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How photos of Nazis partying at Auschwitz gave rise to a new play

‘Here There Are Blueberries,’ at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, is based on photos submitted to an archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Elizabeth Stahlmann as U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archivist Rebecca Erbelding in “Here There Are Blueberries.” In the background is a photograph of young women employed at the Auschwitz concentration camp, relaxing and eating blueberries. (Rich Soublet II)
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It started with a photo album, submitted over the transom to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and an archivist who grasped its extraordinary historical value. In the customary story arc of such finds, the photos — of Nazi officers, their families and colleagues wining and dining and relaxing in the sun at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and killing center — would have been authenticated and put in the collection, for inspection by scholars and museumgoers.

This astonishing album, however, was also destined for the stage.

News of the photographs, acquired in 2006 by the museum and archivist Rebecca Erbelding from a retired counterintelligence officer in Virginia, came to the attention of Moisés Kaufman, an American stage director and son of Holocaust survivors who had immigrated to Venezuela. With longtime colleague Amanda Gronich at Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project — creators of “The Laramie Project” — he set about reframing the story behind the photos as dramatic art.

The result is the play “Here There Are Blueberries,” having its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California through Aug. 21, with New York-based Tectonic’s sights set on a East Coast debut. The 90-minute play, directed by Kaufman, features eight actors in multiple roles and, centrally, Elizabeth Stahlmann as Erbelding.

“You know, I’m not used to being a protagonist,” Erbelding said in a recent Zoom interview. “So, talking about how the Rebecca character changes became a very strange, out-of-body thing.”

Imagining how 116 snapshots could be the source for anything more dynamic than an elaborate PowerPoint presentation was the challenge facing Kaufman and Gronich when they embarked on the project several years ago.

“I never thought I would write a play about [the Holocaust],” Kaufman said, adding that his Romanian-born father spent the war hiding in a basement, and sought refuge in Venezuela afterward, in an era when the United States put curbs on Jewish immigration.

“It is in fact a historical event about which the most has been written in the history of literature,” Kaufman said. “So the idea of doing something about it seemed redundant. But then I was shown those photographs, and something really struck a chord. These people sunbathing next to a concentration camp, or eating blueberries. I felt that this is a discourse that has not really been addressed. How do you eat blueberries and celebrate next to a concentration camp?”

So Kaufman and Gronich executed an inventive flex for theater, making the photos more than mere projections onto a set and turning them essentially into quasi-characters alongside their three-dimensional partners. At times, according to the “Here There Are Blueberries” script, action depicted in a picture is animated onstage: An image of an accordion player, for example, is accompanied by an actual accordion player, or a scene in nature is enhanced by the sounds the photographs’ subjects would have heard.

As with several previous “nonfiction” Tectonic projects, the dialogue is taken from interviews and other records. For “Blueberries,” the museum’s investigation into the album itself is key to the story. The play recounts how an anonymous donor found it in a trash can in the basement closet of an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt in 1946 and stowed it away for decades. Its unusual quality resided in its humdrum portraits of officers’ recreation at Auschwitz, the Nazis’ largest death camp, synonymous worldwide with genocidal depravity.

Erbelding and other researchers discovered — through the fascinating process “Blueberries” painstakingly unravels — that the album belonged to Obersturmführer Karl Höcker, right-hand man to Richard Baer, Auschwitz’s last commandant. It’s a Nazi’s “memory book of his time at the camp,” one of the archivists says in the play. The photos, taken over six months between June 1944 and January 1945, are outwardly mundane: snapshots, for instance, of what looks like a family trip to a resort. (The Nazis had built one nearby for officers, guards and secretaries who were granted days off from their murderous tasks). Of course, knowing the context, you pore over them with a mix of revulsion, bewilderment and anguish. But curiosity, too.

“Here There Are Blueberries” — the title comes from one of the photo captions handwritten in German, “Hier gibt es Blaubeeren” — takes pains to explain why an album that includes no pictures of the horrors occurring within earshot of its subjects is worth the public’s attention. Or, for that matter, the energies of one of the world’s most important repositories of evidence of Nazi atrocities. (Later sequences in the play are devoted to the fate of the Auschwitz victims.)

“You can’t understand the Holocaust without looking at the perpetrators,” says a character based on Judy Cohen, who was curator of the museum’s photography collection at the time of the acquisition. “Six million people didn’t murder themselves. The Holocaust didn’t happen in the passive voice.”

Gronich, in a Zoom interview with Kaufman, said she saw this as a point for dramatic exploration.

“The truth of history is that this happened,” she said. “So as a playwright, as a storyteller, how do we start to look at that in a way that audiences can really begin to sort through and think about in a way that has meaning? And as much as we’d like to look at these people as sociopathic monsters, that’s an out, that gives us the excuse.”

“ ‘We don’t have to look at ourselves in the mirror’ is something another character says,” Gronich added. “So how do we process this material so that the audience is invited into it and to find connection to it?”

The museum recognized the sensitive issues in illuminating the album’s contents. “One of the things that we also wanted to make clear when we presented the album to the public is that these people in the album look normal,” said Erbelding, now a historian in the museum’s education department. “They do not look evil; they’re smiling. They’re playing with their dogs. They look like they might resemble a neighbor that you have. And, yes, that is correct, that humans have this capacity.”

It is the voice of Rebecca Erbelding that sets the play’s respectful tone. “We hear from people who have been through things — whose family members have been through experiences I can’t imagine, and they trust us with their stories,” she says at the outset. Erbelding traveled to La Jolla last week to see the show, and met with the New York-based Stahlmann, a graduate of Yale Drama School, who speaks her words.

“She’s amazing — she’s so real with it,” Stahlmann said of their encounters. “Now that I’m cognizant of her being in the audience, it’s a different dimension. I do wonder how that will subconsciously weave its way into my performance.”

In a follow-up conversation from California after she had seen “Blueberries,” Erbelding — who directed and stage-managed plays in college — reflected on the experience. “I think it is a very profound piece, and so for me personally, I will be processing the questions the play asks for a long time, and processing it differently from the rest of the audience.”

The biggest surprise came after the performance, when her presence became known and theatergoers approached her with stories about Holocaust survivors in their families, whose letters and keepsakes they still have. Would the museum be interested?

“I have handed out all my business cards,” Erbelding said. “Hopefully people who have seen the show will think about what they have in their closets — and other discoveries will result, from a play about the discovery of something that was in a closet.”

Here There Are Blueberries, by Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich. Directed by Kaufman. Through Aug. 21 at La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, Calif. lajollaplayhouse.org.

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