"Here There are Blueberries" cast members tell stories of the culpable at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during the Holocaust. Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse.
We are reminded of a terrible truth in “Here There are Blueberries,” a co-production of La Jolla Playhouse and Tectonic Theater Project written by Moises Kaufman and Amanda Gronich: A genocide doesn’t just happen. It takes people to make it happen.
At the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust over a million men, women and children were murdered. Meanwhile, SS personnel methodically and without conscience went about their “business” of operating the camp and hoping to rise in the Nazi ranks. They retreated to a nearby resort, Solahutte, to eat, drink and be merry.
They also posed for photographs.
“Here There are Blueberries” delves into a donation in 2007 by a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives of a photo album he said he found in an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt. Researchers with the USHMM uncovered that it had been the personal album of Karl Hoecker, aide to the Auschwitz commandant Richard Baer.
For 90 minutes, a cast of eight portraying both museum archivists and descendants of the identified Auschwitz killers tells the story through actual photographs of life at the camp on the other side of the gas chamber and crematorium. Rather than humanizing these individuals it attaches names to faces, establishing verified culpability and revealing without question that they knew what was going on in all its evil.
The culpable is not restricted to SS officers, either. The female communications specialists, or Helferinnen, who worked at the camp did not do so in isolation or ignorance. They were in their minds dutifully serving the Reich.
The donated photos show that some of these women were treated to relaxing getaways at Solahutte. The snapshot of Hoecker himself gifting a group with blueberries gives this intense theatrical presentation its title.
Much of “Here There are Blueberries” consists of cast members, including Rosina Reynolds, Jeanne Sakata and Elizabeth Stahlmann as Holocaust historian Rebecca Erbelding, playing museum researchers who explain the photographs (seen in wall-sized black-and-white projections by David Bengali) and the revelations made as to who was who, and who did what.
More compelling still are the dramatizations of interviews done with two of the grandchildren of SS personnel – one of them performed by Charles Browning and another by Charlie Thurston, with Grant James Varjas portraying a descendant who came forward and offered to gather in-person the stories of those like himself -- those processing the complex emotions of inheriting a murderer’s legacy.
The last part of “Here There are Blueberries” concerns another photograph album, this one discovered by an Auschwitz survivor named Lili Jacob. It depicts the thousands and thousands of prisoners at the camp, including herself, many of whom ultimately were sent to their deaths.
If ever there was a theatrical production where the audience sits in complete silence, this is it.
“Here There are Blueberries” is important to see and to remember.
“Here There are Blueberries” runs through Aug. 21 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.