BERLIN, Nov. 17 (JTA) — A storm is brewing in the small Bavarian city of Erlangen over a Nazi play being performed for the first time since 1944. The turmoil over the staging of “The Wolves,” by Nazi playwright Hans Rehberg, raises the question of whether it’s acceptable in Germany, 58 years after the end of Holocaust, to present propaganda from the National Socialist movement in a public forum for any purpose. The answer is no, says writer Verona Forster, one of many protesting the play. Forster, who has researched Rehberg, said she fears breaking taboos and thus providing a “warm nest for neo-Nazi activities.” The Organization of Jewish Communities in Bavaria said before the scheduled performances that it was “intolerable” to put on the play. “We want to live in peace,” said Erlanger resident Josef Jakubowitsch, 78, a survivor of Auschwitz who has lived in Germany since the end of World War II. “The dogs are sleeping. Don’t wake them.” The play, a sappy tragedy that venerates sacrifice for the fatherland, is generally agreed to be bad. But it doesn’t contain material that is forbidden by law, and — though its opening already was postponed once — the town’s mayor can’t legally ban the production, though he would like to. So “The Wolves” has gone on, encased in the lambs’ clothing of a panel discussion. Sunday was opening night, and people showed up both for the play and for a concomitant protest. Inside, the audience applauded enthusiastically to the performance, according to a German wire report. Outside, about 100 people turned out to protest the event, mostly peace activists, prominent critics and Jews. Opponents of the play say there is no good reason for the performances of the play, and they fear the play will attract neo-Nazis to the town. Already, a letter of protest in the local paper has drawn some nasty phone calls. But the director of the Erlangen Theater says there is good reason to stage the play. “The view of the theater is anti-fascist and against war,” Sabina Dhein, the director, said in an interview in an Erlangen cafe on Nov. 8, where opponents of the play, members of the Jewish community and two of the town’s mayors also had gathered to talk to reporters. Dhein said she originally organized the program as an expression of opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. “This is not about spreading Nazi propaganda. It is about how the war was propagated, about how this thinking cripples people,” she said. Dhein denied she was comparing the U.S. administration to the Nazis. “It’s about a confrontation with the German past. It’s about a war that we initiated, and how people were instrumentalized for the war,” she said. “That’s rubbish,” historian Wolfgang Wippermann, of the Free University of Berlin, said in an interview. “Of course in a classroom, or in a document center or as part of research work, it’s necessary to do this kind of study,” he said. “But to quote historian Saul Friedlander, ‘If you repeat propaganda, you double the effect of the propaganda.’ ” Wippermann said he was “very shocked” and “angry about this kind of anti-Americanism combined with nostalgia about the Third Reich.” Julius Schoeps, director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center at the University of Potsdam, told JTA he had been asked to participate in the panel discussion at the performance but was unable to go. “I also told them that first of all I have to read the play and then I will see,” Schoeps, a Berlin Jew, said in an interview. To stage a propaganda play by a Nazi playwright “is very problematic,” Schoeps said, even if the play itself is not anti-Semitic. “It is a question of taste,” he said. Schoeps called the comparison to the Iraq war “crazy” but said the debate about whether to stage the play itself is interesting. “In a way it is the same situation as with Richard Wagner,” Schoeps said. “Because he was an anti-Semite, then it is impossible to play his music in Israel.” Dhein has her supporters. One is Bernd Naumann, president of the Association for the Erlangen Theater and professor of German studies at the University of Erlangen. Another is Guenther Ruehle, who in 1986 created a scandal with his staging of a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder called “Garbage, the City, Death” — which critics said was a poorly disguised, anti-Semitic attack on leaders of the Frankfurt Jewish community. The opposition to “The Wolves” has been boosted by support from, among others, author and Holocaust survivor Ralph Giordano, and from Lea Rosh, who launched the Holocaust memorial project in Berlin. Giordano called the production of the play an unacceptable act of reconciliation with the perpetrators. All the controversy is a nightmare for Mayor Siegfried Balleis, 50, of the conservative Christian Socialist Union party. He and his two deputy mayors, Gerd Lohwasser of the CSU and Elisabeth Preuss of the Free Democratic Party, vehemently oppose the play’s production. But the performance is protected by constitutional law, so all the town officials can do is urge the director to cancel the production. “It was clear to me that, as honorable as Frau Dhein’s intentions are, no one outside Erlangen will understand her motives,” Balleis told JTA. He said he feared neo-Nazis would turn up for the performances. Balleis said the entire affair threatens to stain the reputation of the town, which several years ago raised funds to create a synagogue to support the small but growing Jewish community there. Erlangen’s population is 100,000, with about 300 Jews. Balleis said he was particularly disturbed by the Iraq war analogy. “There are no parallels,” he said. “It is always a problem to compare a war under a totalitarian regime with the USA as a democratic country, however I may feel about the war.” He said he also was concerned that anti-Semitism would be stirred up by the affair. Dhein defended her position, noting that other works of Nazi propaganda have been shown and scrutinized, including Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” “The protest to me is first of all very emotional and does not take place on an informational level,” she said. “Naturally for survivors it is very difficult to confront these things directly, and I respect this. But in Germany the confrontation goes on.” The city was abuzz as the performance date approached. Several curious city residents hung around, listening to the debate and discussions with reporters and interjecting their comments. One said it was too bad that Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was banned in Germany. Recently, at an information stand set up by opponents of the play, a passerby said, “Stop already and let’s talk about the crimes of the Jews,” protester Forster recalled. “He said, ‘They should be happy that they live here in peace and that nobody bothers them.’ ” On Nov. 8, Hans Hermann Hann put an advertisement in the local paper asking readers to join his protest against the play. Required to put his phone number on the ad, Hann received about 10 phone calls — half of them harassing. Two anonymous callers said, “They forgot you.” When he asked what they meant, the callers clarified: “They forgot to gas you,” Hann said. Several days before the theater opening, it appeared unlikely that either side would budge. “Frau Dhein is a stubborn child,” said Rose Wanninger, 60, of the Jewish community. “She would be afraid to quit.” Dhein “lacks the political understanding that is necessary,” Balleis said, visibly frustrated. “She sees only ‘the piece.’ The situation is bloody stupid.”
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Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.