times enjoyed in broad daylight by the perpetrators, sometimes only a few steps away from the gates of hell. Over the course of ninety minutes, you may have to remind yourself to breathe.

The triggering event comes when Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is contacted by an elderly Army lieutenant, who, during a tour of duty in Germany in 1946, found an album depicting scenes at what he believes is Auschwitz. Because there is little photographic documentation of the death camp, Rebecca offers to take a look, nevertheless remaining skeptical because so many such finds brought are of low quality or their contents are hard to identify.

To her utter surprise, what arrives at her desk is a meticulously well-kept collection originally belonging to Karl Höcker, adjutant to Rudolf Höss, the camp's commander. (Höss is one of the principal figures in the Oscar-winning film The Zone of Interest, which, to my mind, pales next to Here There Are Blueberries.) Strikingly, there are no shots of prisoners, or, indeed, anything detailing forced labor or mass execution. Instead, the album is filled with images of visiting military dignitaries; outings with the "Helferinnen," young women who served as telephone operators; and vacations at the "Solahütte," a nearby chalet where officers and their families unwound. (The latter images are especially chilling; but for the Nazi military insignia, we could be somewhere in the Adirondacks.) Even more confounding are the pictures of a Christmas tree being lit. "This is three weeks before the end of the camp," an archivist notes. "They're having a Christmas party for the children of the SS. They haven't sent their kids away." Rebecca adds, "To me, one of the strangest things about the album is that it goes until the end. Imagine making a scrapbook showing what a good time you had...before you fled."

I know Hannah Arendt is out of fashion these days but scene after scene in Here There Are Blueberries makes her theory about the banality of evil seem remarkably sturdy. Scrutinizing a photo of the three top officers at Auschwitz, Rebecca says, "Karl Höcker was a junior bank teller, a family man with a wife and children. Before the war, commandant Richard Baer was a skilled confectioner. He made candies and chocolates. Commandant Josef Kramer was an accountant. A bank clerk, a sweet maker, an accountant. The trivial nature of their former jobs appears as a shocking contrast with the killers they became." Then she adds, "But then what would be a normal career preparation for Auschwitz?"

Of course, nobody knew anything; that was everyone's defense, impossible as it now seems. An elderly German woman interviewed about her sister, a member of the Helferinnen, insists that they were entirely innocent, tasked with little more than passing on phone messages. When the photos are published, Rebecca says, "People called us and said, 'These people look normal, the girls look like teenage girls.' Because they were. And that was surprising, that they look like us! One caller even said, 'I know I never could've been a Mengele. I know I never could've been a Höcker. But could I have been a Helferin?"

The photos get published and so broad is their reach that Tilman Taube, a German, flipping through a copy of Der Spiegel, recognizes his grandfather, a doctor at Auschwitz. He contacts Rebecca, offering to interview other relatives and descendants of the figures in the pictures, mostly getting the cold shoulder from those who long ago shelved such ugly memories. But, in possibly the play's most wrenching sequence, he makes a connection with Peter Wirths, son of Eduard, the chief SS doctor, who worked to eradicate the typhus epidemic among the inmates. "He asked for running water, heat for the barracks, medicine to combat the lice outbreaks, and more sanitary bathrooms," Peter says, adding that his father loathed the camp but stayed at the direction of a priest who told him he could do good. "So, you've come to terms with his participation," Tilman concludes. "Absolutely not," Peter replies. "When the Jewish prisoners arrived at the camp, my father was one of the doctors who stood there, at the ramp, and selected who was going to be sent to forced labor, and who was going to the gas chamber. So what does it matter? The good things he did?"

Here There Are Blueberries is founded on such paradoxes, the most upsetting being the notion that the people who committed some of history's worst crimes, caught by the camera lens, look just like you and me. It's a proposition put forth irrefutably in Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich's script. Tectonic Theater Project productions are developed organically in workshops, the designers working alongside the writers and actors, a method that allows Kaufman, who also conceived and directed the piece, to achieve a thoroughly unified result. In a piece about the power of the camera, none is more important than David Bengali who, drawing on the Auschwitz trove, covers the stage with disconcerting images of partying young people and smiling officials. (He also delivers a series of Leica ads, scenes from bourgeois German, and film footage of the League of German Girls, a kind of female auxiliary to the Hitler Youth.) In an especially unsettling coup de théâtre, the retrieval of another album causes the upstage walls of Derek McLane's institutional cinder block set to part, revealing a montage of the camp's inmates many of them identified by a female survivor. David Lander's precise lighting and Dede Ayite's costumes are first-rate, as is Bobby McElver's sound design, which takes in everything from dance band music to camera clicks swarming through the auditorium.

There are a few moments when the script spells out implications that we could easily work out for ourselves, and sometimes the acting style is a tad emphatic. But Elizabeth Stahlmann captures Rebecca's determination to maintain her detachment as a historian even when overwhelmed by this find. Kathleen Chalfant's natural authority is a real asset as Judy Cohen, Rebecca's supervisor, who, mindful that the museum's goal is to focus on the Holocaust's victims, comes to believe in the importance of putting the Auschwitz photos on display. Jonathan Raviv conveys both pain and awe as Tilman as he struggles with his family's secret history. Grant James Varjas' Peter makes it clear that the struggle may be a lifelong one.

The most penetrating question hanging over this stunning piece is, arguably, the simplest: What are we to do with such soul-searing material? What does it say about us? Sara, another archivist notes, "In surveys, people say that the least trusted parts of our society are the government, big business, and social media. One of the most trusted parts? Museums. And why? Because museums are fact-based. We show original objects. We allow people to draw their own conclusions." If we live in a country that increasingly feels fact-marooned, Here There Are Blueberries treats the audience like adults. It doesn't exploit or sentimentalize its material. It holds it up for all to see and the chill that fills the theatre has nothing to do with the air-conditioning system. --David Barbour

(20 May 2024)

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