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.

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

at right)

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.

With its dismal brick walls and dark passageways, this second setting is as eery as it is affecting. A young, wide-eyed girl munching a carrot greets us here and, in the manner of the March Hare, leads us down a pitch-black, cavernous tunnel. Eventually, we find ourselves in a blindingly white room. Plangent chords of exotic Arabic music are played in the distant, unseen recess. The smoke of incense curls around us.

The old woman, our Wannsee villa guide, writhes on the floor, her body becoming a screen on which a silent film of Holocaust scenes is projected. Her hand unfurls to reveal a wrist tattoed with a Nazi camp number. We move into another space and see an imposing model of Treblinka, with an electronic train zipping constantly around the perimeter - a reminder of the trainloads of hapless victims.

We learn how young Israeli children today are ritualistically taught in school: "Remember the old man, the little child, the victim ... 6 million Jews. Remember and do not forget it!"

We move to a smaller space, to what has become, for actors and Berlin theatergoers alike, the most important part of the show. Some of the players speak through windows, asking audience members, one at a time: What did they speak about at home regarding the Holocaust? Did they talk of it at all? How did their parents treat such issues? What is their own family's past vis-a-vis the Nazi period? - and so on. As far as it's known, this is the first direct encounter of its kind for second-generation (post-Wo rld War II) Germans and Israelis on the subject. It is not done to provoke or underscore victimization but to humanize, and to piece together in a more compassionate way the often desiccated facts of history books.

We are now in an Israeli home. The old woman becomes younger. She plays a piano, singing and chatting all the while about Israeli and German societies. "Some say torture went on in this brewery during the communist times," she muses, "but others say it didn't. History is always being denied and rewritten."

A huge portion of the ceiling suddenly drops, missing our heads by mere inches, with startling eclat, to become a dinner table set before us. Audience and actors eat a Kosher meal together. The woman in an instant becomes the mother of an Israeli family, who apologizes for her gruff, outspoken husband. He makes no bones about his negative views of the Arabs, of President Bush, of the Orthodox Jews who live above him. We feel we are eavesdropping on a real Israeli family's supper.

The eating over, the table slowly rises to become a ceiling once more. Flaps open. We are instructed to climb up through manholes to the level above. Provoking a dialogue

What we now experience can only be described as a grotesque bacchanal. The old/young woman is naked, hanging by one ankle from a rope high above us. A drummer in the corner pounds out a frenetic, pulsating beat. The Palestinian actor Abu Ali is also naked, dancing on a raised dais at break-neck speed. Another woman is stuffed in a barrel, as she eats leftovers off the plates of our previous meal. Strobe lights flash crazily. The woman hanging upside down finally disengages herself and goes to Abu Ali.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" is over. But for many who saw the show, it has only just begun.

Audience member Ursula Labranz, reflecting the view of many of the theatergoers, says, "It is not like theater; you are really involved. And I realized from it that I don't know much about [the Holocaust]. I know some facts. But I don't know much about my family during that period. And I realize that, in my family, we do the same, like most German families, because of fear and a kind of guilt, we don't talk about it; that is how we deal with the past. But, after seeing this show, I feel I now must ask th em."

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