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Interview: Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich on the Evolution of Here There Are Blueberries

The play examines the provenance of a photo album from Auschwitz.

Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich on Here There Are Blueberries
Photo: Matthew Murphy

A photograph in the New York Times, showing a group of people relaxing at a vacation resort, caught the eye of playwright and director Moisés Kaufman in 2007. The seemingly innocuous image was shocking due to when and where it was taken. The picture, dated 1944, depicted a group of Nazi families on holiday at the Solahütte resort, which was situated within the boundaries of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The snapshot was part of a memory book belonging to Karl Hcker, an SS officer who served at the time as administrative assistant to the head of the notorious death camp. The historical artifact was discovered by a U.S. officer in Germany after the war who sent it, more than six decades later, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Kaufman is the founder of the Tectonic Theater Project, an innovative theater company whose experimental theater documentaries shed light on pivotal moments in history, reflecting both the time when the events occurred and our contemporary responses. Tectonic is best known for Gross Indecency, based on transcripts from the 1895 Oscar Wilde trials and The Laramie Project, about the 1998 murder of gay university student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. The company’s latest production, Here There Are Blueberries, inspired by the Nazi officer’s personal photo album, is currently running at New York Theater Workshop following acclaimed runs in San Diego and Washington, D.C.

Kaufman co-wrote the play with Amanda Gronich, a charter member of the Tectonic Theater Project who was part of the team that travelled to Wyoming to co-create The Laramie Project. The two writers spoke with me recently about making Here There Are Blueberries.

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Tell me about the genesis of the project.

Moisés Kaufman: I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor and I always thought that I wanted to write a play about the Holocaust, but, you know, it’s the single historical event that’s been most written about in the history of literature. So, as a playwright, I didn’t know what else I wanted to say about it. But when I saw the photos of these people frolicking in the woods, eating blueberries and playing an accordion, I kept thinking, “What’s happening outside this frame?” Outside the frame, they’re killing 1.1 million people [at Auschwitz].

So I contacted the archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who had received the album and asked if I could interview her. Coincidentally, she had just seen a production of The Laramie Project, so she knew of our work. She walked me through the process that she went through trying to figure out who everyone was, what they were doing, and what was happening in the camp at the time the photos were taken. And as she was telling me that, I thought, “I know how to tell this story.” This is a detective story. I reached out to Amanda, who’s been a company member of the Tectonic Theater Project for many years, and we started working.

Amanda Gronich: What was remarkable for me, aside from my Tectonic history, for 10 years I was a writer in nonfiction television. And unlike all of my colleagues, I’d never worked on anything about the Holocaust or World War II. When Moisés showed me the pictures, I said, “Well, it’s impossible to make a play out of this.” But then I thought, if we can figure out a way, what an extraordinary journey for the audience to go on. It begins in a box, this collection of photographs, and as the play progresses the album sort of starts to take over the stage. So, theatrically, we’re inviting the audience to step inside the album. The actors are interacting with the photos, like scene partners. [It’s like] the photos themselves become characters in the play. It’s such a dynamic and exciting way to experience this material [and] unique to theater.

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How does this new play fit into the mission of your company?

MK: All of the work that the Tectonic does occurs at the intersection of the personal and the political. And I think that this certainly falls into that category. You know, the key thing about Tectonic is that we’re interested in how the theater speaks; we’re interested in new theatrical forms. Tectonic means the art and science of structure, architecture, architectonic. We started the company because we were really bored with realism and naturalism and we wanted to [explore] other theatrical vocabularies. How do we use theatricality to differentiate what happens on the stage versus what happens on a TV screen or a movie screen? And now here’s this idea of creating a play, half of which is happening in the photographs.

Did you use the same interviewing and collaborative techniques that you’ve used in your previous projects?

MK: Amanda and I both interviewed the people in the play. But more importantly, we got into a room with actors and we used our devising technique, “moment work,” to create the play.

AG: The other thing that was very special for us with this production is that we were able to bring designers into the room at a very strategic point in the development. Part of Tectonics’ vision is that designers are a part of the devising process from as early as you can manage it.

How did the technical process evolve as you created the production?

MK: I think we wanted to really articulate the relationship between the archivists and the work they do. So the actors who play the archivists who are trying to delve into this historical artifact would handle the projectors and images that we would bring into the rehearsal room. They would transform the images and articulate them; they would add sound and, you know, zoom in. It became a very organic and visceral way of working with images. But it had to be theatrical.

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In the play we see the archivists wrestle with the ethical issue of whether the museum should actually be publicizing the photos in the album. Can you talk a little about that?

AG: What’s so remarkable about this story is [that the] album arrives at the desk of, at the time, the youngest archivist on the team at the museum. And inside are what I like to call the selfies of an SS officer. The album portrays the perpetrators on their days off. There’s not a single prisoner in any of the photos. So [the museum’s] moral dilemma is that they’re a memorial museum and their charter is to tell the story of the victims. And yet, you cannot exclude the perpetrators. There’s a line in the play: “Six million people did not murder themselves.” So how do you tell the story of the perpetrators? What’s so striking to me is the telling of history is in no small part determined by what history leaves behind. And so I think this artifact offered the museum an opportunity to tell the perpetrator story in a very unique way.

Elizabeth Stahlmann, Nemuna Ceesay, and Scott Barrow in Here There Are Blueberries at New York Theatre Workshop
Elizabeth Stahlmann, Nemuna Ceesay, and Scott Barrow in Here There Are Blueberries at New York Theatre Workshop. Matthew Murphy

Would you say that’s a quandary you faced as well when putting on this play?

AG: Oh absolutely. You know, allowing oneself as a writer—and I’ll speak for myself—to step into the shoes of the perpetrators, to really allow yourself to explore their story from their point of view…how do they tell the story of the Holocaust? I constantly feel sitting on my shoulders the survivors, their descendants, all of the victims—the 1.1 million people who died in that camp alone. And yet, you know, every survivor that we’ve shared this material with, without exception, has said, “You must tell the story. We who lived through it, we’re not surprised to see this side of the men and women. But for those who have led a pampered life and have never experienced what it was like to go through Auschwitz, tell this story, show the pictures.”

It’s most upsetting to see the young women in the photos—essentially secretaries—who seem oblivious to the horrific death industry of which they are part. Do you think this is because they were indoctrinated as youth to follow the Nazi party, or were they able to compartmentalize their work from their daily lives?

MK: I think that’s very much at the heart of the play. How can you eat blueberries next to a concentration camp? How can you have a perfectly natural normal life when your daily job includes the murder of 1.1 million people? And the way that we think about it is this question: What’s the difference between culpability, complicity, and complacency? Those girls, they were sending telexes telling Berlin what was going on. They were part of the industrial complex, but they didn’t kill anybody. So they were complicit, but they weren’t culpable.

There’s that line in the play that somebody called the archivist and said, “I know I couldn’t be the head of the camp, I know I couldn’t be Dr. Mengele, but could I have been one of these women?” We interviewed an ethicist and he said that the thing about ethics is that, unless you have a strong ethical system before it gets tested, you’re gonna end up constructing an ethical system that justifies your behavior. I think that’s really powerful.

[Those women] probably compartmentalized. I think that might be one of the answers. Another answer is that they were taught that it was the right thing to do so they didn’t need to compartmentalize. Other people did it because it was a good job at that moment when there were no jobs in Germany. There are as many answers as there are people involved in the event.

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AG: It’s important for a moral code to be in place if you hope to live through that morality when crisis strikes. The Germans went to great lengths to make all of this legal, to codify it and to make the engine of the “Final Solution” exist within a legal framework. When I was doing research, I uncovered this incredible vibrant PR program to get [the young women] to sign up. It was packaged as this wonderful adventure: “Come, have an adventure in the East; come serve the cause. You’ll meet a husband, you’ll spend time with your friends from the Hitler youth.”

The “normal lives” led by the perpetrators at the camps has become a part of current conversations about the Holocaust. For example, The Zone of Interest.

MK: There’s been a shift in scholarship. For the longest time, the scholars were focused mainly on the victims and their stories. Now I think there’s more interest in the perpetrator story.

AG: One of the other things the play explores is the story of a businessman in Germany who, when the pictures were broadcast online, he clicks on the link to one and sees his grandfather. He knew his grandfather had been a Nazi doctor, but here he is walking on the grounds of Auschwitz. So he embarks on his own detective story. He begins working with the museum, trying to contact other descendants whose relatives are in the photos. What I’m so fascinated by is they don’t have the luxury of distance, these people. They’re descendants of the Nazis who committed the Holocaust—people who are my age today, the third and fourth generation. Now they’re wrestling with their responsibilities to the telling of this history and their own family’s story. They’re looking at their own artifacts, their own photographs, the things that they grew up with around the house that tell the story of the Holocaust in a very different way.

Will you take the play to Europe?

MK: Yes. We’re in conversations with the German Consulate in America because they came to see it in Washington and responded very positively.

AG: I’ll be so curious to see this experience with a German audience.

Here There Are Blueberries is now running at New York Theatre Workshop.

Gerard Raymond

Gerard Raymond is a travel and arts writer based in New York City. His writing has appeared in Broadway Direct, TDF Stages, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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