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Wednesday 25 March 2015

Die Letzten Zeugen (The Last Witnesses), by Doron Rabinovici and Matthias Hartmann, Burgtheater, Vienna, Austria 10* out of 10

In a powerful, hard hitting and moving performance, 6 actual survivors of the Holocaust given voice by professional actors come together to bear witness. They show us an example of true courage, living meaningful lives after enduring unimaginable cruelty perpetrated on them and their families by their neighbours and compatriots. Saying yes to life despite of everything. German speakers should not miss the upcoming performances in Vienna (April, May 2015) or Salzburg (October 2015). English speakers can only hope that tentative intentions for an English performance can be realised. 

Burgtheater in Vienna, 24 March 2015. Marko Feingold walks to the front of the stage: “While in the concentration camp I had to endure an incredible amount of beatings and was constantly afraid to be beaten to death. I had three siblings of whom I do not know how they died. I only hope that they did not have to endure the beatings that left me alive.” Marco Feingold, lucid articulate, 102 years old, is part of a theatre piece devised by Doron Rabinovici and Matthias Hartmann. Hartmann is the German former Head of the Burgtheater, who left this post under the cloud of a financial mismanagement scandal; Rabinovici, author and historian, is the son of Suzanne –Lucienne Rabinovici, another survivor of the Shoah, also appearing in his piece. Rabinovici’s study of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in wartime Vienna, Eichmann’s Jews, has appeared in English. So has his prizewinning satirical novel “Elsewhere”. The importance and problem of memory is a recurring theme in his work.

Based on books published by 7 survivors of the Shoah,  (Ari Rath, Marko Feingold, Rudolf Gelbard, Suzanne-Lucienne Rabinovici, Ceija Stojka, Vilma Neuwirth and Lucia Heilmann), the words of The Last Witnesses recount the events of the period February 1938, just before Hitler Germany annexed Austria, to 1946, one year after Hitler Germany’s defeat by the allied powers. They are read by professional actors. The faces of the actual survivors as they sit at the back of the stage listening to the actors detailing some of the most terrible events of their lives, are projected onto a screen by video.

With enormous courage they submit themselves to this ordeal, every time the piece is performed. No way that they will sleep well. Most likely they won’t sleep at all after a performance. 77 years after the beginning of the events they recount, the last witnesses are physically frail: two of the original group of eight have died before the premiere in 2013. On 23 March, one of the remaining protagonists was absent due to illness.

What their words have in common is an understated tone, a desire to be accurate, not to exaggerate (as if that were possible). Remarkably they wish to detail every instance, as rare as it was, where an Austrian neighbour, a German soldier behaved humanely. Sometimes this occurred for an instance, sometimes for the whole period of the persecution and murder, but when it happened it saved a life and gave hope. Of course, they also recount the much more widespread instances of neighbours and longstanding friends behaving abominably towards them.

Verba Volant, scripta manent – spoken words fly away, written words remain - and so the projection of a hand holding a fountain pen writing down the testimony the audience is listening to reminds us of the importance not to forget.

The second part of the evening consists of moderated discussions with the protagonists and interaction through questions and answers with the audience in the foyers and rehearsal rooms of the theatre.

Together with the survivors, Rabinovici and Hartmann have combined the means of theatre and the methods of oral and written history together into a new and powerful form. They have been able to do it thanks to the courage and the determination of the actual protagonists willing to endure what must be an ordeal. Yet they are here for the memory of those who were murdered and for the benefit of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those against whom all these crimes were committed. They are here for those who resisted and for their successors; but they are here also for the benefit of the children, grand children and great grand children of those who committed these crimes and of the silent majority, who sat on the fence. After many years of the official Austria ducking and weaving  the reality of the country’s responsibility for the crimes of the holocaust - Hitler, Eichmann, Kaltenbrunner, Seyss-Inquart lead the ignominious list of the disproportionately high number of Austrian war criminals responsible for German Nazi crimes - official Austria, under considerable outside pressure is showing some signs of facing up to the many crimes against human beings and against humanity which many Austrians committed during World War II. 

Their courage and forbearance is rewarded by a packed mainly young audience, deeply moved and showing a lively interest during the question and answer sessions.

One can only hope that an English version of will be created, so that after Vienna and Berlin, young people in London, New York and other important English-speaking cities may get an opportunity to experience these last witnesses of events that shaped the consciousness if not the conscience of the world we live in.

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