Here There Are Blueberries
Scott Barrow, Nemuna Ceesay, and Kathleen Chalfant in Here There Are Blueberries, playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company through May 28; credit: DJ Corey Photography.

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An antique compact camera rests on a stand. Projected on the screen behind it is the brand name Leica in cursive and the slogan “THE CAMERA OF MODERN TIMES” in a sans-serif font. What follows over the next 90 minutes is a history with which the German camera manufacturer would likely not wish to be associated, but without their products would be impossible to document.

A slideshow begins. Two actors explain that the development of an affordable portable camera created a new hobby of amateur photography in 1930s Germany. The audience is confronted with images of smiling families giving the sieg heil salute to the camera, of swastika flags flying over recreational activities—images capturing how Nazism permeated every aspect of society well before the start of World War II on September 1, 1939.

Here There Are Blueberries is the latest work of documentary theater from writer and director Moisés Kaufman, frequent collaborator Amanda Gronich, and their company, Tectonic Theater Project. Unlike dramatic theater, the actors are not performing to reveal a truth about their characters so much as to present the truth of an investigation. Documentary theater, at least the way it is practiced by Tectonic Theater, is about using the techniques of theater to clearly present the facts, not to direct the audience to a desired conclusion. Here There Are Blueberries is a play about how historians do their work: how they take a newly discovered body of evidence, cross-reference it with what is already known and determine if it sheds new insights upon the historical record. In instances where the historians work in museums, their responsibility lies in how this evidence might impact public understanding of the past. Documentary theater demands a restrained performance style, in this case aided by the projection design of David Bengali, who blows up the archival photos to focus audience attention on the significant details.

The curtain lifts to reveal the archive examination room at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington, D.C. In 2006, Rebecca Erbelding, a historian at the museum portrayed by Elizabeth Stahlmann, received an inquiry from a retired Army lieutenant colonel about a photo album in his personal archive. (Erbelding was one of three USHMM staff portrayed in Here There Are Blueberries who were present at the opening.) The officer, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed the album came from the Auschwitz concentration camp and only revealed that he had found it in 1946 in an abandoned apartment while on assignment to track down war criminals.

When the album of 116 photographs arrived at the museum, it proved to be authentic, and a unique find. It did not portray the victims or the industrialization of genocide, but rather the social life of the camp’s top administrative staff during their leisure time. Several well-known figures are quickly identified: Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who engaged in sadistic experiments on Jewish and Romani prisoners in an effort to prove Nazi theories of Aryan supremacy, appears. Also present is Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz’s first and longest serving commandant; and Richard Baer, who succeeded Höss as commandant. USHMM staff debate whether the museum, meant to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust, should even acquire an album that seems to humanize the perpetrators of mass killing. The drama comes from how they will put these images into context for the museum’s visitors.

The first mystery for Erbelding and her colleagues to uncover in Here There Are Blueberries is the identity of the original owner and creator of the meticulously arranged album. It is determined to be the property of the man who appears most often among the album’s 116 photographs: Karl-Friedrich Höcker, Baer’s adjutant. Höcker was a twice-convicted war criminal (he was tried a second time in 1989 after new evidence emerged) and died in 2000.

Two lines of inquiry stem from the examination of the Höcker album. Many of the photos are from Solahütte, a resort built 18 miles from Auschwitz by slave labor for concentration camp staff to use for rest and relaxation. Höcker often appears in these photos as a jovial host, most chillingly in what is determined to be a celebration of a successful operation: The 1944 deportation of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to the camp, where they were exterminated. The second inquiry is into the many young women at Solahütte who were members of the SS-Helferinnenkorps, a volunteer auxiliary that operated the telephones, telegraphs, and radio equipment at Auschwitz, recording and communicating every detail of the killing operations. 

It is Höcker’s handwritten annotation of six photographs in which he serves blueberries to the Helferinnen that gives the play its title. Few of these women would be prosecuted; their youth and gender allowed them to largely escape notice of war crimes investigators.

In 2007, the Holocaust Museum made the Höcker album public. When some of the photographs were published in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, businessman Tilman Taube (played by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) recognized his grandfather, a doctor, in an SS uniform. Taube starts to informally approach the children and grandchildren of other perpetrators in the photos on behalf of the museum. He encounters Peter Wirths (Grant James Varjas), whose father, Eduard Wirths, was the chief medical officer at Auschwitz. When told that the elder Wirths led efforts to improve hygiene at Auschwitz to stem a typhus outbreak, Taube experiences a moment of hope that people could do good things within a killing factory. But Wirths explains that, even if his father and Taub’s grandfather were not sadistic vivisectionists like Mengele (though the play does not go into it, Eduard Wirths had recommended Mengele for promotion and authorized Mengele’s experiments), they nonetheless participated in the selection process, determining who of the newly arrived prisoners would go to the work camps and who would be sent directly to the gas chambers.

What the Höcker album revealed was nothing as banal as Nazis luxuriating in a bucolic setting, but a vision of the Judenrein Aryan paradise they intended to build upon mass graves and the network of industrialized killing centers, the largest of which was just 18 miles down the road. It’s also a reminder that this creation of such idyllic utopias is what motivates many perpetrators of genocide: past, present, and future.

Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich’s Here There Are Blueberries, directed by Moisés Kaufman and performed by Tectonic Theater Project, runs through May 28 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harmon Hall. $35–$115.