Theater Review: “The Strawberry Girl” — Harvest of Horror

Israeli Stage opened its sixth season, which is dedicated exclusively to female playwrights, with a haunting work that examines the complicity of an ordinary German in the Holocaust.

The Strawberry Girl, adapted by Savyon Liebrecht from her short story. Translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by Israeli Stage at the Goethe Institut, Boston, MA on September 20.

Nancy E. Carroll in the staged reading of "The Strawberry Girl."

Nancy E. Carroll in Israeli Stage’s presentation of “The Strawberry Girl.” Photo: Gabriel Volcovich.

By Ian Thal

It is during World War II. The wife of an SS obersturmführer (the equivalent of a first lieutenant – the SS was an organ of the Nazi Party with a rank structure in parallel to that of the regular German army) stationed in Poland is paying a social call on her neighbor, Helena, the wife of her husband’s obersturmbannführer (the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel). Helena’s husband is the commandant of a facility known only as “the factory.” A strange visitor arrives at the gate: a Jewish girl  the narrator describes in lugubrious detail: filthy and emaciated, her skin is cracked, her scalp scabby, her feet frostbitten. She carries a tin suitcase filled with strawberries and gives them to the commandant’s wife. The strawberries are as big as a man’s fist — they are so deep a red that they are “almost purple.”

Helena chides the Jewish girl for approaching so closely. But she orders her to bring an additional delivery of fruit next week to the narrator’s kitchen as well. The narrator desires the berries, but the girl generates in her a haunting mixture of pity and disgust, to the point that she would rather not see her again. She wonders how a being that fills her with such revulsion can grow such beautiful berries.

The Strawberry Girl is adapted by Savyon Liebrecht from her short story of the same title. It was among the earliest of her published tales and one of the first to appear in English. It is told in the first person and Liebrecht wisely chose in her stage adaptation to maintain that perspective. As a solo show, the play makes for a wonderful showcase for the smarts and talents of Nancy E. Carroll. Her voice is strong and her interpretation is nuanced. Carroll approaches her nameless character with a disarming sincerity; we believe that the war criminal’s wife is genuinely indifferent to what goes on behind the walls that separate the residential neighborhood (where the officer’s families live an idealized life) from the concentration camps. Even when these atrocities touch Helena in unexpected ways, she seems to sense when it is best to stop asking questions.

Of course, Liebrecht is walking a a fine line between fable and historical fiction. While the factory is never named, details are supplied — such as the smoke rising of the crematoria chimneys — that identify the location as Auschwitz. The Auschwitz camp was part of a larger plan for the German colonization of Poland, so it wasn’t at all strange that residential areas were built up alongside prisoner of war or slave labor camps. German demands for cheap consumer goods were served by factories manned by enslaved POWs, destitute Poles, political prisoners, and able-bodied Jews. Auschwitz as an industrialized killing site did not begin until September 1941, almost a year and a half after the camp’s founding; its use as a massive industrial site, its factories manned by slaves, was well established almost from the beginning.

The Strawberry Girl examines the faint lines that divided perpetrators from the knowingly complicit, the knowingly complicit from the willfully ignorant. The narrator’s revulsion at the Jewish girl isn’t simply a stereotypical case of anti-Semitism. It is based in her unwavering faith that the girl’s bad haircut, filthy clothing, and poor health must be the result of either her own or her parents’ neglect. The narrator remains blissfully unaware that the black smoke filling the air comes from a nearby crematoria; she chooses to ask little about the working conditions in the nearby factories. She only learns how widespread the looting of Jewish property has become at a party for the officers and their families — a bottle of cognac loosens some lips.

During the talk-back after the reading, a few audience members (including one German citizen) expressed incredulity that the narrator could be that ignorant – especially given that the story occurs at such a late stage in the progression of the war. The narrative ends with the evacuation of Silesia’s German civilian population in advance of the Soviet invasion of Poland.

In this piece, Liebrecht is dramatizing the changing consensus regarding the complicity of ordinary Germans during the Holocaust. She has written a play about Hannah Arendt, The Banality of Love, and in it she seems somewhat sympathetic to the philosopher’s “banality of evil” hypothesis — that the perpetrators were unthinking, largely unaware of the full meaning of their actions because they were living lives empty of moral choice, bereft of philosophical depth? Or does she remain ignorant because she fills her life with the distractions of everyday life, planning parties, leading the children’s choir, and baking cakes? 

In more recent decades critics have offered other interpretations. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen demonstrates in his controversial volume Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans And The Holocaust that not only were the perpetrators drawn from a large segment of the population and that they knew what they are doing, but suggests that they took pride and enjoyment in what they saw as the fulfillment of their national destiny. Indeed, the narrator’s level of ignorance is obviously one of degree: she is clearly aware of the mass deportation of Jews and Poles. After all, she has recently taken up residence in a formerly Polish town and it has already been over a decade since the first anti-Jewish laws went into effect. More damning, she is familiar with the slave labor camps; she accepts them as part of the natural order. Finally, even as the heinous truth dawns on her, it never occurs to her to think of her husband as a monster.

Carroll’s agile performance embraces clashing interpretations of German complicity — her character is a puzzle (an immoral conundrum?) left for us to figure out.

In truth, the sweetest strawberries are often the smallest. Indeed the sweetest I ever tasted were as small as my finger tips and sold by a street vendor in Skënderaj, a city in northern Kosovo. But the pieces of fruit in this tale are as large as fists. (The human heart is said to be the size of a fist, and many think that strawberries are shaped like a human heart.) The revelation of what makes the fruit grow so large and sweet is surely heartbreaking for the girl: the ashes from the crematoria are the compost in which they grow. For us, the shock is that the narrator sees this as simply an unpleasant fact.

The Strawberry Girl marks the start of Israeli Stage’s sixth outing with the work of Savyon Liebrecht, as well as the opening of its sixth season – a line-up that Guy Ben-Aharon is dedicating exclusively to female playwrights. He has opened this admirable venture auspiciously with a haunting work by one of his favorite writers.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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