I’m writing a play about a Kommandant at Auschwitz
who recognizes one of the Jewish prisoners
as a famous poet, and as the Kommandant
has poetic aspirations himself, he pulls the prisoner
away from the work detail to receive poetry lessons
from the celebrated Jewish writer. The bulk of the play
is their discussions of poetry, which the poet
is initially reluctant to have, the power differential
being so stark, and though he flatters the Kommandant
at first, when he begins to see his Nazi pupil’s
true devotion to the art, as well as his untrained
and untapped talent, he goes to work in earnest,
and at times they are both simply lovers
of the German language, though the truth of their
situation often interrupts. In the last act,
the Kommandant is on trial for his crimes,
and in the days before he is to be executed,
he begs the poet to publish his work under his own name—
the Nazi’s writing under the Jew’s name—
because as a Nazi, he feels his own name is disgraced,
but he believes so strongly in poetry that it matters
more to him that his work survive than that anyone
know it was his work. The play is pulled entirely
from my imagination, a careful rereading
of Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, and the poetic ideas
of Rilke and Goethe, with a smattering of Nietzsche.
In readings of the play, the Kommandant
has seemed more noble than I had intended—in many ways,
more noble than the Jew, because the Jew is suffering
by no fault of his own, while the Kommandant is tortured
by conscience, and driven by a sense of poetic calling
that separates him from the Germans around him.
On the morning of the third workshop reading, I watched
a video of two Russians on an ice-dancing reality show
performing as Jews in Auschwitz. I was sickened,
even though I couldn’t follow the pantomimed action,
and I wondered if I was producing Holocaust kitsch myself,
if my work was as disgusting as theirs, though I knew
if I asked any of my team, they would reassure me
that I am doing important work that rises to the level
of art. Last night, during a break in the workshop of the play,
I told the story of how my grandmother, upon learning
that her entire family had died in the camps,
had burned the photo albums of everyone she had loved.
I have told that story many, many times,
without feeling much more than regret, or sympathy,
but this time I broke down crying, and I couldn’t stop.
Everyone at the table came to comfort me,
and I felt ridiculous, but the only thing I could say was,
“It’s time for us to go. This isn’t a place we can live anymore.”
I left the studio embarrassed, and later that day,
I resigned from the production. I don’t think they believed
that I was serious, and they’ll expect me to show up
at the next table reading. I won’t. The play will go on
though I can have nothing more to do with it.
This morning, after taking a shirt off the hanger,
I looked in the mirror and realized I hadn’t put it on.
Without thinking, I had started packing a bag.