'Either Or': One Man Against the World

Paul Morella, left, plays SS officer Kurt Gerstein, who tries to fight the Holocaust, in Theater J's
Paul Morella, left, plays SS officer Kurt Gerstein, who tries to fight the Holocaust, in Theater J's "Either Or," also starring John Dow. (By Stan Barouh)
By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 4, 2007

In "Either Or," Theater J's world premiere Holocaust play by Thomas Keneally, the Jewish voices are silent.

"The strength of this play," says Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth, "is that it doesn't need Jewish characters to make the reality of Jewish suffering palpable . . . to a Jewish audience and a non-Jewish audience."

It is very much a story for our times, Roth says, adding, "To look at the war from the point of view of a Nazi officer who is something of a conscientious objector . . . trying to sabotage shipments of Zyklon B [a cyanide-based gas], alerting Western Allies . . . you come to see him as an officer and as a messenger from the dark side. But you can't help but identify with his efforts."

Before Steven Spielberg gave the world Oskar Schindler in "Schindler's List," Keneally threaded the remnants of Schindler's story together in his book "Schindler's Ark." Schindler, an unrepentant adulterer and war profiteer, schemed to rescue Jews during the height of the Holocaust, single-handedly saving nearly 1,100 Jews. Keneally's work was the basis of Spielberg's movie.

"I got a kick out of writing about bad Catholics like Schindler," Keneally said last week during rehearsals for "Either Or," which opened this week at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. The Sydney-based writer expresses an abiding interest in the actions of Christians during the Holocaust. "Why Christians were involved fascinates me," he says.

The play tells the story of Kurt Gerstein (Paul Morella), a German Lutheran engineer and SS officer who witnessed one of the early mass killings of Jews at the Belzec concentration camp in Poland. Keneally explores Gerstein's struggle in following Nazi orders. He surreptitiously buried canisters of Zyklon B and sought out a Swedish diplomat, representatives of the pope, anyone who would listen, but to no avail. As the war was ending, Gerstein contacted the Allies and was held in protective custody, where he wrote his compelling testimony.

"I was one of the handful of people who had seen every corner of the establishment, and certainly the only one to have visited it as an enemy of this gang of murderers," Gerstein wrote.

Keneally, 71, first learned about the Nazis as a youth in Sydney. His father, a shopkeeper, served in the Australian army in North Africa. By the war's end, newsreels showing exterminated and dying Jews had a lasting impact on him. "What always amazed me," Keneally says, "apart from the moral issues of the Holocaust, was the extremity and absurdity of it."

Keneally stumbled on Gerstein more than two decades ago while researching Schindler.

"What interested me," he says, "is that he was not as much fun in his way as Schindler, but he was in a situation that increasingly a lot of bureaucrats in this world are finding themselves in, where they can't choose between absolutely good and absolutely bad. They have to go for gradations. They are only allowed to find their way between A, B and C.

"Not everyone who drops a cluster bomb must be delighted by it, but they're not in a position to choose."

"Either Or," like "Schindler's Ark," is Keneally's way of coming to terms with egregious war crimes committed by ordinary people. He uncovers the goodness even in such flawed characters as Schindler and Gerstein.

"I don't want to sound like an orthodox Catholic," says Keneally, who calls himself a "cultural Catholic" who attends Mass only occasionally, "but there is a scripture that says the spirit of redemption will assert itself where it will, in unexpected places."

Either Or Theater J 800-494-8497 Through June 3

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