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Here There Are Blueberries Theater Review. The Holocaust through a different lens – New York Theater

“Here There Are Blueberries” turns the real-life discovery of an ordinary-looking photo album into a riveting detective story, with the characters gathering clues to unravel a series of mysteries, including one of the greatest unsolvable mysteries in history: the Holocaust. It’s the latest extraordinary documentary theater from Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project, running at New York Theater Workshop through June 16.

Elizabeth Stahlmann portrays archivist and historian Rebecca Erbelding of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, who receives the album from somebody who says he found it six decades earlier in a trash can in an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt, Germany in 1946. The 116 snapshots in the album at first seem innocent; the title of the play is a translation of the German caption of one of photos, picturing some dozen young, smiling women sitting on a fence, as a man goes down the line offering them the fruit, with another man behind him apparently playing an accordion . But the archivist realizes these are photographs of the officers and office workers at the Auschwitz concentration camp, capturing their leisure time activities in-between their job of murdering at least a million people.

Some of the 116 snapshots from the Hoecker album (which are all available online) are placed in the theater lobby.

The album provokes some sharp questions, such as: How significant are these photographs? Who is the person who discovered them? Who took them? But the first question that the archivist and her staff at the museum must answer is: Should a Holocaust museum have anything to do with this album, which features only the perpetrators; is that a violation of the museum’s mission?

“You can’t understand the Holocaust without looking at the perpetrators,” Kathleen Chalfant as Judy Cohen, curator of the museum’s photography collection, met with her colleagues. “Six million people didn’t murder themselves. The Holocaust didn’t happen in the passive voice.” Erbelding winds up agreeing. Their job is to make available such historical artifacts to those scholars and others “who translate experience into knowledge.”

Elizabeth Stahlmann as Rebecca Erbelding
Kathleen Chalfant as curator Judy Cohen

The museum staff sets out to answer the questions. The photographs are significant because there is so little photographic evidence of the camp. They identify the person who discovered and kept the album as a retired American counterintelligence officer. The album’s photographer turns out to be Obersturmführer Karl Höcker (aka Hoecker), an aide to Auschwitz’s commander, who took them over a six-month period between June 1944 and January 1945, and who also was responsible for keeping the camp’s official daily diary, surreally dedicated to chronicling their sports team competitions and other leisure activities.

Cast members as museum staff researching the Nazi album

As methodically and as dispassionately as possible, the museum staff illuminates other individuals in the photographs. Thanks to the design team, which finds inventive ways to incorporate the photographs into the set, the people are often Illuminated literally: An individual is highlighted in a group photograph while one of the cast members explains who he or she was. Some of the eight cast members also portray the people from the photographs, most notably Scott Barrow as Höcker. Once the discovery of the album gets international press coverage, a German named Tillman Taube (portrayed by Jonathan Raviv) gives Erbelding a call: He can identify his grandfather in the photographs.

But there were no victims in the photographs, Erbelding replies.

He wasn’t a victim, Taube says; he was a doctor in the camp.

Taube eventually takes up as a personal mission to contact and convince other relatives, as it turns out, to little avail. The scenes with these others, in neglect or in denial, are among the most difficult – until the end, when the show moves from this album, to a different set of photographs. These are among the very few taken of the Jews at the camp, and includes testimony by one of the survivors who is pictured in one of them, alongside her family members who did not survive. It is as if Moisés Kaufman, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, and his co-writer Amanda Gronich, shared some of the initial concerns of the Holocaust museum staff: A play about the Holocaust, even one that focuses on its perpetrators, cannot completely exclude its victims.

Several recent events may change the way theater audiences react to “Here There Are Blueberries” from the time that the Tectonic Theater company began producing this work of theater in regional theaters nearly two years ago. It was just announced as a finalist for the 2024 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, which should heighten interest. But it also offers a similar angle on the Holocaust as “Zone of Interest,” a film by Jonathan Glazer about the domestic life of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss, which – in contrast to “Blueberries” – I considered an airless exercise in arthouse filmmaking. But most viewers apparently disagreed; in any case, it won Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film and for Sound, and audience familiarity with it may make “Here There Are Butterflies” approach seem less innovative.

Its new production also happens to be running in the midst of a convulsive moment for the Jewish people. This seems an incontrovertible reality whichever primary lens through which you choose to view current events, which include the October 7 Hamas massacre of Israelis, the subsequent invasion by Israel of Gaza, the pro-Palestinian protests on campuses throughout American and the clampdown of those protests , and the inexorable rise in anti-Semitic acts: According to recent NYPD data, anti-Jewish hate crimes have jumped by 45 percent this year in New York, where on a recent Saturday in May, some 40 rabbis and synagogue staff received the same chilling bomb threats via email.

“Here There Are Blueberries” arguably provides a literal lens to look anew at a different moment in history, a history that doesn’t feel solely in the past. The Pulitzer Prizes were announced on the same day as Yom Hashoah, the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Here There Are Blueberries
New York Theater Workshop through June 16
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $75 – $125. “Cheaptix” Rush: $25 (for those under 25, over 65, an artist, or a resident of the East Village and Lower East Side)
Written by Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich
Conceived & Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Devised with Scott Barrow, Amy Marie Seidel, Frances Uku, Grant James Varjas, and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project
Scenic design by Derek McLane, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by David Lander, sound design by Bobby McElver, projection design by David Bengali, intimacy coordinator and sensitivity specialist Ann James
Cast: Scott Barrow as Karl Hocker and others, Nemuna Ceesay as Charlotte Schunzel and others, Kathleen Chalfant as Judy Cohen and others, Jonathan Raviv as Tilman Taube and others, Erika Rose as Melita Maschmann and others, Elizabeth Stahlmann as Rebecca Erbalding and others, Charlie Thurston as Rainer Hoss and others, Grant James Varjas as Peter Wirths and others.