By Tulis McCall

Here There Are Blueberries, now at New York Theatre Workshop is a more of a documentary than a play.  There is no plot line per se.

There is a story.

In 2007 the New York Times reported the discovery of a previously unknown album of photographs from Auschwitz, “In The Shadow of Horror, SS Guardians Frolic“.  It was one of those crossroad moments when Moisés Kaufman came across the article.  He contacted the Holocaust historian Rebecca Erbelding, and that, as they way, was pretty much that.  A mere 17 years later, Blueberries, has landed in New York.

What was unique about this photo album was that it depicted not the Jews, Poles, Russians, Gypsies, Homosexuals and other outcasts considered to be a threat to Germany – it featured everyone else.  The officers, the staff, their families, the volunteers.  The album held the first photographs of Josef Mengele the ‘Angel of Death’ that proved he was at Auschwitz.  And happy to be so from the smile on his face.  Also discovered early on was Rudolph Höss. He built Auschwitz.  Slowly the onion is peeled, revealing that heretofore denials of knowledge of the existence of the concentration camp can pretty much be flushed down the toilet.

This is a story fit for Ken Burns or a lengthy Ted Talk.  At the core of this disturbing album is that it is a result of the new invention of compact portable cameras that were available to the masses.  These arrived on the scene in the 1930’s while Germany was recovering from economic collapse and the defeat experienced in WWI.  Optimism was on the rise, and the Leica camera meant that a person had leisure time for taking photographs, or for recording “ordinary” scenes from life.  Both posed and candid, these shots recorded Germany’s quiet shift into the world of the Nazi’s.  Photographs of family gatherings slowly become dotted with swastikas until the Nazi Salute overtakes their presence.

We are lead down the investigative path familiar to museum staff all over the world.  They feel the trust given to them by the people who want “experience translated into knowledge”.  The people at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are presented here in their role of detective.

Mention  must be made of the entire production.  The cast of Scott Barrow, Nemuna Ceesay, Kathleen Chalfant, Noah Keyishian, Jonathan Raviv, Erika Rose, Anna Shafer, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Charlie Thurston, and Grant James Varjas is superb at every moment.  Each plays a variety of characters not based on sex or age.  Women portray men, the young the old.  The spare set by Derek McLane suits the investigative aspect and the projections of the photographs grab your attention with laser precision. The presentational text pulls us along without overwhelming us, and Kaufman’s direction in general is  like an orchestration, complete with parts that move without rippling the surface of the tale.

The fact that this story is arriving when the Israel/Palestine war AND the Presidential Campaign are dominating the news at every turn cannot be an accident.  Surely we cannot overlook the rallying cries of denial and election tampering combined with the out of control rhetoric pitting Israeli and Palestinian supporters against one another.  While this production does not take specific sides and seeks to give us the facts, it also fails to mention that while the Jews (only mentioned a few times) were the majority of Concentration camp victims, there were thousands of Gypsies, Jehovas Witnesses, gay men, Soviet prisoners, Communists, Socialists, and “undesirables”.  It seems an odd omission.

So.  So.  Who were these smiling people relaxing in deck chairs, sitting at dining tables, gathering on a hillside to exchange pleasantries.  Who were those girls with the commandant and why were they being treated to blueberries.  Surely these people could not know what was happening?  Just look at them.

Just look.

A staff member at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum tells us (most all the characters talk directly to us) …. it makes us see the SS as people – and that is difficult for us. We want to think of them as monsters so we don’t have to look in the mirror. Sometimes when people look at the world of Auschwitz, they focus on the killing and they forget that the killing is the result of a long process. No genocide starts with the killing. Every genocide starts with words.

This production does an excellent job of luring us into the underbelly of this dark tale.  By the time we realize that we don’t want to go deeper into the tale, we are already in it.  We cannot unsee what has been shown to us.

The question is – what will we do.  What will we really, really, really do?

Here There Are Blueberries co-written by Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich, conceived & directed by Moisés Kaufman.

WITH Scott Barrow, Nemuna Ceesay, Kathleen Chalfant, Noah Keyishian, Jonathan Raviv, Erika Rose, Anna Shafer, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Charlie Thurston, and Grant James Varjas. 

Here There Are Blueberries features scenic design by Derek McLane, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design David Lander, sound design by Bobby McElver, and projection design by David Bengali.

Here There Are Blueberries was recently named a 2024 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Drama. A co-production with Tectonic Theater Project, at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E 4th Street), .  for an extended run through June 30, 2024 —  Tickets HERE