The Moments Between Murders

Issue Eight: Here There Are Blueberries
Vivien Schütz
May 25, 2024
Vivien Schütz

Vivien Schütz is an independent audio producer from Germany living in Brooklyn, NYC. She produces radio documentaries, and audio dramas for German public radio and podcasts about human connections, gender and questions of identity. Her stories have been featured on Transom, a U.S. showcase for New Public Radio, and at various audio festivals like the Swiss sonOhr Festival, Berlin Hörspielfestival and the Prix Phonurgia Nova. Her latest longform documentary is about female nocturnal flâneuses claiming space at night. She is a member of Audio Spice, a volunteer-run audio event collective for the NYC audio community.

Spending 90 minutes at Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich’s
 Here There Are Blueberries watching images of Nazis enjoying daily life at Auschwitz made my gut wrench.  Female Nazi helpers ate blueberries, Nazi officers relaxed in lounge chairs or decorated a Christmas tree—all this set against the horrific reality of over a million people being killed just outside the frame.

As a German, this forced me to confront (yet again) difficult questions about my ancestors, questions I have difficulties answering: How much did they know? How much did they choose to ignore? What lessons should I draw from this for my own life? The play's question, "Who are we in the story?" echoed throughout (and felt almost personal).

Some context: I was born in 1990, my grandparents were born at the end of World War II or after. My knowledge about my great-grandparents' role during the Nazi regime is sparse, pieced together from a few vague family stories. One great-grandfather, drafted as a soldier, was apparently captured by the Americans and later returned to Germany, where he died soon after due to a brain clot unrelated to his time as a soldier. Another great-grandfather was a member of the Nazi party NSDAP with an unknown role in "supply." After the war, he was barred from regular employment in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) but was never sentenced. As for my great-grandmothers, their stories remain unclear, though it’s likely they were also not part of the resistance. It's known that most families included perpetrators, followers, or those who looked the other way.

Kathleen Chalfant, Nemuna Ceesay, Jonathan Raviv, and Elizabeth Stahlmann in HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy.

You might think I learned about this as a teenager in history class, perhaps when we were asked to draw family trees, but that never happened. In school, we didn't even visit a concentration camp on a field trip. Although World War II was extensively covered, it always felt abstract and impersonal. It wasn't until I became an adult that I began asking my parents about our family's past, only to discover that they had asked themselves too late and knew very little.

New York Theatre Workshop and Tectonic Theater Project’s current production of Here There Are Blueberries also interrogates history and how we retell it: Should photos of perpetrators be displayed in museums? What insights can these photos offer about their mindset? How could they relax and enjoy themselves? The museum’s decision to exhibit the album, as suggested by a Holocaust survivor, allows us to see it for ourselves, and come to our own conclusion on how seemingly ordinary people engage in evil. In this real-world research-meets-investigation story, we witness the examination of many of the 116 photos from the Auschwitz album, projected on various screens, looming behind and above the actors, and enhanced by an evocative sound design: To me, especially the reverb on the recurring snapshot sound that accompanied the photos intensified the unsettling notion of the play.

One photo, in particular, stands out—it is the heart of the show and lends its title. It depicts young women in light-colored blouses and green skirts, enjoying blueberries on a wooden railing, smiling with trees in the background. These were the "Helferinnen," female telegraph operators who managed communication. ‘How much could they possibly know? Could I have been a Helferin?’, the lead archivist asks. Later, a former Helferin's testimony reveals that they indeed transmitted telegrams about the number of people gassed. None were sentenced for war crimes.

Scott Barrow in HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy.

This shift from potential innocence to horror hits hard, especially after we, the audience, were encouraged to put ourselves in their shoes and consider the possibility of them not knowing anything. We also learn that many visitors to the Holocaust exhibition expressed strong reactions to the idea of women being perpetrators, which says a lot about our society. Of course, women are capable of evil as well. Still, I can't help but wonder: How could these smiling women possibly feel comfortable being photographed, knowing their actions? How could they eat blueberries next to a concentration camp? How did they see themselves as they did it? How different are they from us? They likely believed that these photos would never be seen or, worse, found no fault in their actions. When we hear the women giggling girlishly in the face of genocide, it intensifies the dissonance. This uncomfortable juxtaposition is an intriguing element that would have been nice to see further investigated.

I wonder if the play could have been even more powerful if Tectonic Theater Project had chosen to make the stark contrast between the carefree lives depicted in the photos and the unimaginable suffering occurring simultaneously more visible by bringing the victims more into the frame? The only time the play shifts to the victim's perspective is near the end. It is the most moving moment for me when we hear from a Holocaust survivor who discovered another album, an album that showed people like her arriving at Auschwitz. We hear about her being torn from her family, all of whom were eventually murdered. The monologue is delivered in a minimal setting with a captivating performance from actress Elizabeth Stahlmann. This allows us to fully engage with one personal story without any distractions. We see snapshots of people unaware of the impending horror that awaited them. But maybe this monologue becomes especially powerful after seeing all these photos that reveal just how ordinary and happy the perpetrators' lives appeared to be.

While my home country is known for its Stolpersteine and memorials, there seems to be a private void in our collective consciousness. Here There Are Blueberries reminded me of that gap. After the show, I called my parents, trying to question why we never discussed our family's past more deeply, why we didn't use available research tools. Were they afraid of the answers, or did they simply choose not to know? My dad said they just didn’t talk about it much in his family. He knew his grandfather returned after being captured by the Americans and assumed his innocence due to the lack of sentencing. He only learned about his other grandfather's NSDAP past a few years ago.

The Cast of HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES at New York Theater Workshop. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy.

In the play’s epilogue, an archivist claims that the album “changes our understanding of that time ... and of ourselves.” While I'm not entirely sure about that, the play reminded me of the importance of seeking the truth before the last fragments of information and memory are lost.

Here There Are Blueberries is currently running at New York Theatre Workshop until June 30.

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