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Fighting fascism by mocking Hitler

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Mark Rozovsky,  the 70-year-old artistic director of a small Moscow playhouse, puts on a Hitler satire every year on the anniversary of the German dictator's birth. (Theater U Nikitskikh Vorot)

Mark Rozovsky, the 70-year-old artistic director of a small Moscow playhouse, puts on a Hitler satire every year on the anniversary of the German dictator’s birth. (Theater U Nikitskikh Vorot)

MOSCOW (JTA) – Adolf Hitler appears once a year on stage at a small playhouse in central Moscow.

It’s not because the Theater U Nikitskikh Vorot, or At the Nikitsky Gates, has been taken over by Nazis. Rather it’s a long-standing annual production of “Mein Kampf: Farce,” a comedy by the Hungarian-born playwright George Tabori.

The script describes a young Hitler arriving in Vienna, determined to become a famous artist, who finds himself sharing a squalid basement flat with two Jewish roommates.

Staging the production on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, is a conscious decision by Mark Rozovsky, the theater’s 70-year-old artistic director. Skinheads often mark the date with nationalist violence.

In a recent interview with JTA, Rozovsky explained that he started the April 20 performances of “Mein Kampf” nearly two decades ago as a response to the rising threat of fascism in Russia.

“When we first put on this play, fascism was a threat,” Rozovsky said. “Today it’s no longer just a threat. We live in a country where fascism has a place at the table, where political parties are created based on fascist ideas, where fascist literature is published. Fascism is blooming here. It’s not a threat anymore, it’s a reality.”

Rozovsky’s annual poke at Hitler is part of a growing number of satirical treatments of the Nazi leader, from the recent Broadway adaptation of Mel Brooks’ 1967 film “The Producers” to Swiss-Jewish filmmaker Dani Levy’s 2007 “Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler” and a rash of German-language blogs and cartoons.

They all attempt to deflate Hitler’s myth by holding him up to ridicule.

Rozovsky, an award-winning veteran of Russian and Soviet theater, has made a career out of provoking the public. His plays often touch on political themes – and just as often they feature a healthy dose of Jewish humor.

He rose to fame in the 1950s and ’60s with Nash Dom, or Our House, a student theater at Moscow State University that jump-started the careers of many prominent actors and directors.

Rozovsky ran Our House with two others with Jewish surnames, Albert Axelrod and Ilya Rutberg. The combinations of those names was guaranteed to come up against Soviet anti-Semitism.

Rozovsky once was called into the offices of a local Communist Party boss who demanded to know why, in an Our House production, an actress appeared on stage holding a yellow folder.

Didn’t he know, the official asked, that yellow was the national color of the Jewish
people?

“In his idiotic brain, the color yellow was associated with Jews,” Rozovsky recalled.

Although the folder had been chosen at random from the theater’s prop room, Rozovsky decided to fight for his rights. Pounding on the official’s desk, he cursed, shouted and pretended to be an unstable artist.

The frightened official relented; the yellow folder stayed in the show.

Born to a Jewish father and a half-Russian, half-Greek mother, Rozovsky admits that he
is not a Jew according to traditional Jewish law. But like many Russian citizens of Jewish descent,
his Jewish self-identification was shaped to a large degree by anti-Semitism.

“Of course, people always saw me as a Jew, and even as a ‘yid,’ ” Rozovsky said, using the derogatory word used in Russian for Jews. “And it’s hard for me to dispute such an argument.”

Judaism was never a factor in Rozovsky’s upbringing. In fact, his family believed in the atheistic ideals of Marxism-Leninism. A distant relative was hanged in czarist Russia for refusing to inform on his fellow revolutionaries.

Rozovsky’s father suffered the fate of many old-guard Leninists. In 1937 he was arrested during Stalin’s Great Terror, when Rozovsky was only a few months old.

Political persecution eventually caught up with Rozovsky, too.

In 1969, Our House was shut down and Rozovsky found himself blacklisted. A friend who worked in television told him he was on a list of those banned from appearing on the air.

Many artists in similar situations used their Jewish roots to leave the Soviet Union, but Rozovsky resisted the urge.

Friends helped him mount productions at theaters in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and Riga. The shows won critical acclaim and Rozovsky was back on the road to success.

Many of his productions from that era blended music and theater. Rozovsky directed the Soviet Union’s first rock opera, “Orpheus and Eurydice,” in 1975.

In 1983 he fulfilled a lifelong dream by getting his own theater again – At the Nikitsky Gates – which he has run ever since. A long-awaited new stage is expected to open this fall next door to the theater’s current premises.

The theater’s repertoire is a mix of satire, music and works by classic playwrights such as Anton Chekhov. One of its productions is “The Singing Mikhoels, “a play about Solomon Mikhoels, a Jewish actor and theater director killed by Stalin.

In December, Rozovsky won an award for the show from Russia’s largest Jewish group, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS.

Anti-fascism is something of a running theme for Rozovsky. As he spoke to a reporter in his office, a nearby audience was watching a performance of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” an absurdist satire that Rozovsky describes as anti-fascist.

Rozovsky reserves some of his most vehement criticism for the Russian ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The two had something of a public feud.

It began when Rozovsky read a newspaper interview in which Zhirinovsky, when asked about Hitler, was quoted as saying, “On the whole, his ideology contained nothing negative.”

An outraged Rozovsky confronted the politician publicly. Zhirinovsky said he was misquoted, but Rozovsky did not believe him.

Later a television station approached Rozovsky with a proposal to film Zhirinovsky watching a performance of “Mein Kampf” at his theater and then interview him in the foyer. Rozovsky refused, not wanting his theater used for what he saw as a Zhirinovsky public relations stunt. The director did say that Zhirinovsky was welcome to buy a ticket and see the show.

On a TV talk show, Zhirinovsky accused Rozovsky of not allowing him into the theater.

“That’s not quite right,” Rozovsky replied. “I told you to go to the box office. If you had bought a ticket like all normal people, you could have come and seen the play. But you didn’t do that.”

The retort won laughter from the studio audience. The next day Rozovsky was flooded with congratulatory phone calls from friends throughout Russia.

Chuckling, Rozovsky recalled what they said: “Nice putdown! Finally Zhirinovsky took it on the chin from someone.”

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