Sunday, January 28, 2007

REVIEW: "Monday Night in Westerbork"

Sixty-two years ago, on January 27, 1945, Russian troops entered Auschwitz-Birkenau. This year, I commemorated the liberation of the surviving Jewish prisoners by attending S. Bear Bergman’s one-person show, “Monday Night in Westerbork.”

Westerbork was a transit camp where the Nazis gathered Jews, homosexuals, dissidents, and other undesirables; every Tuesday that week’s chosen victims boarded a train for the death camps. For a few years, it was also the site of the finest cabaret in Europe—a sparkling Scheherezade of a cabaret where Jewish actors and performers sang, danced, and joked to keep death away for one more night, one more week.

Now, as Bear ruefully notes, the Holocaust is a downer—not the world’s easiest choice for an evening’s entertainment. Holocaust stories can become syrupy paeans to inhumanly perfect martyrs, shallow mockeries (like Hogan’s Heroes), or bleak and painful sources of nightmares. (At least the last option is truthful.)

Bergman avoids these pitfalls by balancing the tragedy with humor. The storytelling is all the more poignant for being restrained and salted with wry humor. The humor, as much as the tragedy, reinforces the humanity of those who went to their deaths in cattle cars more than sixty years ago. The hilarity—and “Monday night in Westerbork” is astonishingly funny—never trivializes the sufferings of the 11 million who were murdered by the Nazis.

Bear moves easily between the character of Max Ehrlich, one of the founders of the cabaret, and the present, where zie comments on growing up as a queer Jew, listening to stories of the Holocaust from those who had survived it, and on incidents that occurred on zir research trip to Europe. By weaving in the need for queer acceptance, Bergman has limited the market for the work, but made it infinitely more powerful for those willing to listen. Moreover, by speaking up for the queer and transgendered community, Bergman is doing the work of the righteous in reminding everyone of the humanity of those society pushes away, condemns, ignores, despises.

“Monday Night in Westerbork” is an astonishing play and an astonishing performance. It has heart, it has humor, it has genuine power—and it is ultimately an affirmation of life and joy. Go see it. Take your teenagers, and then talk to them about what it means to be different.

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