Former Nazi officer Schatz Ulman (David Levinsky), once lauded as the devourer of Jews, hides in his apartment in post-war Germany. He is not alone. Hunted by the laughing specter of Genghis Cohen (Yahel Papo), one of his many victims, Ulman is driven into near madness by the ghoul.
Cohen can only be seen by Ulman and other murderers of his ilk, like the town mayor (Yoni Livyatan), another former Nazi criminal. Cohen also has the power to deprive Ulman of sleep. If the ghost of Banquo shook its gory locks at Macbeth to drive him mad with fright, Cohen needs to but snap his fingers and Ulman is plunged back to the moment he murdered the Jewish comedian.
The impressive retelling of the same-titled 1967 French novel by Romain Gary at this cultural moment by director Ben Saidoff and playwright Michael Kahana is a bold decision. Gary, a Vilnius-born Jewish-French writer who modified his name from Roman Kacew, became famous for imaginative novels like the 1983 work King Solomon (under the pen name Emile Ajar) and a series of novels that presented a heroic aspect of the French experience in the previous century, such as the 1956 novel The Roots of Heaven.
Clad in Haredi garb, Papo greeted the audience as it entered the theater and pranced around the suffering Levinsky, who attempted to hide in his bed. The artistic decision, to play Yiddish songs by the Barry Sisters, is an attempt to bridge a chasm without admitting it.
The Barry Sisters became famous for presenting an idealized lost Yiddish culture to mostly American Jews. Cohen, a Yiddish language comedian who told such a good joke to a fellow inmate in Auschwitz the poor soul became the only Jew to die laughing in the camp needs some sort of musical cue to inform us he is from that world. A better choice might have been to play “a tog fun nekome” (a day for revenge) by Mordkhe Gebirtig from the 2014 album Two Worlds by Benjy Fox–Rosen. The odd Yiddish speaker would appreciate hearing, in a play about Jewish revenge and its limitations, “there will come, do you hear me, there will come a day/ which will take revenge for us” and not Chiribim Chiribom.
As Papo peeled off his clothes from Haredi to a secular comedian and from that to the striped uniform of an inmate, he rushed us through the tragedy of the Holocaust. The alleged failure of assimilation and the short-sightedness of putting one’s faith in tolerance and democracy. When he torments his killer repeatedly and with relish, he forces Ulman to walk up to a firing position and re-slay Cohen, who always exposes his rear end and screams “Kish mir in tuches!” [Kiss my Ass].
THIS IS the idealized feel-good element in Gary’s fiction. Who would have the boldness to do such a thing in front of the gaping maw of a ditch with shot bodies inside? There is a myth Gebirtig sang his revenge song in the Krakow Ghetto before he was shot – yet there is no evidence to support that. The Gary fiction is, strangely, similar to the comforting 1997 Italian film Life Is Beautiful. In it, a Jewish father (Roberto Benigni) pretends for the sake of his son that the concentration camp is a big game made up by adults. Such a creative act of resistance is so outlandish the film was slammed by some as being too close to Holocaust denial. Yet the ungarnished history of the murder of the Jewish people in Europe is not suitable for good ratings.
As the poet Yitzhak Laor noted, Rolf Friedemann Pauls served as the first German ambassador in Israel despite his dedicated service to the Nazi war machine at the Eastern Front. According to Laor, this was part of the bargain David Ben Gurion struck with the Germans. Israelis will accept German money and become a part of the imagined West and in exchange, will not remind this West of uneasy truths. To this day, most Israelis direct their rage at what historian Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania – not Italy and France.
Levinsky is spellbinding in the role of the tormented Ulman and his outstanding achievement is the way he uses his physical presence during the one-hour play. He weeps, pleads for sleep, is marched off by his personal dybbuk against his will, becomes his Nazi self when he murders Cohen again, and again, and cries with relief when greeted by Livyatan.
Livyatan deserves praise
Livyatan deserves praise for his unflinching portrait of the mayor, another former Nazi criminal, who also has a personal demon. A woman (Maya Dagan) he brutally raped and murdered.
Dagan is unable to speak like Cohen does because in true Nazi fashion her human had cut off her tongue. Livyatan, and this is a highly unusual choice, voices his contempt of the Jewish ghosts who never seem to speak about Tibet or any of the other crimes committed in the world.
“I read in the newspaper that the Jews in Israel are also thinking of doing some transports,” he tells Cohen. When the dead comedian weeps “this is antisemitism”, the two men glare at him.
Cohen is right, the crime of the Holocaust does not wash out when compared to other horrors. To blame Jews for speaking of it is a form of antisemitism. Yet the issue remains: how can we speak of the Holocaust? Israeli high school students used to visit Poland to learn about the so-called Final Solution. That has been stopped. What should young Israelis do now?
Like other plays now on stage, The Beast of Memory, with actor Ben Yosipovich, and Mindfuck, with Orit Zafran. The first is about a guide who leads young Israelis on Holocaust tours in Poland and the second is about an Israeli woman who throws a party to celebrate the defeat of the Nazis, this performance picks at a scab Israelis are fated to carry with them forever. If schools may not send pupils abroad, they can send them to the theater to watch this powerful play.