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Theater as a Form of Bearing Witness to Buna/Monowitz

In the German-language postwar theater, World War II repeatedly plays an important role, particularly in pieces that are notable in the context of theater history, but the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews and Auschwitz frequently are mentioned only on the fringes. More commonly, it is the murder of prisoners of war that is treated as an ethical problem, as in Hansjörg Schmitthenner’s Ein jeder von uns [Every One of Us] (premiere: Deutsches Theater, Berlin, 1947, directed by Wolfgang Langhoff). Elsewhere, the extermination of the Jews vanishes behind postwar issues of assumption or rejection of guilt, in combination with resentiment and anger at the reparations policy and prosecution of Nazis, as in Martin Walser’s Der schwarze Schwan [The Black Swan] (premiere: Staatstheater Stuttgart, 1974, directed by Peter Palitzsch). Alternatively, it continues to have an effect as an echo in the present, as in Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (premiere: Burgtheater, Vienna, 1988, directed by Claus Peymann). The persecution and extermination of the Jews was a topic only in a few, often controversial, works for the theater, such as Rolf Hochhuth’s Der Stellvertreter [The Deputy] (premiere: Freie Volksbühne, Berlin, 1963, directed by Erwin Piscator) and Heinar Kipphardt’s Joel Brand (premiere: Kammerspiele München, Munich, 1965, directed by August Everding), or in productions of Israeli plays about the Shoah, such as Peter Zadek’s staging of Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto (גטו) for the Freie Volksbühne in Berlin in 1984.


Only two German-language works for the stage bear upon the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp or I.G. Farben’s Auschwitz plant: Peter Weiss’s Die Ermittlung. Oratorium in 11 Gesängen [The Investigation. Oratorio in 11 Cantos] (simultaneous premiere in October 1965) and Katharina Schlender’s 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). Interestingly, it is precisely these two texts for theater that grant the figure of the survivor a central role as witness to the events in Auschwitz. Thus the theater appears as a place in which an audience becomes witness to the bearing of witness, and hears, in a joint experience, a report about historical events—in this case, about Auschwitz—while the chosen form of the report delivered by the character(s) of one or more witnesses is intended to reinforce the truth content of the performance and thus the historical significance of what is performed.


“Theatre about historical events generally focuses on a character with knowledge (sometimes even too much knowledge), where the victimized survivor is given the position of the witness. This witness is able to tell the spectators something about the experiences previously hidden behind the ‘veils’ of his or her past and now, through the performance, revealed to the spectators. The cathartic processes activated by the theatre performing history are more like a ‘ritual’ of resurrection, a revival of past suffering, where the victim is given the power to speak about the past again.”[1]


In very different ways, these two texts for theater attempt to give to the stories of the victims of Auschwitz, who at the time of their persecution were mute—in the sense that their utterances went unheard, had no effect—a public space in which something in the public perception of history is meant to be altered by virtue of the very fact that they are given a hearing. Both pieces make use of the accounts of one or more witnesses and thus acquire an effect of authentification of what the plays have to tell, even where this does not follow the reports of the survivor(s), but makes a choice from them in terms of distinct interpretations and shapes their presentation. While Die Ermittlung attempts to compress the memories of the survivors, as expressed by the witnesses at the first Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, into a united report, Der Elektriker develops its story from the individual fate of David Salz.

(MN; transl. KL)


Rokem, Freddie: Performing History. Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 2000.

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

Weiss, Peter: Die Ermittlung. Oratorium in 11 Gesängen [1965]. Including a DVD of the television play (NDR, 1966, directed by Peter Schulze-Rohr). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2008.
Weiss, Peter: The Investigation. New York: Macmillan, 1996.

[1] Freddie Rokem: Performing History. Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 2000), p. 205.