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La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ to examine the secret lives of Holocaust perpetrators

Cast members onstage during a play rehearsal, with a World War II-era photo projected behind them.
The company of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of “Here There Are Blueberries” in rehearsal.
(Matt Joslyn)

World premiere play by Moises Kaufman and Amanda Gronich is a co-production with Tectonic Theater Project

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 of 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, Roma, homosexuals 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 at La Jolla Playhouse, will offer a rare snapshot of these 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.

Co-written by playwrights Moises Kaufman and Amanda Gronich, “Here There Are Blueberries” 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.

Playwrights Moises Kaufman, left, and Amanda Gronich
Playwrights Moises Kaufman, left, and Amanda Gronich are the co-writers of “Here There Are Blueberries” at La Jolla Playhouse.
(Jenny Anderson)

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 relaxed together in their off-hours.

Kaufman said the Germans’ carefree behavior in the photographs show 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, the Playhouse has also produced Kaufman’s Tony-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.”

Like “Here There Are Blueberries,” all of those past projects 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’d discovered the album in a Frankfurt apartment where he’d lived after the war in1946 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 was freed. He died in 2000 at age 89.

The cover page of a photo album owned by Auschwitz camp officer Karl-Friedrich Höcker
The cover page of a photo album owned by Auschwitz camp officer Karl-Friedrich Höcker that was donated to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007.

Kaufman first read about the photo album in a 2007 New York Times article and said that from the moment he read the story, he knew he wanted to write a play about it. 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 Moises was born and raised. His “Blueberries” co-writer, Gronich, is also Jewish and a longtime Tectonic collaborator and documentary filmmaker.

Kaufman said that as Jewish writers, 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.”

The cast of their play "Here There Are Blueberries" at La Jolla Playhouse.
Playwrights Moises Kaufman and Amanda Gronich, top left, with the cast of their play “Here There Are Blueberries” at La Jolla Playhouse.
(La Jolla Playhouse)

In order to help audience members process the heavy issues in the play, the Playhouse, Tectonic and the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Professional Study of Ethics (FASPE) 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: How did these photos from the album speak to you when you first saw them in 2007 and, now, today as the play makes its world premiere?

A: Those photos pose questions about culpability and also complicity. Those issues are important in American culture right now. The play is very timely. This is my most American play. It speaks about how do we coexist when tremendous injustices are being committed. And how do we leave our daily lives when everything about our country is in perilous danger?

Auschwitz camp officer Karl-Friedrich Höcker, center, poses with women camp workers eating blueberries
Auschwitz camp officer Karl-Friedrich Höcker, center, poses with women camp workers enjoying bowls of blueberries during their off-hours during World War II.
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

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 of the materials we gathered from that have made it into the play.

Q: Are any of the characters in the play 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 July 30. Opens July 31 and runs through 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, UC San Diego, La Jolla

Tickets: $25 to $62

Phone: (858) 550-1010

Online: lajollaplayhouse.org


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