This Day in Jewish History, 1963

'The Deputy,' Play About Vatican’s Silence During Holocaust, Opens in Berlin

The play became an immediate, international cause celebre, soon moving from Berlin to other European capitals, and a year later to New York.

A. Savin

On February 20, 1963 the play “The Deputy” had its world premiere in West Berlin. Written by then-31-year-old Rolf Hochhuth, “Der Stellvertreter. Ein christliches Trauerspiel” (The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy”) looks critically at the silence of Pope Pius XII in the face of the Holocaust. Although the play is fictional, most of its characters are based on real people, and Hochhuth said that the arguments he made in the drama were based on five years of historical research on his part.

The play became an immediate cause célèbre, not only in Germany, but internationally, and was staged in short order in London and other European capitals, and a year later in New York. Over the years, it has been less praised for its literary merits than for the forthright manner in which it questioned the behavior of the pontiff during this critical period in world history, making charges of inaction on his part that in the intervening five decades have never been effectively rebutted.

Rolf Hochhuth was born in Eschwege, in the Hessian region of central Germany, on April 1, 1931. Growing up in a Protestant family, he belonged to the Deutsches Jungvolk, a division of the Hitler Youth. As an adult, he worked first in a bookstore, and then, from 1955 to 1963, as a reader for the West German publisher Bertelsmann. During much of that period, he was working on “The Deputy.”

Initially, a division of Bertelsmann was planning to publish the drama, but when higher-ups at the company vetoed that decision, the project was picked up by the Rowohlt publishing house, which not only brought out a print edition, but also suggested to the legendary German theater director Erwin Piscator that he bring it to the stage.

If mounted in full, the five acts of “The Deputy” would take more than six hours to perform, so, by necessity, all of its stagings, including its original one at the People’s Free Theater in Berlin were of abridged versions. The pope appears in only one scene in the play, which actually focuses on Dr. Kurt Gerstein, a real-life German who served in the SS, where he witnessed acts of mass murder and euthanasia, and then attempted to get word of what he saw out to the world. The other heroic character in “The Deputy” is Riccardo Fontana, a Jesuit priest who urges the pope to speak out publicly against the Nazis’ program of genocide, but whose advice is rejected. Fontana was a fictional composite of two German clergymen, the Protestant Maximilian Kolbe and the Catholic provost Bernhard Lichtenberg, both of whom died because of their unwillingness to keep silent about the murder of the Jews. In the play, Fontana insists on wearing a yellow Star of David, and allows himself to be transported to Auschwitz and murdered there.

Hochhuth doesn’t suggest that the pope was a Nazi sympathizer, or deny that many Catholic clergy took great risks to save Jews. But his Pius XII does see the Communists as a greater threat than the Nazis, and as a political realist he is reluctant to take a public stand against the Nazis because of the price the Church might have to pay. Hochhuth himself later explained, “In choosing a Jesuit for my tragic hero, I strove to condemn the sin and not the sinner – that is, not the Church but its silence.”

In that, he was quite successful. “The Deputy” opened in most Western European capitals later in 1963, and on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in February 1964. That production ran for 361 performances.

Nothing that Hochhuth has written since then has equaled its success, either critically or at the box office, although his topics have continued to be provocative. Subsequent plays included one that implicated Winston Churchill in the 1943 crash of the plane carrying Polish Prime Minister Wladislaw Sikorski, which led to Hochhuth’s being sued for libel by the pilot who was flying the plane, and who had survived the crash.