The poisonous blonde of Berlin: The controversial Stella Goldschlag story

Stella is believed to have caught anywhere from 600 to 3,000 Jews.

A SCENE from Neukoellner Oper’s musical ‘Stella: the Blond Poison of Kurfurstendamm.’ (photo credit: MATTHIAS HEYDE)
A SCENE from Neukoellner Oper’s musical ‘Stella: the Blond Poison of Kurfurstendamm.’
(photo credit: MATTHIAS HEYDE)
Stella Goldschlag had all the makings of a jazz star. She was beautiful, talented and ambitious. She grew up in a musical household in Berlin. She was not shy about exploiting her female charms – including in the bedroom – to get ahead. There was just one problem: she was Jewish, even though she could pass for “Aryan” with her famous blonde hair. But the Nazis didn’t care if she didn’t look like or consider herself a Jew; in the early 1940s, her greatest hope was staying alive.
Stella Goldschlag’s story is the stuff of books, films, plays, and this month, a musical in Berlin running through the end of September at the Neukoellner Oper. Stella utilized attributes that could have made her a Marlene Dietrich contemporary (had her father not been denied an American visa) for one, pernicious purpose: catching Jews. From 1943, she became a star of the Gestapo’s “Greifer” service, a Jew-catching service set up once Berlin was supposed to be “Judenrein” and all remaining Jews lived underground as “U-boats.” What better way to find the “U-boats” then to inject the Berlin streets with “blonde poison,” as Stella came to be known. Stella is believed to have caught anywhere from 600 to 3,000 Jews.
Stella: the Blond Poison of Kurfurstendamm dramatizes one of many tragic Sophie’s Choice moments. Stella’s parents were threatened with deportation to Auschwitz if she did not participate in the Nazis’ schemes. But her story turns sinister when she performs her “job” with panache, applying her theatrical flair to trick and inform on even old friends. After the war, both East and West German courts found her guilty of aiding and abetting murder, and she continually remained unrepentant, casting herself as a victim, rejecting her Jewish identity unless it served her. She was found dead outside her window in 1994, an apparent suicide, two years after the publication of her biography by Peter Wyden, a childhood classmate. Stella’s daughter, born after the war to one of her various lovers, currently lives in northern Israel, having fiercely rejected her mother from an early age.
The instinctual reaction of people who hear about a musical dedicated to a star “Jew catcher” is usually surprise, confusion and sometimes disgust, but the writer, Peter Lund, believes the musical form touches upon many themes of her appalling story. It posthumously makes her the musical star she could’ve been, lamenting a lost world of Jewish musical talent and casting blame on the true villains of the story forcing her into this chilling choice.
“She had the real dream of a twentieth century musical career, to be free, a free woman, to be a star,” Lund said over beer in the patio of the Neukoellner Oper, joined by the composer, Wolfgang Boehmer. This is the second annual production, building on its success as Germany’s best musical last year.
And while it’s easy to judge Stella out of hand as evil for collaborating with the Nazis under pain of her parents’ deportation, Lund and Boehmer are not keen on making the moral choice black or white.
“It’s intended to make the public unsafe about judging. Judging her as a guilty person. So it’s a bit more mixed,” said Boehmer, who is married to Adriana Altaras, a Jewish writer, director and actress originally hailing from former Yugoslavia. The musical, he said, has been overall well received by the Jewish community in Berlin. Their son will co-star in a film about Berlin “U-Boats” premiering in October, featuring Stella’s story. Lund and Boehmer are hoping an English production of Stella will be mounted in the near future.
For the first time, the musical will premiere outside of Berlin, on October 21 at the Stadthteater Ingolstadt in Bavaria, directed by Texas native Brian Bell. Bell moved to Berlin about nine years ago and first learned about Stella while training to be a tour guide at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where Stella was imprisoned for two years after it was converted into a Soviet prison.
“It pushes all the buttons,” Bell said. “The ‘loyalty to ethnic identity’ button, or lack thereof; the ‘what would I have done in that situation’ button; the ‘morality’ button – what is morality and where does it begin and end; and the ‘survival’ button – what would people do to survive. What I think the script does even better or beyond all that is that it asks the question: what would I do in that situation.”
Bell said the musical genre is effective for “heightening reality,” but his production will differ from the Berlin rendition, which is not the kind of Broadway musical non-Germans might expect. The Berlin director, Martin Berger, went for a vanguard, tech-savvy approach, employing video monitors and even video selfies from the characters to draw the audience into their world. Most of the action takes place in multi-leveled glass cage set in arena staging.
Bell’s show will take a more traditional approach, and he hopes it will not induce empathy for Stella’s plight, a critique he has of the Berlin show.
“I think it’s okay to have sympathy for her; I think it’s not good to have empathy for her.” At the same time, Bell included a number considered too risqué for the Berlin production, entitled (from German) “Jews Have Fun During Sex,” around Stella’s sexual encounters with Rolf Isaacson, her husband-in-crime in turning in Jews.
“It’s a perfect musical number,” Bell said. “It’s intentionally provocative, but the whole point of it is: L’chaim.”