Playing with Dialogue
“The Strawberry Girl” sparks conversation about Holocaust denial
A fully packed room in Mandel 303 on Thursday evening saw a dramatic one-woman performance and a featured talk back with actress Nancy E. Carroll and Prof.Shulamit Reinharz (SOC). Carroll read a translated adaptation of Savyon Liebrecht’s play, “The Strawberry Girl.”
The performance was adapted for the stage by Liebrecht from her short story by the same name. The play is set in Poland during World War II and is told through the narrative of a Nazi officer’s wife. The wife, who remains nameless, lives next to a concentration camp, which she calls, and believes is, a “factory.” She has a young son named Ludwig. When a young girl with frostbitten feet and hands referred to as “the strawberry girl” begins to bring her fresh strawberries as big as a man’s fist, the protagonist fails to realize that she is the victim of a concentration camp.
The play highlights the ignorance of the protagonist when she encounters the strawberry girl several times and can’t figure out why she appears emaciated, frostbitten and in torn-up clothes. Originally, the woman is disgusted by the presence of the strawberry girl. However, she often thinks and dreams of her, and eventually develops an affection towards her.
Carroll’s reading and interpretation of the play helps the audience learn that the protagonist is genuinely unaware of what her husband does and what the factory, with smoke rising, actually is. She even remains oblivious to the reality of the Holocaust when her friend named Wolfgang, also a Nazi officer at the concentration camp, lackadaisically talks about the belongings he takes from Jews.
When it is believed that the Russians will be coming into Poland, the woman is told by her husband to take a train back to Germany with her friend Helena and their two children. It is then that Helena, who has also received strawberries from the strawberry girl, reveals to the protagonist where the strawberries come from and what “the factory” does. “She grew them in a special soil. Do you know what this was, this soil? Burnt soil … What was left after they had burnt the Jews,” Carroll read.
Helena is infuriated at the fact that she fed her daughter the strawberries from the strawberry girl and from the burnt soil of dead bodies, but the protagonist repeatedly asks Helena, “Why did they burn the Jews?”
The dramatic reading ended with Helena and the protagonist on the train to return home to Germany and with the protagonist’s question lingering.
The event was presented by Israeli Stage as part of its All Female Playwrights 6th Season and was brought to Brandeis by the Center for German and European Studies to encourage productive Jewish-German dialogue.
Israeli Stage is an organization that began in 2010 and works to share the diversity and vitality of Israeli culture through theater. According to its website, Israeli Stage has produced over 15 plays as staged readings by 10 playwrights. Guy Ben-Aharon, the producing artistic director and founder of Israeli Stage, directed the performance of “The Strawberry Girl” and attended the event on Thursday.
In an email with the Justice, Ben-Aharon credited the dialogue that follows the performance as the reason for producing “The Strawberry Girl.” In addition to dialogue, he hopes that the play will bring a perspective that has yet to be explored.
“We’ve been bringing shows to Brandeis for a few years now. It’s been a very meaningful collaboration which has proved to be one that promotes dialogue cross-generationally, as we saw the other night. I love seeing students connect to faculty connect to the general community over discussion spurred by these plays; I think theatre is one of the only mediums that brings together such a diverse group of people,” he wrote.
Ben-Aharon worked with Prof. Sabine von Mering (GECS) the director of the Center for German and European Studies and a professor of German, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, to bring the event to campus. Ben-Aharon and Mering have been friends for three years now and originally met when she hosted another play that he directed called “Voltaire and Frederick: A Life in Letters.”
“When I selected “The Strawberry Girl” for Israeli Stage’s Season 6 Season Premiere, I immediately thought of my good friend, Professor Sabine von Mering. I knew her audience and Center (GRALL) would be the perfect partner for this type of event. Sabine and I were both very happy that Shula Reinharz of HBI could join the effort as well, and bring her field of expertise to the discussion,” Ben-Aharon wrote.
Mering, a native to Germany, has been teaching at Brandeis since 1998. As the director of the Center for German and European Studies, she helps to promote productive dialogue about important issues in German and European societies. Jewish-German dialogue has been a focus of the center and it has organized events like “The Strawberry Girl” in order to further explore the long history of German-Jewish interaction.
Mering described the performance as part of “an ongoing collaboration” with Israeli Stage. She explained that at first when Ben-Aharon sent her the play to read, she did not like it because she thought it was too gory and “too obvious.” Ben-Aharon told Mering to see the piece performed at Goethe-Institut in Boston.
“I went and saw it there ... it sparked really interesting conversation there, and I really liked the conversation. It was really then that I realized that my reaction to the play had been intended by the author. She’s extremely smart, Savyon Liberecht, and she does these things very carefully, you know she does a lot of research for her work, and I know her personally, so I talked to her and I really like what she does, so I wanted to like it. And when I saw it performed and I saw Nancy Carroll voicing the characters and … really giving sort of life to these voices, it really made me understand much better. That this was all symbolic and that it really wasn’t about the gore as much as about the questions that were raised,” Mering said.
The discussion that followed the reading of “The Strawberry Girl” was moderated by Carroll and Reinharz. A significant amount of the conversation focused on the naivety of the protagonist with several members of the audience asking,how she could have been so ignorant of what was going on.
In an interview with the Justice, Mering related the protagonist’s unawareness of the Holocaust to the human phenomenon of not wanting to confront something that’s right in our face and difficult to deal with.
“I do believe that the Holocaust is something that people need to confront again and again, with each generation. As Shula [Shulamit Reinharz] said yesterday, it is outrageous and completely incomprehensive what happened there — but we have to keep trying to make sense of it, and every generation has to do that anew. And so I think that’s part of what I feel is my responsibility — to really engage the campus in doing that, having that conversation and bring up the new questions, like we did at the end [of the event] — ‘Where do we look away when something happens, because we just don’t want to deal with it?’ We can’t change anything that happened in the Holocaust; that’s in the past, but there’s a lot we can do today and this play really asks that question,” she said.
The Center for German and European Studies will be co-sponsoring another event about the topic, “Combating European Anti-Semitism: Tomorrow’s Vision panel discussion ” tonight in the International Lounge with the Brandeis-Genesis Institute and the Coalition Against Anti-Semitism in Europe.