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The Scenic Collage Der Elektriker. Die Geschichte des David Salz, by Katharina Schlender (2006)

On the basis of video interviews conducted by Lea Rosh, Sascha Jakob, and Joachim Lühning with David Salz, a survivor of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, Katharina Schlender wrote the theater work Der Elektriker. Die Geschichte des David Salz [The Electrician. The Story of David Salz] (premiere: Hans Otto Theater, Potsdam, 2006, directed by Uwe Eric Laufenberg). The play, termed a “scenic collage,” is made up of two types of materials: “documentary” film clips and scenes designed by Katharina Schlender around those clips. The characters in the scenes are based on people whom David Salz met in prewar Berlin, in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, and on the death march, as comparison with the oral history interviews given by him makes evident.[1] But their selection and configuration creates very definite focal points—the second half of the piece deals with the final months of the war—and thus interpretations as well, in order to turn the story of David Salz into Der Elektriker.


Several of the total of 24 video sequences, whose positions in the play are indicated in the text as stage directions, link David Salz’s story to present-day German commemoration. At the outset, we see him walking through the field of stelae of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and at the end, he lays a rock on the memorial stone on Große Hamburgerstraße, the place from which David and his mother, Dora Salz, like thousands of other Berlin Jews, were deported to Auschwitz. To keep any misunderstanding about the play’s message from arising, at this place he says only Nie wieder (“Never again”)—and these same words are also the final words of the piece.


In several sequences, always at the “original scenes,” David Salz tells how he and his mother, in the stairwell of their Berlin apartment building, received the telegram reporting that his father had been shot; how his mother failed to come home because she had been arrested; how the 13-year-old David went to the Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße to look for her and was beaten there and himself deported; how he arrived in Auschwitz and claimed to be a 17-year-old electrician so he would be selected for forced labor; how an older inmate told him he mustn’t cry in the camp; how he finally returned to Berlin in 1945 and beat up the man who had betrayed his mother to acquire her apartment. In addition, there are several sound recordings, in which David Salz tells primarily about his escape from the death march in spring 1945 and how he made his way to the Allies. The added film sequences without David Salz seem limited to the stereotypical fund of Auschwitz pictures of railroad tracks and barbed wire in the sunlight. Der Elektriker is strongest in the video sequences, where David Salz tells his own story—precisely, the scene in the stairwell in Berlin where they got the news of his father’s shooting—and simultaneously the picture shows how the scene from the past looks today. Many of his stories are repeatedly interrupted by the interviewer’s queries and are in part set on the ramp and in barracks of Birkenau, where David Salz was not imprisoned: When he was deported to Auschwitz in March 1943, the transports were still stopping at the so-called Old Ramp at the Auschwitz freight station, and today the barracks of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, where David Salz was taken to perform forced labor for I.G. Farben, are no longer standing. The challenge of dealing with this absence of the places of that time or their overbuilding in the present-day Auschwitz train station and village of Monowice, instead of relying on the familiar pictures from Birkenau, was rejected by Rosh, Jakob, and Lühning. Nonetheless, these digital video sequences make it possible to present David Salz himself in the theater room as a first-hand witness to the events.


Even in the video sequences, there is no mention of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp and the forced labor for I.G. Farben, but it is Katharina Schlender’s scenes that more than ever shift the piece away from Auschwitz. Taking center stage in the few scenes in Auschwitz is the rape of a young prisoner by the Lagerältester (camp elder) in the moonlight, and the questioning of the camp commandant by a fellow inmate, the tailor Kowalski, about the fate of Dora Salz, who was gassed immediately after her arrival. The portrayal of the camp has a trivializing effect; this impression is reinforced when the author follows David Salz’s story of the death march with a scene in which two Czech boys build a snowman. Admittedly, the boys may serve as a parallel to the two Gestapo officials who, after David Salz talked about his arrest, play with a stuffed toy crocodile that one of them wants to give his child; however, the intent to suggest a “banality of evil,” an aim that perhaps is the driving force here, leads above all to a banalization of the present theatrical text. The language of the text, which strives to be matter-of-fact, lends added strength to this impression.


As it is, the focus already is on the turmoil of the final months of war, in which not only David Salz, but also German Wehrmacht deserters succeed in escaping from the SS; they all hide in the forest. Anti-Semitism crops up repeatedly as an everyday component of the speech and actions of many Germans in the piece: for example, the women in Berlin who talk about David and Dora Salz at the beginning and at the end, as well as the farmers who try to turn in David Salz to the Gestapo during his escape. A black G.I. named Joe saves David Salz and is transferred to Japan, though he wishes the war would finally end, while a Jewish officer of the Red Army tries to satisfy his personal desires to avenge his murdered family by shooting an 18-year-old German and raping the youth’s pregnant sister. The connection of this scene to the story of David Salz is not clear; rather, it seems to attest to the persistence of postwar anti-Russian sentiments in the German “memory culture.” Correspondingly, the hard-working Nazi composer Lenz, who betrayed Dora Salz to the Gestapo at the beginning, now turns up as a Soviet poet who replaces “soldier” with “comrade” and “German” with “red” in his song. But in the last scene of the piece, David Salz’s revenge catches up with Lenz, and he is beaten up. In reality, Lenz died three months later, as David Salz reports in the following film sequence.


It is precisely this half of the work’s text, set in the final months of war, that thus allows the impression that the point is to show how everyone suffered in those days, without inquiring into the sociopolitical causes of the war and extermination of the Jews and hence into the issue of historical responsibility. If one looks only at the reports of the contemporary witness David Salz in the video sequences, it seems clear what must never happen again; his Nie wieder seems inseparably linked with the murder of his mother in Auschwitz, an event not to be forgotten and not to be forgiven by him. Katharina Schlender’s scenes for the theater, however, give rise to doubts about what it is that must never happen again: Auschwitz, war in general, or people doing terrible things to one another. The scenes depoliticize the thrust of the Nie wieder, remove it from its sociopolitical context, and thus relativize this central message of the survivors.

(MN; transl. KL)


Schlender, Katharina: “Der Elektriker – Die Geschichte des David Salz. Szenische Collage.” Hamburg: Whale Songs Communications, 2006, unpublished manuscript.

[1] Cf. David Salz, oral history interview [Ger.], July 20–21, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.