Facing the Shame



IJC member Diana Kanter was recently invited to her mother’s home town of Göttingen in Germany to attend a play about the Nazi years there, featuring her family.  Here is what happened.  

I am used to being contacted every so often by complete strangers telling me something about my German family that I do not know. So when Sara Oertel wrote to me late last year I wasn’t surprised. But what she had to say was amazing. 



As Dramaturg of the Deutsches Theater Göttingen she explained that the theatre had recently commissioned a German playwright to research and write a documentary play about the “Aryanization” of Göttingen in the early and mid-1930s, after the Nazis gained power. “This new play” she said, “is relevant to the past of your family and others, as it investigates the forced sale of property and belongings of Jewish families in Göttingen. We would like to invite you to the premiere or any other showing at your convenience.”

For a wild moment I thought someone would be playing my grandfather on stage. How could I watch that? But no, the story is told by archivists who recount the story in the third person.  The playwright
based her play on documents from Göttingen city archives and Hannover county archive, as well as interviews with witnesses recorded during the 1970s and 80s. It focuses primarily on the Hahns (Max and Trude being my grandparents) and the Löwensteins. 

How could I not go? How could I not support an effort to tell this truth in the city where my family lost everything?  The city of 130,000 inhabitants has a thriving theatre with a staff of 150 – from coat check to artistic director.  They have the financial freedom to commission plays like this one. In fact, the night we go, a group of 10 year-old school children are producing and acting in a play about what it was like to be a 10 year-old child in Göttingen in the 1930s. Impressive.

The play is called “The Profiteers – Aryanization in Göttingen” (Die Nutzniesser – ‘Arisierung’ in Göttingen). Five actors dressed in non-descript clothes speak at break neck speed in clipped German on a bare set with a wall of loud speakers behind them and broken speakers all around them.  As the play progresses, the wall of loudspeakers moves slowly towards the audience and the actors have nowhere to stand. They end up – as do all the loose speakers on the stage – in the orchestra pit. Everything in the end is objectified.  No interaction between the actors. No interval.

The director tells me when we meet that during rehearsals he hung a poster on the wall saying: ‘The Banality of Evil.’ He took the young actors to visit every local address mentioned in the play; they watched videos of Gottingen survivors; they toured Merkelstrasse where my grandparents lived and Mum was born. They visit addresses of those who profited from obtaining Jewish property and possessions at knocked down prices.  No holds barred.  Göttingen laid bare.   

         Diana on the set with (L to R) local historian, theatre’s artistic director and museum director

I quickly realize that attending this performance has a deep significance for everyone involved.   I hear afterwards that the actors spoke faster than usual. “That is because they were nervous knowing a member of the Hahn family was in the audience’ says director Marcus Lobbes  - who came from Dusseldorf tonight just to meet me. An important researcher comes from Berlin just to meet me too. After the stunned silence and then the applause, I am asked to stand as the guest of honour.  

At the Q & A afterwards, people ask how I feel about the play and about being in Göttingen – some with tears in their eyes. I hope I wasn’t glib when I said:  ‘While I congratulate the city for its energy, focus and dedication to staging this event, the truth is that I know this story. This isn’t about me. It’s about you and your city.’ 

What I deeply hope is that this is more than a flash in the pan. An interview with me is reported in the local paper the next morning entitled “A Parable for every Town “– bingo – exactly what I had hoped. My sincerest hope is that these events will not be single and unconnected but have some lasting effect.

Two days later, I receive an email from Sara telling me “we are currently negotiating to keep the production in our repertoire for next season. I hope it works out.” So do I.