Israelis and Germans Confront Painful Past
The Akko Theater brings an interactive performance piece to Berlin
IT'S the stillness of the place that is most striking. Set at the end of a long, gravel path wending its way through a thicket of tall, spindly birch trees and conifers, the cozy, gleaming white villa has the aura of an idyllic country retreat. We enter, some 30 of us, and wait.Skip to next paragraph
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An elderly woman in matronly dress suddenly materializes. Wordlessly, the tiny figure beckons us to follow. We fall into step behind her. Around the first corner, her frail hand makes a slightly weary but all-encompassing sweep, and our eyes take in what she is seeing: black-and--white blowups of Nazi horror, hatred, and humiliation writ large. "I've come from Israel to touch our mutual wound," she says, with the soothing intonations of a kindly grandmother, "to show how democracy turns into dictatorship ."
This is the villa at Wannsee, just outside Berlin, where, in 1942, Hitler's henchmen met to map out the "Final Solution" - their systematic plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. After the war and until a few months ago, the place was in private use; now it's a museum. For a period it also became the first step of what some Berliners are describing as one of the most powerful theatrical experiences of their lives.
The Akko Theater Company (ATC), a tiny avant-garde troupe that takes its name from the northern coastal Israeli town where it is based, has devised a startlingly unusual production, "Arbeit Macht Frei from Toitland Europa" (a mishmash of German, Hebrew, and Yiddish meaning, "Work Makes You Free from the Deathland of Europe"), which, since its first staging in Akko, has caused a sensation. Not a Holocaust retelling
This is not merely another retelling of the Holocaust, but, rather, a holding up of a mirror to Israelis (and Germans in the Berlin version) to reflect present-day thoughts and attitudes from a myriad of angles and to say, "Ironically, paradoxically and, in certain ways, perversely, this is what we have become." Palestinian actor Khaled Abu Ali, a member of the troupe, adds a further dimension of critical commentary by playing himself, an Arab, forever relegated to the periphery of the action. (See story
The show was performed for one month last spring in Berlin and currently is running in Israel for an indefinite period. Bringing the production to Berlin was a daring move for the German organizers. Because of its unconventional staging and hard-hitting subject matter - the deep-seated prejudices in both modern-day societies, not to mention the two countries' shared history which lies close to the heart of their collective psyches - many battles were fought before it finally got the go-ahead.
The gamble paid off. During the city's several-months'-long Festival of Jewish Life, some 30 theater productions from around the world were seen; but nothing, according to the general concensus, could match the impact of ATC's "Arbeit Macht Frei." Thomas Lackman, arts critic for Berlin's influential daily Der Tagesspiegel, sums it up: "The show has made a very powerful impression. It was definitely the strongest moment of the festival."
"Arbeit Macht Frei" (the phrase that was emblazoned across the entrance of the Nazi death camps) does not use a theater for its stage. In the Berlin production, audiences traveled by bus, first, to the Wannsee villa, then, for the latter half, across town to an old section of East Berlin, where the action continues at an abandoned 19th-century brewery.