The sins of the father are visited on the child in “East of Berlin,” a play about the emotional agony suffered by the son of a Nazi war criminal, which is making its United States debut at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood after taking Canada by storm two years ago.
Ottawa-born playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who was only 28 when “East of Berlin” first premiered, comes from a solid Jewish background. She grew up attending a Reform shul, went to Hebrew school three times a week, became a bat mitzvah and was steeped in the Holocaust.
“Everyone in my family who might have survived was killed in the Holocaust,” Moscovitch explained by telephone from her current home in Toronto. “I had a lot of family in the Ukraine, but they were wiped out, and the relatives that I do have from there came over to Canada between World War I and World War II.
“I don’t have any survivors in my family, but I grew up keenly aware of the Holocaust,” she continued. “We had survivors speaking to us in Hebrew school, and I went on this life-changing trip when I was 15 called the March of the Living, during which we visited Auschwitz, Poland and Germany. I also spent four months on a kibbutz in Israel when I was 18. This is my heritage, so it’s not surprising that I would write about it.”
But Moscovitch admitted to writing about it from an unusual vantage point. She got her inspiration from testimonies given by children of Nazi parents that were collected in two books: “Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families,” by Peter Sichrovsky, and “Legacy of Silence: Encounters With Children of the Third Reich,” by Dan Bar-On.
She found a split between children who defended their parents and those who felt extraordinary guilt for what their parents had done. The ones who experienced guilt, Moscovitch said, often made radical gestures toward retribution.
“One became a rabbi,” she noted. “It’s almost so extreme that you can’t even write it. There were children of Nazis who urinated on their parents’ graves, and there are books in which they thank God that their parents are dead. There were people who talked about feeling as though they were stillborn, as though they were just waiting to die, and those who said they felt a responsibility not to have children because they didn’t want to pass on the legacy of oppression.
“It was clear to me, reading these testimonies, that the sins of the father, if not expiated in some way, are visited on the children in the psychological impact on their lives,” she said.
Moscovitch was also astounded by the tenor of those lives. “Beyond that,” she explained, “what was of interest to me was the subtext taking place over the course of the testimony, because it was being delivered to someone who was not only Jewish but was the child of a survivor. Something in that gave me the idea that it would be theatrical to put the child of a Nazi on stage and have him address the audience as though the audience was unsympathetic towards him. And from that came the play.”
“East of Berlin” takes place in the 1960s and is structured as a monologue, interspersed with scenes and flashbacks, by a young man named Rudi (Russell Sams), who enjoys a privileged life in Paraguay, one of the Latin American countries in which Nazi expatriates found asylum. He has always believed that his German father was an ordinary doctor in the military during World War II but learns from his studious, intellectual friend, Hermann (James Barry), that, in reality, his father was an SS doctor at Auschwitz, who did ramp duty at the train station, making life and death selections, and who also performed unspeakable experiments on Jewish inmates.
The revelation is devastating, and Rudi engages in a homosexual encounter with Hermann, making sure that his father, who he knows will be horrified by the act, is a witness to it. Rudi eventually flees to Germany, where he researches the atrocities of the Holocaust. In the archives he meets Sarah (Carolyn Stotes), a young Jewish woman who is also researching that history because her mother had been interned at Auschwitz.
The two fall in love, but Rudi hasn’t revealed the truth about his father. When Sarah becomes pregnant, they plan to marry. However, a visit from Hermann reveals the truth, and Rudi must rehabilitate himself by some act of retribution against his father.
The choice he ultimately makes is extreme, and Moscovitch said it proved to be particularly provocative for audience members, many of whom sent her e-mails with their own ideas about how the play should end.
Equally controversial is her use of humor at certain moments. Christopher Brown, who co-directs the NoHo production with Sara Botsford, cites one of his favorite darkly humorous sections.
“It’s at the point where Rudi explains that his parents’ bed is right up against his bedroom wall. And he describes his father having sex with his mother once a week. ‘Sixteen creaks in the bed. That was my father.’ He’s talking about how much of a boring bureaucrat his father actually is. That seems to continually get a big laugh in the play.”
For Botsford, the humor actually makes the story more powerful. “I think it’s kind of a shocking idea to have the words ‘Holocaust’ and ‘humor’ in the same sentence,” she said. “It’s a shocking concept, because that’s not something we normally put together.
“But I do think the fact that the playwright allows humor to enter into the situation in some ways makes it easier for us to grapple with how horrific that situation is,” she explained. “I think that when they embrace the humor in the play, it gives the audience a little bit of a breather, a little bit of relief, because it’s a very, very tense atmosphere.”
When Botsford and Brown, who have a company called 49th Parallel Theatre, first read the script, they decided, with the encouragement and support of their co-producers, James Mellon and Kevin Bailey, that they had to bring the play from Canada to Los Angeles.
“It’s a perspective that we usually don’t think about,” she said, “and I feel it’s a really refreshing perspective, to imagine how you would deal with this if you discovered that your parents were involved in the Holocaust in this particular fashion. And there’s the complexity of loving your parents and not being able to reconcile their behavior with the parents you’ve always known. There’s a lot of stuff to mine out of this play.”
For his part, Brown wants the production to stimulate a discussion about the issues involved in the story.
“If you don’t provoke your audience and have them start to create a dialogue about what they’ve just seen, I think you’ve missed the mark,” he said. “For me, what’s most important is to have people come out of this play trying to see the similarities in their own lives and talking to each other about what they would feel like under those circumstances.”
“East of Berlin” continues at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood through July 19. For more information, go to www.thenohoartscenter.com.