Anneliese (Ilsa) Kohlmann was a guard in Neuengamme concentration camp, said to have had liaisons with female prisoners. From the few facts that remain, playwright Yonatan Calderon has wrought a short play of shocking beauty, imagining a relationship between Kohlmann and a young Czech-Jewish prisoner, talented ballerina Lotte Rosner, feted in pre-war Prague.
The action takes place both in the 1940s in the camps and in 1991 in a Tel Aviv on lockdown during Gulf War air raids. With great subtlety Calderon has two women play the younger and older Lotte – and then tops this by requiring the actor playing Charlotte in 1991 to play Kohlmann in 1942, while ‘young’ Lotte plays an unwelcome visitor in 1991, seeking to reawaken Charlotte’s carefully-buried memories. A third actor is Lotte’s fellow prisoner and confidante as well as a pair of Nazis in the camp and a ghostly presence in 1991.
Director Ariella Eshed and choreographer Revital Snir build on this coup de théâtre to create a production of great theatrical beauty; scene changes are balletic dance sequences where the actors help each other into different garments to morph between characters and time periods on Joanne Marshall’s simple, versatile set.
So your late grandfather assumes the role of a fairly benign dybbuk (malevolent spirit) and enters the bodies of a variety of unsuspecting hosts, mostly Israeli (as we are mostly in Tel Aviv), to gee you up to right what he perceives as a historical wrong perpetrated during the 1940s in post-war Eastern Europe. It’s not quite on the same scale of the vengeance that, say, Hamlet’s father demands. All Grandfather’s co-survivor and landsman (person from the same village) has done is slope off when the pair are apprehended for trying to sell smuggled sugar on the black market, leaving Grandfather to face the music and two months in a Russian labour camp. But Grandfather is rankled in death, as in life, and now he’s spotted a chance to set the record straight, for the cowardly landsman’s historian of a grandson, Yoad Riva, is writing a book about his grandfather.
This is the clever, quirky premise of Gur Koren’s moving, funny chamber piece, which opens a window onto the past, to remind us that it is always with us, particularly in the case of second and third generation Holocaust survivors, and especially for Israelis.