By David Greenham
Peter Wortsman has made a valuable contribution with this play; it is a rare theatrical account about how living through the Holocaust shaped survivors.
The Tattooed Man Tells All by Peter Wortsman. Directed by and starring Keith Langsdale. A virtual staging presented by Silverthorne Theater Company and produced by Ellen Kaplan. Photography and editing by John Iverson. Costumes and properties by Reba-Jean Shaw Pichette. Technical support by Robby Moore. Original production directed by Ellen Kaplan. (Closed).
Theater companies are scrambling to adjust to the realities of the Coronavirus and many are turning to various forms of online program delivery. Last weekend’s effort by Silverthorne Theater Company was a virtual reimagining of Peter Wortsman’s 2018 script The Tattooed Man Tells All, which memorably details the experiences of Holocaust survivors.
The Pioneer Valley’s Silverthorne Theater Company premiered the play a couple of years ago at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield under the direction of Ellen Kaplan. Wortsman, a New York-based author, playwright, and poet, interviewed a number of camp survivors who were living in Vienna in 1975. He drew on these stories to craft the narrative of one (unnamed) survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Tattooed Man (Keith Langsdale). The irradicable stamp left from his time in the Nazi camp is a tattoo roughly scratched on the inside of his forearm — number 70333. This is the mark carried by those who survived the terrifying first moments of arrival at the camp where more than 1.1 million people were murdered or died of disease.
The online performance begins with the sounds of a train rumbling on tracks and a photograph of the gates of Auschwitz I, on which sat a sign with the grotesque inscription: Arbeit macht frei (work makes you free). The phrase was posted at many of the Nazi camps and, as the Tattooed Man confirms, the only job that made any sense was the effort to survive: “I just lived from one moment to the next.”
The play is set in the Tattooed Man’s tiny kitchen in Vienna three decades after liberation. The premise is that he has welcomed an unseen young scholar or researcher (presumably Wortsman himself) into his kitchen to hear about what it took to live through the genocide.
He’s momentarily reluctant, but the man soon delivers a vividly etched description of hellacious collective trauma: there’s fear, uncertainty, and disorientation. The arrival of cattle cars jammed with the targeted populations of Jews, homosexuals, political opponents, and the many other target groups is described. The Nazi strategies used to dehumanize their charges are made clear. But the Tattooed Man is not really concerned with the big picture; his focus, moment to moment, was figuring out how to survive. “All I cared about was staying in step,” he confesses, as shootings, beatings, and jarring family separations went on all around him.
It is a matter of record that newly arrived prisoners were quickly separated into two distinct sides: those who could work would live a little longer, those who could not were fated to be marched directly to the “final solution.” As the Tattooed Man describes it, his selection process went smoothly after he announced that he’s a carpenter, a skilled job the Nazis would find useful. He shares the only moment one of his captors showed him empathy. The man who is processing his arrival asked “Why didn’t you get the hell out when you could?” This illusory presumption of choice served, for some, as a rationalization for barbarity.
From that moment on, the Tattooed Man adopted what he saw as his sole means to escape death. He tells us he “melted into the mass…invisible,” adding, “We all made deals to last a little longer.” “Survival lesson one,” he insists, is that “you have no face, no emotion, no personality. You’re just a walking number, that’s all.” In the barracks, an encounter with an older prisoner paints a vivid picture of the virulent anti-Semitism that existed within the camp’s population. On Christmas day, the man rants at the Jews in his barracks, blaming them for his plight.
Actor and director Langsdale adeptly straddles the emotional line between bitterness and resignation. Anger is visible just beneath the surface, but this figure moves forward with weary determination. He doesn’t allow himself to be swallowed up in the darkness. Moments of sorrow or fear are tempered — sentimentality is shunned. One revelatory moment: he hears the sound of children playing in a yard outside his apartment window and stops to admire their laughter.
He is determined to articulate “the burden of survival,” sticking to the years of incarceration rather than his activities following liberation. His memories are a weight that he can’t shake; he shares his stories but not everything is told — that sense of holding something back adds to the play’s dramatic depth.
The spare production includes a haunting refrain of verses, also written by Wortsman, entitled A Nursery Rhyme for Dead Children. Sung by Zoe Langsdale, they suggest feelings (anguish, horror, guilt) that the Tattooed Man cannot express. Those who have heard testimonies from Holocaust survivors or met them will recognize the psychological/spiritual dissonance that Langsdale and Wortsman aim to capture. While the production suffers from some uneven sound and might have benefited from an outside director, it is an effectively moving effort to pay homage to survivors of the Holocaust.
It must be noted that Wortsman’s efforts to record these voices in the 1970s was visionary. Aside from projects involving writers such as Elie Wiesel, capturing this kind of testimony did not really catch on until William Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice and the subsequent 1982 film. It wasn’t until a decade later, with Steven Speilberg’s blockbuster Schindler’s List, that Holocaust survivors were invited to speak publicly all over the world. Spielberg donated profits from the film to establish the USC Shoah Foundation, which over the decades has collected thousands of firsthand accounts of the Holocaust. But, if you do the math, survivors who had been adults during the Shoah were quite elderly 40 years later. Many had already passed away by the time speaking about the experience had become an accepted practice.
So, with this compilation script, Wortsman has made a valuable contribution, a rare account of how living through the unspeakable shaped adult survivors. And the topic — six million Jews and another five million others murdered at the hands of the Nazis — is nothing if not timely. Today we are grappling with the rise of anti-Semitism as well as fresh outcries over the genocide of Native Americans. Also, there is the rise of racism and xenophobia amid a strengthening of authoritarian projects internationally. Many are beginning to recognize that there is a lot of difficult work to do. Genuine transformation will not come without pain. As the Tattooed Man says, “We’re all damaged goods. The wheels still turn but you can hear the gears grinding.”
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Associate Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He is the current chair of the Maine Arts Commission, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.