Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What's In A Heil?

Last night I was in a play which was compiled of stories found in the Nazi propaganda book for children Trust No Fox on the Green Heath and No Jew on His Oath and short satirical stories taken from a Terezen Ghetto periodical called Cammerade which was written by teens in the camp. The purpose of the show was meant to show how children lost their innocence, how children were brainwashed from a young age to think the Jews were evil in contrast to Jewish children who had to behave as adults, in order to deal with the harsh reality they were living in.

Some of the pieces were heartwrenching, like one called "Night Fairy Tale" where a 12 year old boy wrote a story of how the "ladder was moaning since his brother was broken and burnt in the crematorium, and the oven was furious that the others were calling him a crematorium, and the lightbulb missed the prohibition of using lights in the evening, which had been a group punishment, since then she really had time to rest". All of these descriptions took reality and made it plausible.
But the most difficult part, personally was a piece called "The Fuerher's Children" in which we marched and chanted a children's poem about devotion to the Hitler Youth. After much debate, and arguing in rehearsals, for the sake of authenticity, we chose to incorporate the Heil salute. It's just a movement, just a hitting of the chest and then swinging the arm out straight. But I cannot tell you how that simple movement filled me with revulsion, how I was literally covered in goosebumps every time I had to do it, and overcome by a sudden naseau. It took us a while to get the beat and rythme correct, and that necessitated doing the piece over and over, salute after salute. I was afraid I would become numb to what I was doing.

The play was a great success, but I cannot forget the gasps I heard coming from the audience when we thrust out our arms, held them high, chanting "We wish to live for the furher, we look to a bright future". And despite being in character, being caught up in the heady drug which acting is for me, I was momentarily jerked out of the scene, and I was grateful for it. For the fear of falling too much into character, of identifying with the committment and joy a 5 year old must have felt with the marching, support, uniforms and music, was too terrifying a prospect for me to even consider.

As I sit here writing this, it amazes me that even after 60+ years, the salute of a movement which I never came into contact with, which symbolizes a horror my people went through, can still affect me so.


Blogger Ari said...

So if the cast of your play had been all-black do you think they would have gotten the rythm of the salute with marching any faster? I always found the long car rides made me nauseus. Funny how two people can be so different.

I once had to go see a production of Showboat at the Walnit Street Theater in Philly with Tom Bosley in the lead role. It's hard to accept Mr. Cunningham in any role that doesn't involve sexual tension with the Fonz - but that's neither here nor there. Actually, they changed the script to remove the word nigger. I found that to be most offensive. That was the world that the show was reprsenting. For all its horribleness I don't want to pretend that it was a more benign place. To my mind, that's the ultimate insult to the suffering.

12:20 PM  
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