Die Judische Frau

In a past life, I studied German. It’s hard to believe and most days I even forget, but my undergrad was in German Languages and Lit at the University of Michigan. During my time there, I participated in a German language theater group, Deutsches Theater, led by my good friend, Janet Shier. She teaches German at the Residential College and continues to use German language theater to improve language proficiency and to teach German history and 20th century German culture. It’s a great group and I am proud to have been a part of it.

Last night, I got the the opportunity to see an excellent performance of Bertolt Brecht’s “Die Judische Frau”, one scene among many from Brecht’s “Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches.” Brecht originally envisioned the piece as a tool to develop awareness for the rising insanity occurring within 1930’s Germany. Jewish people were increasingly marginalized, intellectuals, political leftists and free thinkers were largely going into exile, and those who were left behind either reluctantly participated in or actively supported the reprehensible Hitler regime.

In 2010, it seems that Hitler has become a watered-down figure through Hollywood (Hogan’s Heroes, Raiders of the Lost Ark), or through political appropriation of Hitler as a symbol of whatever party is politically unpopular at the time. People vastly forget, or are completely unaware of the complexities and horrors of that period. The Holocaust was but a culmination of a much scarier phenomena of a government gone mad, and a people who were either knowingly or unknowingly complicit. This phenomena played itself out in 1930’s Germany, Japan in the same period, China during the Cultural Revolution, Rwanda, Israel and Bosnia. I would even argue that is has happened here in the US at various points in history, although our record of violence and genocide has largely been overseas, and out of sight of the American people, with the large exception of what has been wrought upon the Native American peoples.

I’ve seen this particular piece done more than a couple of times. Last night’s student led performance (by Kaela Parnicky) was the best I’ve seen, though. She gave a wonderful and utterly convincing performance of a Jewish wife seeking to leave her marriage to a German doctor, and underlines the complexity of Jewish people in German society during the 1930’s, and the struggle to make sense of it all. Excellent.

Realizing how much German I’ve forgotten was rather painful though. In fact, I kept translating everything in my head to Japanese for some reason. I think there’s a second language section of the brain that operates autonomously, kind of like a segregated lunch room.

Strangely, on the way out, I happened upon a Jewish student group handing out plastic menorahs on the street and wishing everyone a Happy Hanukkah. Bizarrely, they had a huge menorah in the back of a 4×4 pickup truck.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

4 responses to “Die Judische Frau”

  1. Mark Maynard says :

    I haven’t seen a Brecht play since about 1992, when you dragged me out to one. It had to do with parents afraid to speak in front of their son, who was involved in the Hitler Youth movement. Ver powerful stuff.

  2. Pete Larson says :

    Wow, I completely forgot about that.

  3. Jennifer Gariepy says :

    This reminds me of the political cabarets run by Rosa Valetti, Joachim Ringelnatz, Werner Finck, and others with whom Brecht was connected. They tried to laugh the Nazis out of power.

  4. Pete Larson says :

    It’s a good strategy! We have been trying to same thing here in the States, but people just don’t have a decent sense of humor.

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