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Arts

German play about sex abuse at school stirs up real-life memories

No one wants to be a victim, but boys in Germany were sexually abused in Catholic schools. Now a new play examines their struggles as adults - and comes painfully close to reality.

One after the other, the actors enter the dark stage and sit on chairs arranged in a half-circle. Thomas Melle's play, "Bilder von uns" (Pictures of us) begins by separating the individuals from each other - and that is not a coincidence.

"No one is the only one," a victim will later say, "But each one is alone with their memories."

These are memories of the unspeakable: a priest who inappropriately touches the children in his care in the shower and sauna, who takes nude pictures of them, and who even forces them to engage in sexual conduct. All of these things happened many years ago, in a school.

Since then, time has passed. But one day, a photo turns up.

Jesko is a 40-year-old media manager who is successful in his job and happily married. He discovers the photograph on his mobile phone. It's a picture of him, naked, as a young boy. He continues to receive similar photographs. Is someone trying to blackmail him?

He is deeply concerned by the images, but doesn't tell his wife. Was he a victim? Is his whole life somehow based on a lie that he has told himself for many years?

Jesko tries to uncover the anonymous sender. What ensues is a Germany-wide sexual abuse scandal, and Jesko's life gets out of control.

No one wants to be the victim

But not only Jesko's life - three other victims of sexual abuse speak up. They find the former schoolmates have dealt with the trauma in entirely different ways. Malte, who works in the advertising industry, takes the approach of superficial cynicism. He demands the case be cleared up publicly and wants to go on a talk show.

Johannes, the successful attorney, would rather not dig up the past. And Konstantin, whose life has fallen apart, commits suicide before Jesko can decide how to proceed.

Konstantin's suicide is the final straw for Jesko. His marriage falls apart and he has a serious car accident.

Scene from the play by Thomas Melle, Bilder von uns at the Theater Bonn, Copyright: Thilo Beu/ Theater Bonn

Holger Kraft as Johannes; Benjamin Grüter as Jesko, Hajo Tuschy as Malte (from left)

"I don't have any problem with men who are victims," his wife told him, "Only with those who don't want to be one."

Hundreds of young boys have been sexually abused at boarding schools in Germany. Thomas Melle, who was born in Bonn in 1975, attended the Aloisiuskolleg, a Jesuit boarding school in Bad Godesberg near Bonn. Between the 1950s and 2005, sexual abuse occurred at the Aloisiuskolleg, as it did at the Casinius-Kolleg in Berlin and the Odenwaldschule. The cases were not made public until 2010.

Melle has woven real events into his play, giving it a greater sense of urgency. However, the play is not meant to be a documentary of what really happened, he told DW.

"Everyone who went to this school had to view their past in a new way - whether or not they were a victim," he said.

The former pupils began a decades-long struggle with their own identity.

'No one wanted to hear their stories'

In February 2010, some 500 former students from the Aloisiuskolleg published an open letter, in which they claimed to have been sexually abused at the school.

In the final report of the Jesuit order's investigative committee, it read, "The abuse was not always visible at first glance." The main perpetrator covered up his actions as "custodial or educational measures," even allowing himself to shower with the pupils and rub soap on them.

Ten-to-12-year-olds were required to undress completely before he took their temperature anally.

How do the former students deal with being victims of a power trap in a closed system? Melle's play takes the perspective of the victims, which gives the viewer a glimpse into their emotional torture.

The play focuses more directly on the individual, rather than the collective, aspect of the situation - which came out clearly after the performance during a round-table discussion with the audience and guests. A former chairwoman of the parent committee at the school admitted, "our children had to experience early on that no one wanted to hear their stories."

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