The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Discarded photos of Nazis relaxing at Auschwitz led to this riveting play

‘Here There Are Blueberries,’ a documentary drama about a real photo album sent to the Holocaust museum, gives wrenching context to genocide

From left, Scott Barrow, Nemuna Ceesay and Kathleen Chalfant in “Here There Are Blueberries” at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harman Hall. (DJ Corey)
5 min

A play starring … research! Well, that sounds a little dry. Rest assured, though: “Here There Are Blueberries,” the story of a real photo album depicting Nazis at leisure in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and killing center, is anything but.

It is, rather, a gripping exposé of the depraved human inclination to convince oneself that nothing is amiss when everything is in fact horrifically, monstrously wrong. Made compellingly theatrical by the virtuosic visual instincts of director Moisés Kaufman, this documentary drama reveals how ephemeral events — the purchase of a camera, the discovery of a discarded keepsake, the mailing of a letter — can align to enlighten the world.

What unfolds in Harman Hall — where Shakespeare Theatre Company is presenting the play by Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project — is a meticulous illumination of the work of historians at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Seventeen years ago, a retired American counterintelligence officer in Virginia offered the museum an extraordinary photo album he had found in a trash bin in Germany at the end of World War II. The 116 pictures were of Nazi officers, soldiers and office workers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, lounging and laughing in the bucolic countryside on their days off. These included the photo that gave the play its title: It is the caption on one of the photographs, showing a group of camp staff members happily gorging on the fruit.

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

The find was remarkable, the play’s real-life characters explain, because little photographic evidence has survived of the SS men who ran the camp and the young women who staffed the office in which communiqués were sent and received. But the donation also posed a moral dilemma for a museum founded as a repository of information about the victims of unspeakable Nazi atrocities: Should there be a place in the collection for depictions of mass murderers that portrayed them as ordinary humans?

It’s a play, in other words, that Ken Burns fans can love. The ethical thrust of “Here There Are Blueberries” is spelled out in a lucid, straightforward style by Kaufman and co-author Amanda Gronich. The highly polished cast of eight portrays multiple roles, as the story shifts back and forth from the museum to modern-day Germany, where descendants of some of the officers confront the irrefutable facts of their relatives’ crimes.

One such relative, played with compelling gravity by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, comes forward to identify his grandfather, a camp doctor, in the photographs. Amid the obfuscation and denial of a nation that inflicted so much suffering, his response goes some way to helping us understand the museum’s investment in authenticating the photos. In all its humdrum documentation of daily activity, this album on the flip side of horror somehow makes what was happening just out of camera range seem all the more hideous.

The story is recounted in such reverent tones that sometimes you might wish for a little more about how the stressful work affected the researchers, chiefly Elizabeth Stahlmann’s Rebecca Erbelding, the historian who recognized the value of the album (and still works at the museum). She and her boss, Judy Cohen (played by Kathleen Chalfant), form an alliance of advocacy for the album, which they discover belonged to one Obersturmführer Karl Höcker, an aide to the camp’s last commandant, Richard Baer.

Stahlmann and Chalfant are eloquent embodiments of curatorial objectivity: Perhaps, as the play’s Erbelding explains, subjugating one’s emotions is the only way to carry on such work effectively. That work is also what Kaufman and Gronich animate so vibrantly. Set designer Derek McLane, working with projections designer David Bengali and lighting designer David Lander, has devised a cool, serene mise-en-scène that captures the professional neutrality of the research team. Bengali and McLane find innovative ways to embed the photos in the narrative and, with sound designer Bobby McElver, manage to create a multisensory experience around them.

The first object we glimpse, though, is in three dimensions: a Leica camera, the then-newly invented, portable mechanism that popularized the recreational photography recounted in “Here There Are Blueberries.”

This gives way to a stunning tableau of the researchers, each frozen at an examining table, each station lit from within. It’s a moving, imagistic prologue, a stage picture that stays with you. You’re a witness to history not being made but reclaimed.

I confess I’m the ideal audience for “Here There Are Blueberries,” as a Jewish man who has spent his life obsessed with and endlessly grief-stricken over the play’s concerns. That’s one reason, but not the only reason, that I spent the 90 minutes in Harman Hall with my heart in my mouth.

Here There Are Blueberries, by Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich. Conceived and directed by Kaufman. Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, David Lander; sound, Bobby McElver; projections, David Bengali. With Erika Rose, Nemuna Ceesay, Scott Barrow, Charlie Thurston, Grant James Varjas. About 90 minutes. Through May 28 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW.