La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ examines the secret lives of Holocaust perpetrators
It’s been 77 years since the first Nazi concentration camps were liberated by Allied troops, exposing to the world the horrors of the Holocaust.
But for all the camp photos, video footage, mass graves and survivor stories that opened the public’s eyes to the Germans’ systematic extermination of as many as 11 million Jews and others, one element was always missing from the story: the secret lives of the camps’ administrators, guards and office workers, who fled ahead of the approaching Allied forces and went into hiding.
“Here There Are Blueberries,” a world-premiere play opening in previews Tuesday, July 26, at La Jolla Playhouse, offers a rare snapshot of the men and women who ran the Nazis’ most notorious death camp: Auschwitz in Poland, where as many as 1.1 million people — mostly Jews — were killed between 1940 and January 1945.
The play, co-written by Moises Kaufman and Amanda Gronich, is the true story of how a recently discovered photo album exposed the private lives of the German SS officers and staff who kept the brutal camp humming.
Among the 116 black-and-white photographs kept by Karl-Friedrich Höcker, who was adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz, are images of him and others laughing, singing, celebrating, sunning themselves on lounge chairs and enjoying bowls of fresh-picked blueberries. Most of the photos were taken in 1944 and early 1945 at a chalet-like recreation center near the camp, where staff members relaxed in their off hours.
Kaufman said the Germans’ carefree behavior in the photographs shows a disturbing side of human nature.
“The purpose of this play is to show in a very specific way that the people who did this were not raised to do this,” Kaufman said. “They were people like you and me, and through a series of very specific things, they learned how to do it. I refuse to believe the Nazis are monsters. The moment you label them as monsters, you can separate yourself from them. They were regular human beings, which makes it all the more frightening.”
Kaufman is the founder and artistic director of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, which is co-producing “Here There Are Blueberries.” In years past, La Jolla Playhouse also has produced Kaufman’s Tony Award-nominated play “33 Variations” and Tectonic ‘s “Laramie Project: 10 Years Later,” which Kaufman co-wrote. Kaufman also directed the playhouse’s pre-Broadway workshop of Doug Wright’s Tony-winning play “I Am My Own Wife.”
All of those projects also were based on real people and historical events.
The unbound pages of Höcker’s album were donated to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in January 2007 by a dying World War II American counterintelligence officer who chose to remain anonymous. He told museum archivist Rebecca Erbelding that he had discovered the album in a Frankfurt apartment where he’d lived after the war in 1946 and had kept it hidden for 60 years.
In the early 1960s, Höcker was working as a banker in Germany when he was captured and convicted of war crimes. He served seven years in prison and was freed. He died in 2000 at age 89.
Kaufman first read about the photo album in a 2007 New York Times article, and from that moment, he knew he wanted to write a play about it, he said. Kaufman’s parents were orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe who survived the war by hiding in a basement. After the war, they immigrated to Caracas, Venezuela, where Kaufman was born and raised. His “Blueberries” co-writer, Gronich, also is Jewish and a longtime Tectonic collaborator and documentary filmmaker.
As Jewish writers, Kaufman said, he and Gronich can offer a unique perspective on the story.
“An uncle of mine who was from Hungary was in Auschwitz at the same time these photos were taken,” Kaufman said. “I showed him the photographs and he told me: ‘You are surprised because you have led a pampered life. I lived there. I saw those faces, I saw these things you’re showing me pictures of. I’ve seen this side of man.’
“I feel that the play allows us to look into the human condition through very specific glasses.”
To help audience members process the heavy issues in the play, La Jolla Playhouse, Tectonic and the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Professional Study of Ethics are hosting a series of free post-show audience talk-back sessions during the run of “Here There Are Blueberries.”
The topics are: “Doctors at Auschwitz: Joseph Mengele and the Role of Medicine in Nazi Germany,” Aug. 2; “The Next Generation: How Do We Deal With the Sins of Our Fathers, Both Literally and Metaphorically?” Aug. 3; “Ethics in Nazi Germany: Himmler’s Posen Speech,” Aug. 16; “There Were Blueberries: The Transformation of Norms and Complicity as the New Normal,” Aug. 17; and “Nazi Crimes and the Complicity of Business Leaders and Professionals,” Aug. 18. For details, visit lajollaplayhouse.org/show/here-there-are-blueberries.
Here are some excerpts of a recent interview with Kaufman about the play:
Q: You did a workshop performance of this play, then titled “The Album,” in Miami in 2018. How has the play changed since then?
A: It has become bigger. Since then I went to Germany with my co-writer, Amanda, and we were able to interview some of the children of the people who are in the photographs. All the materials we gathered from that have made it into the play.
Q: Are any of the characters fictional or composites?
A: Everybody in the play is the real person. It’s a story of the people who received the album, the detective work they did to understand what the photos told us and how do we extract all we can from it. And it’s about one of the children in one of the photographs.
Q: How do the photos themselves inform the play?
A: The photos depict a side of the concentration camp we hadn’t seen before. A lot of the work in the Holocaust community has been focused on the victims. There’s a shift in the community to focus also on the perpetrators. The thing that’s most shocking about the album to me is there’s not a single prisoner in any of the shots.
Q: It must have been depressing to research and write this play. Did it affect you emotionally?
A: Many times there were moments of great reckoning in the work. But at the same time, being a playwright, my goal is to always find a way to try and bring about “tikkun olam” [the Jewish concept of healing the world]. I believe that theater has a realm that is more powerful than politics or religion. It addresses people’s brains, hearts and spiritual life. The purpose of writing plays serves as a great antidote to the subject matter of the play.
‘Here There Are Blueberries’
When: Previews Tuesday, July 26, through Saturday, July 30. Regular performances open Sunday, July 31, and run through Sunday, Aug. 21. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Tickets: $25 to $62
Information: lajollaplayhouse.org, (858) 550-1010 ◆
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