A strange three-act drama is played out here in Germany with unsettling regularity. Some public figure — usually a politician — will make a comparison between the present-day and Nazi Germany.
I’ll grab the first example that comes to mind. Last year, a week before the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a well-known German economist from Munich, Hans-Werner Sinn, made the mistake of comparing the scapegoating of bank managers for the unfolding financial crisis to the treatment of Jews in 1930s Germany. “Back then, it hit the Jews in Germany; today, it’s the managers,” he said. “In every crisis, people look for culprits, for someone to blame.” Act Two quickly commenced: contrition. This act usually stars the leadership of the German-Jewish community, whose job description, as far as I can tell, mostly involves being an address for apologies for idiotic Nazi comparisons made by otherwise unassuming Germans. “I apologize to the Jewish community and take back the comparison,” Sinn announced. The final act is the national conversation, which lasts roughly a week. Talk shows and magazines feature round-table discussions about the state of antisemitism and the politics of memory. And then it’s over, to be repeated next time someone inadvertently sticks a swastika in his mouth.
It can be an absurd spectacle. But maybe that’s why I laughed so much — an uncomfortable giggle at first, which ripened into something louder — when an oafish, red-bearded German apologized to me from the stage the other night in the first moments of a new play, “Third Generation,” now in performance at Berlin’s famed Schaubühne (in German, English, Hebrew and Arabic, with English supertitles). Niels, as he introduced himself, just wanted to have a word with us before the show started. “Are there any Jews out there?” he asked in German. A few sheepishly raised their hands. “In the name of the German people,” he said, hand over heart, “I apologize.” He was only getting started. “Any gypsies in the audience?” No one responded. “Well, they must be on the way.” More nervous giggles. Homosexuals? Sorry. How about Turkish emigrants? He felt terrible for how the government had treated them in the 1990s. As he apologized, the rest of the cast — which, we already know from the program, consisted of an equal number of Israelis, Germans and Palestinians — made its way onto the bare stage behind him. “Oh, here’s Ishay,” Niels said suddenly, turning to one of the Israeli actors. “To you, Ishay, I would like to personally apologize. Your grandfather was electrocuted on the gate of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. My apologies. I’m very sorry.” Ishay emitted an awkward, “Forget about it!” and a relieved smile spread across Niels’s face. “If only it was always so easy,” he told the now hysterical audience.
All that awkward laughter must have warmed the heart of Yael Ronen, the young Israeli director behind the production. Considered an enfant terrible of the Israeli stage, Ronen clearly intends for us — the third-generation descendents of interlocking tragedy — to laugh at the rote ways in which we talk about that history and how it still affects our lives. The result, still technically a work in progress, achieves this goal very well, using humor to mock the well-worn narratives and dynamics. It fails, however, in its second, more critical purpose, of pushing us beyond these clichés.
Ronen’s intriguing idea was to take four Israelis, four Germans and four Palestinians (or Israeli Arabs) and force them into what she described as “group therapy.” They shared their own personal histories, met with historians and journalists, and then visited a few provocative sites, like Sachsenhausen concentration camp and a checkpoint crossing in the West Bank. Amit Epstein, the play’s Israeli dramaturge, told me that the objective was to grope together toward a “new terminology,” a new relationship to the history and its fraught legacy. So raw was the result of this month of emotional processing that the shape of the resulting “play” was actually just the strung-together improvised scenes and monologues that the workshop produced.
The actors each play themselves or variations of themselves. And all the humor has the same punch line: the stale, predictable ways we talk about the past. So a young Palestinian actor tells the story of his family’s displacement in 1948 using a puppet of his grandfather, robbing himself of any real voice. In one of the most uncomfortable and funny scenes, several Israeli actors play teenagers who are pleading for money to fund a program that tours them through Nazi concentration camps. The scene is clearly meant to make fun of the oversized place the Holocaust now fills in Israeli identity. The kids are flip and unthinking about the history, talking about how Auschwitz was “much cooler” than Majdanek. One of the girls, Ayelet, soulfully strums a guitar, as they all sing a jingle: “Don’t stop sending us to Auschwitz….” The self-indulgence of inherited victimhood is painfully obvious in their breaking voices. Meanwhile, every German monologue predictably wrestles with whether to feel apologetic or to fight against the fact that, as one character puts it, “the Jews have the world by the balls.”
These words are certainly irreverent coming from the German stage. Especially provocative is Ronen’s idea of completing a triangle of historical suffering by bringing together the three groups. This aspect even earned the show some good publicity before its premiere, when one of the oldest members of the German-Jewish community published an open letter to the Schaubühne, complaining that the play would morally equate the Palestinians’ suffering with that of the Jews’. Ronen smartly and politely responded that it was just that type of debilitating fear of comparison — of somehow undermining the Holocaust’s sacred uniqueness — that she was trying to move beyond. And in fact, one of the play’s funniest monologues is an ironic riff on this theme, with a refrain of “Don’t compare!”
The humor does feel fresh. But the new language I hoped for never quite arrives. If anything, the play reinforces the notion that as uninteresting as the terms of our current trilateral talks are, they have a lock on us. There are self-referential moments where Ronen and her actors seem very aware of this. Near the end of the play, Ayelet, now acting as herself, laments: “We shouldn’t have done that teenager scene. They are going to use it against us. They’ll say we’re self-hating traitors.”
I’ve been in Berlin for the past year, and no German has ever apologized to me. One of the happy surprises of living here is that though the history of the place is never far from my mind, the self-awareness of many young Germans of this third generation has released me from the aggrieved bitterness I assumed I might feel as the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Having a conversation about victims and oppressors is not interesting. I realize this is all anecdotal, but in my experience, sharing how burdened we are by the past has brought me closer to other Germans as opposed to alienating me from them. I’m thinking, for example, of an evening where I sat listening to a blond-haired colleague of my wife talk about her estrangement from her grandmother, a woman who helped start Hitler’s euthanasia program in Vienna. I felt sympathy for her. I didn’t feel compelled to tell her about my grandfather’s experience in Majdanek. The two stories, though obviously historically connected, did not depend on each other. They weighed us down in two different ways; one did not take away from the other. As difficult as it is to imagine right now, I’ve seen this same dynamic — one characterized by empathy, as opposed to insecurity — take place on the Israeli-Arab side of the triangle (though, admittedly, only very far away from the Middle East).
“Third Generation” breaks down in its final minutes. The cast members, who listen to each other so patiently throughout, begin brawling wildly. Having arrived at the limit of laughter, they don’t come up with anything else to say. Instead, Ayelet, frustrated that the exercise has all been for naught — that the Israelis still look like aggressors and the Palestinians like victims, and that the Germans are adequately repentant — screams at the audience, using words that are still sure to silence any conversation: “You are all Nazis!”
Gal Beckerman is a frequent contributor to the Forward. His history of the Soviet Jewry movement will be published next year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.