The Israeli Significance of 'Alone in Berlin'

Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi
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Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi

At the end of the first act of “Alone in Berlin,” the anti-Nazi postcards that Otto Quangel writes and distributes continue to be written, in a video screened on the backdrop of the set. The houselights come on, signaling the start of intermission, but the audience remains seated, watching.

The story of Otto and his wife Anna was written in the late 1940s by the German writer Hans Fallada, based on a true story. It was translated into English and into Hebrew only in the last decade and became a best-seller. Adapted for the stage by the Israeli playwright Shahar Pinkas, “Alone in Berlin” sweeps its creators and viewers into an anxious, thought-provoking journey about social persecution and the limits of freedom of expression.

The play, like the novel, examines the early years of World War II from the point of view of the residents of an apartment building in Berlin. The Quangels (Anat Fishman and Norman Issa) have already lost their soldier-son in the war. They decide to fight against the pro-Nazi sympathies of the German public by distributing postcards bearing messages of resistance throughout the city.

The play’s creators and cast begin their conversation about the play – which depicts a period when every knock on the door or glance into the stairwell evokes fear – by addressing the sense of persecution in contemporary Israel. They mention extreme-right rapper and activist Yoav “The Shadow” Eliasi who recently joined the Likud.

“The thundering silence in the face of this step, even within Likud, is a kind of indication,” says Ilan Ronen, director of the play and outgoing artistic director of Habimah theater. “Granted, it’s not directly related to the situation in Berlin in 1940 — which was much more advanced — but people today weigh their words and we are witness to this, beginning with stage actors such as Gila Almagor and Orna Banai during Operation Protective Edge and including Natan Datner, who recently made references to Culture Minister Miri Regev.”

Fishman, who plays Anna Quangel, agrees with Ronen: “We all genuinely weigh our words, no one wants to sound too left-wing or too right-wing, but if you’re to the right you’re better protected because there’s a certain support there,” she says. “There’s a major stigma on the left, while [the right] can say anything and they’re protected.”

Pinkas describes the fear and apprehension about expressing opinions that she felt, both while reading and adapting Fallada’s book and in Israeli society today. “There’s a hue-and-cry, on Facebook too, and I don’t think that anyone is safe,” she says. “The scary thing isn’t only the informer, but the self-censorship that you do. That’s dangerous. I don’t think the book is about ‘bad’ or ‘good’ Germans, but rather about a society that lives in fear and what that does to individuals, how it trickles down to the ordinary person who, when someone knocks on his door, asks himself whether to open it or not, and whether someone will see him open it or not. It’s anxiety that in the first act focuses solely on the building and then spreads throughout Berlin.”

Ronen cautions against drawing a one-to-one parallel between the periods, noting that both the left and the right make use of such comparisons to serve their needs. “It was just reported on one hand that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman compared the agreement with Iran with the Munich Agreement, and on the other hand that the deputy chief of staff said in speech that he can see processes that occurred in Europe before the Holocaust in contemporary Israel. They use it, it’s legitimate, but it’s important to make clear that, to my great joy, we are still very far from that reality, which has a very important role as a warning signal.”

Fallada’s novel was translated into Hebrew by Yosifiyah Simon and published by Yedioth Books in 2010. It has been adapted for the German stage a number of times. The Habima play, which is based on Simon’s translation, is the second stage adaptation of a Fallada book in Israel. In 2013, Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater put on “Little Man, What Now?,” translated by Dori Parnes and directed by Itay Tiran.

“We knew that a German wrote about a German and we wanted to know whether Fallada wrote it in order to absolve himself and to ask why he didn’t act then,” Pinkas said. In ‘A Stranger in My Own Country,’ the diary that Fallada wrote while in prison, he looks at it and says, ‘What did I do? I went through the period with a sense that I did do something, but was it sufficient?’

“While writing the adaption of ‘Alone in Berlin,’ I asked myself whether he wasn’t trying to absolve the characters and whether I wasn’t aiding some greater mechanism to absolve the German people. We had to examine him well, to see whether he speaks with his conscience and does something unconsciously. It’s part of his writing and we tried to clean it.”

In a similar manner to the Cameri production of “Mephisto,” directed by Omri Nitzan, which deals with how actors cope with the Nazi regime in the 1930s, “Alone in Berlin” also addresses the issue of artistic freedom. Alex Krul plays an actor who speaks out against a cabinet minister; as a result, the minister instructs the theater’s manager to stop him from performing.

“The play asks the question, ‘What would you have done had you been there?’ and at what point in time do you need to start talking and stop being silent,” says Ronen. “In terms of the Israeli theater at this point in time, at which I am ending [my period as] artistic director, it is also a message to our friends, colleagues, to the managers and to those who will manage the theaters.

“I am worried by the silence of the theaters. I do not think that currently there are enough plays in the repertory theater that deal with or that address the topic. I am proud and glad that it is happening at Habima and it is very important to make one’s voice heard even if it is done in more sophisticated ways.”

It is difficult not to wonder how much the play’s creators and participants are influenced by the talk and reports of young Israelis migrating to Berlin today. “The state and the government must be asked why the young people are leaving,” says Issa, who plays Otto Quangel. “We all know the answer, but no one does anything with it. Perhaps we need somebody responsible to stand up and do something so that these people won’t leave?

“After all, they are being suffocated here and we can understand them, I identify with everyone. It’s hard to buy a home and to make a living and you’re closed off in every way and you’re told, ‘We’re a democratic state.’

“Where will they go? To a more open place that respects them, allows them to live and tells them they are talented. I will never leave because my friends are here and the sun that I love, the sea. It’s not something that’s on my agenda. From my perspective the situation will not deteriorate because I am always waging my own wars so that things will be good,” says Issa.

Ronen, whose children Yael and Michael live and work in the theater in Berlin, draws a connection to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “We have conflicts with the Palestinians and we are unable to solve them. But with the Germans, with whom we ostensibly should have had an open account for 200 years, a gradual process of building relations had already begun about a decade after it all happened.

“The fact is that when there are economic and political interests, suddenly it’s possible to overcome things. A process takes place from the first generation to the third generation, in which Berlin turned into a kind of cultural center. The question is whether that move has a message for the Israeli-Palestinian story: Invest much more effort and energy in the process of coming to terms, and you’ll find ways to get somewhere.”

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