Revealing research into a Nazi photo album in ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop

Named a 2024 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Here There Are Blueberries, now playing a limited Off-Broadway engagement at New York Theatre Workshop following its 2022 world premiere at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, is based on the true story of a collection of Nazi-era photographs that was sent to the desk of an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007, by the then 87-year-old retired US Lieutenant Colonel who found it in Germany in 1946. Conceived and directed by Moisés Kaufman, written by Kaufman and Amanda Gronich, and devised with Scott Barrow, Amy Marie Seidel, Frances Uku, Grant James Varjas, and members of the co-producing Tectonic Theater Project, the gripping production explores the smiling people and carefree events captured in the images, offering insights into one of the darkest chapters in history and most heinous cases of man’s inhumanity to man, as curators unravel the truth and trigger a debate within the museum and beyond about the perpetrators of the Holocaust and their shocking lack of conscience.

Nemuna Ceesay, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Kathleen Chalfant, and Erika Rose. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Taking a documentary approach to the unfolding historical narrative, the production uses projections of the actual photos (projection design by David Bengali, with highlights on the figures being discussed) and text from the real conversations, interviews, testimonies, inscriptions, and writings of the researchers, those captured in the 116 snapshots, their descendants, and survivors of the Nazi death camps, in the play’s process of identifying the source of the 37-page album, those pictured in it, and the locations in which they were photographed.

It soon becomes clear that the lighthearted images show the leisure activities of the infamous Nazi officers (among them, Josef Mengele and Karl Höcker, the album’s confirmed creator and photographer) and their female staff (the Helferinnen) at Auschwitz and its surroundings, as noted in the German captions inscribed by Höcker (who was also the camp’s official diarist). They include the play’s title, derived from a photo of the women laughing and enjoying the bowls of blueberries that he gave them.

Elizabeth Stahlmann. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Along with their objective analytical research comes the main ethical question that arises among the museum’s team. Should an institution dedicated to honoring the innocent people murdered by the Nazis make available and exhibit the historical artifacts that feature their killers? They also ask themselves, what would they have done if they were there, in Germany, at the time? It’s a paramount moral issue that everyone in the audience must also consider, so that such inconceivable atrocities will never happen again.

Under Kaufman’s steady-handed empirical direction, a compelling cast of eight, all playing multiple roles, delivers the systematic methodology of the researchers and the factual information they uncover in a combination of direct-address accounts, recreations of their interviews with key figures, embodiments of the photographic subjects (a scene of the full company vocalizing the melody of the popular German song “Lili Marlene,” with accordion accompaniment, is especially chilling), and subsequent trials of the Nazi perpetrators, shifting fluidly from one to the next and bringing the investigative procedure to life.

The cast. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Elizabeth Stahlmann takes the lead as the museum’s head intake archivist Rebecca Erbelding, who determines that the photographs should be exhibited, because “Six million people didn’t murder themselves.” In the words of the institution’s photographic collection director Judy Cohen, played with professionalism and purpose by Kathleen Chalfant, “You can’t understand the Holocaust without looking at the perpetrators.”

Consequently, the project not only proceeds, but the news about it is eventually released to the press, which attracts the attention of others with a connection to the contents of the album and inspires them to come forward. Most notable are Tilman Taube (played by Jonathan Raviv), who recognizes his grandfather in the photos, contacts Stahlmann to give her the information, ultimately quotes the shockingly remorseless statement his elder made to him “with a twinkle in his eye,” and thus requests that Cohen use his name to clarify what he was involved in; Peter Wirths (Grant James Varjas), who agrees to meet with Taube and didn’t find out till later in life about his father’s role at Auschwitz; and Rainer Höss (Charlie Thurston), grandson of Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss, who also meets with Taube and tells him everything he discovered about his grandfather as a teen, thereby holding him accountable for the genocide he oversaw.

Scott Barrow. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Rounding out the excellent cast are Scott Barrow as Höcker, who, at his trial, denies his knowledge and culpability in the mass killings at Auschwitz (and was sentenced to only seven years in prison in 1965, for aiding and abetting more than 1000 murders there); Nemuna Ceesay as Charlotte Schünzel, one of the Helferinnen who is questioned after the war and admits they knew about the gassing (but not one of the women was ever sentenced); and Erika Rose as Melita Maschmann, head of Press and Propaganda at the concentration camp, who explains what caused young women to become Nazis. Despite the horrifying subject, all the performances are emotionally controlled and focused, creating an appropriate mood and believability for the documented historical facts they convey, without losing their composure. As Rebecca says, “moral indignation is not conducive to my best results,” and Judy replies, “I can’t think of the horror day in and day out, or I’ll never be able to do my job.”

Scott Barrow, Elizabeth Stahlmann, and Nemuna Ceesay. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Derek McLane’s set creates a solemn and spotless photographic archive in the museum’s basement, with fluorescent lighting by David Lander that illuminates the staff’s tables and spotlights shining on those speaking. Costumes by Dede Ayite are unassuming and modulated in tone, allowing the actors to change characters without changing their clothes, and the sound design by Bobby McElver provides ambient noises that identify the times and locales with the click of a camera, the thunder of a rainstorm, and the music of the era.

Here There Are Blueberries is a meticulously researched, exhaustively detailed, masterfully presented, profoundly affecting, and thoroughly riveting production that elucidates a largely unexplored aspect of the Holocaust as captured in rare extant photographs and addresses universal questions of moral principles and the human conscience that continue to resonate in the present. To supplement the themes of the play, Tectonic Theater Project and NYTW have joined with the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), the production’s Content and Conversation partner, to curate a series of post-show discussions, in which leading ethicists, scholars, and audiences consider the complex issues raised and their relevance for today. The upcoming conversations will be held on May 16, 23, and 29, and June 4 and 12.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.

Here There Are Blueberries plays through Sunday, June 16, 2024, at the New York Theatre Workshop, 138 West 48th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $75-125, plus fees), call (212) 460-5475, or go online.

For a preview of the show, watch the trailer below:

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