“Rebecca Erbelding, the archivist at the Holocaust museum, she’ll remember. At the Holocaust museum, they never forget.”
It’s not easy to get a Berlin audience to laugh at jokes about the Holocaust. But American playwright Andrea Stolowitz manages to do just that in her latest premiere at the English Theater Berlin, "Berlin Diary: (Schlüterstraße 27)."
The eponymous diary is one written by her great-grandfather upon arriving in New York. He left Berlin before WWII. The diary floated through her family for years before Stolowitz decided to donate it to the American Holocaust museum, where it is now part of the collection. The play is the result of a year living in Berlin, tracking down names, dates, and addresses from the diary to reconstruct her family history. Here’s how Andrea Stolowitz, the autobiographical character in Berlin Diary, describes her quest:
“I’m trying to understand why we have such a small family, and of the ones we have, why nobody really gets along or talks to each other and hasn’t for a really long time.”
Stolowitz the playwright shares the same concerns as Stolowitz the character. “I didn’t know that my great-grandfather had so many cousins. The funny thing about the word cousin is, I’ve always wished for a cousin! You can go on ski trips with your cousins! You can go on picnics with your cousins!”
She says that writing the play has helped her realize that the guilt of surviving the Holocaust was a secret that ultimately tore her family in the States apart — even generations later. The joke about never forgetting comes early in the play, but the themes of forgetting and remembering run throughout the project.
“In the play, I go through this whole file — it’s a file of people who claimed reparations against the activities of the Nazi government," says Stolowitz. "In the end, you claimed losses and you were compensated with money. So there were actual reparations that were paid. I think it’s an interesting historical event for a country to go through, to think about what it owes somebody in dollars and cents. Even just to have that conversation is important.”
It’s a conversation that goes beyond the specific frame of the play itself.
“I’ve had a lot of different audience members respond. One guy, who is African American, was in the middle of genealogy testing to figure out where he came from in Africa and tracking back his family. You just want to know who you are. There’s a sense that you are the legacy of your family.”
Stolowitz spends most of the interview, in fact, not talking about her Jewish family’s history, but about how important it is to speak frankly about other traumatic historical events that have torn families apart through American history — like slavery and the Native American Genocide.
“I think not speaking about history is so dangerous… in the United States we are preoccupied with moving forward but not really working through or acknowledging parts of our history in truthful ways. We don’t like to look back at our history.”