Jewish actor plays a Nazi in new series about non-Jew who helped Anne Frank

Donskoy shared that it is difficult for him to watch himself playing a Nazi and to personally promote the show on social media with a picture of himself wearing a swastika.

Daniel Donskoy in "A Small Light" series. (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)
Daniel Donskoy in "A Small Light" series.
(photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

When Jewish Russian-German-Israeli actor Daniel Donskoy received an offer to play the role of an Austrian Nazi, the 33-year-old actor, who usually plays Jewish characters, decided to go for it. 

“It was just full-on auditioning for a series. I read it and there wasn’t even a comment on it. It just said ‘Karl Silberbauer’ in the Disney Plus series A Small Light,’” Donskoy told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview from his home in Berlin.

Donskoy shared that he initially joked about the role. “In my mind, I think one of my first jokes when talking about it was I said ‘actually to be very honest with you, it would be the greatest revenge of a Jewish actor in 2023 to portray a Nazi.’ And I said it without the predicament of what it means,” he added in a perfectly British accent, as he spends his time between Germany and the UK.

"It would be the greatest revenge of a Jewish actor in 2023 to portray a Nazi.’

Daniel Donskoy

Two American filmmakers created this eight-episode limited series that tells the remarkable true story of 20-something secretary Miep Gies (portrayed by British actress Bel Powley). Gies didn’t hesitate when her boss, Otto Frank (portrayed by Hollywood actor Liev Schreiber, of Ray Donovan, X-Men), asked her to hide him and his family from the Nazis during World War II. The series premiered a few weeks ago on the National Geographic and Disney+ channels.

For the next two years, Gies, her husband, Jan (played by Joe Cole, Skins), and several other everyday heroes watched over the eight souls hiding in the secret annex. It was Gies who found Anne Frank’s diary and preserved it so that she and Otto could later share it with the world. 

Daniel Donskoy in 'A Small Light.'Daniel Donskoy in 'A Small Light.'

Daniel Donskoy's personal and professional background

Donskoy has a very unique background that allows him to be a diverse actor. He shared that “I was born in Moscow. My mom’s family is from Ukraine and my dad’s family is from Russia. I grew up in Berlin until I was about 13 and then we moved to Israel when my mother married an Israeli. I finished my high school in Israel and returned to Berlin when I was 18. I studied biology and then acting in London. I’ve been lucky to work for the last seven or eight years,” he said.

Donskoy’s career has taken him from theater in the UK to TV and then to the German industry. “Funnily enough, for a Jewish actor, my first role in Germany was playing a Catholic priest, which is quite the story,” he added.

Donskoy usually gets Jewish roles in Germany but outside of Germany, he explained that he gets other types of roles. “In Germany, I can’t really fault them to the full extent because I have created and produced the only kind of like Jewish talk show. Which was very important in terms of talking about Jewry and interviewing Jewish personalities on German television,” he said.

The name of Donskoy’s talk show is Freitagnacht Jews which translates to “Friday Night Jews”. It is the first Jewish late-night talk show on German TV and it offers Jews a stage on which to talk about their identity. He recently finished filming the second and last season.

The struggles of portraying himself as a Nazi

During the interview, he explained that in Germany, there is a focus on remembrance and the Holocaust, but there is a limited amount of perspectives about living modern Jews in Germany. “That’s where the show was important,” he said about Friday Night Jews. “But that also meant that I knew that for about one or two years, there will be a strong focus on that and then suddenly you’re supposed to give an opinion ‘from a Jewish perspective’ on many things going on. The thing is, what is a Jewish perspective?’” he asked, explaining that he didn’t love being in the spot of having to be opinionated and outspoken.

However, when Donskoy got the role in A Small Light and was on set, the reality of portraying a Nazi hit him. “Then obviously when you are on the set, standing there obviously in your dressing room with the SS skull on your head [on the hat], when my mom’s husband’s parents are both [Holocaust] survivors it suddenly becomes real,” he said.

Donskoy shared that he spoke with his parents about the role and particularly with his stepdad, for obvious reasons. “I spoke to him because it could potentially trigger something that is beyond traumatizing. My parents reacted exactly the way they did when I told them about the Jewish talk show: ‘Why are you doing this? Just don’t do it. Don’t do it,’” he portrayed their conversation.

The acting itself was challenging for Donskoy because the script showed the humanity of his character. “The script shows a form of humanity in which he connects with Meep about both of them being Austrian and that is one of the most horrifying things because you see a human being being human to one sort of human and you see that that human, not as a monster, but as a human, who is able to then kill everyone else,” he explained.

Donskoy shared that it is difficult for him to watch himself playing a Nazi and to personally promote the show on social media with a picture of himself wearing a swastika. “It is so gruesome to watch. For me it’s difficult to share a photo of myself dressed like this.” He explained that it is important to give the context of the story to the audience “so it makes a bit more sense. I don’t want to be like Prince Harry with a swastika,” Donskoy said of the photo of the prince a number of years ago dressed in a Nazi uniform at a party. 

“A good friend of mine in Berlin has been researching the judicial dismissal of 90% of Nazi perpetrators and the character I portrayed was one of them. He was cleared of most of his wrongdoings and he lived life until he was 70. He went to work for the police and you can’t imagine that these things happen,” he said.

In response to a question about whether there was a moment on set when he was surrounded by Nazis and suddenly freaked out as result of the chaotic situation, Donskoy shared that there was one event as such. “There was this one scene in the raid where I’m supposed to form this connection with Miep Gies, played by Bel Powley and I remember Tony Phelan, the director saying to me ‘I really need you to want to help her, but in the most Nazi way.’

And I said ‘Okay, how do I help somebody in the most Nazi way?’ Tony explained that ‘you connect with her on the humane level, whilst dismissing every other human connection you have.’ And that really trickled down and then the character says ‘I want to help you. Why are you doing this?’” Donskoy portrayed the situation.

Interestingly, Donskoy explained that he enjoyed working with this form of direction and also that it wasn’t a German series, for two reasons: “In Germany, I wouldn’t have been casted for the part,” since he always plays the Jewish characters, but also “there would have been so much caution, while here there was no caution. Tony said ‘I want to see you. I want to see you feel her.’ That really helped me really focus on the most basic emotional connections, which is a human connection.”

Donskoy shared that it was fantastic “acting side-by-side with Liev Schreiber, who played Otto Frank,” in the series. “For a very gruesome story, it was very uplifting. We also had a great time together with actresses such as Amira Casar, Bel Powley and obviously the two girls who play the Frank girls who were incredible. But Liev played Otto Frank so amazingly. His energy was very calm and lovely.” 

He added that “Powley is incredible; a beaming light of energy.”

Donskoy shared that he had a great time playing his role and hopes that the show can help German audiences take a new perspective. “For me, to be honest, it really sounds like my ulterior motive is I really believe that a show like this can also help German audiences take a new perspective. Why? Because it’s not the perpetrator or the victim.

Because as a young German audience member, you probably go ‘Oh my god, they’re gonna take me to Anne Frank House again.’ There is a lot of talk in Germany about the Holocaust. And as we all know, around Europe, people are getting tired, sadly, of listening. But the story of a hero from the Dutch resistance is a story that actually empowers young people to be political and to have a voice to really form an opinion,” he said.

Donskoy explained that he was brought up in a very political household and that he sometimes wishes he could steer towards romantic comedies but for some reason, the offers to play in these types of movies don’t make it to him. “At the moment, I've been involved in very political projects and I think that’s the way I’m going to go,” he added.