They managed to survive the deadly cruelties of the Third Reich. Now - almost 60 years later - six Holocaust survivors from Vienna take the stage at a Berlin theater festival to tell their captivating stories.
For two straight hours the six performers from Vienna's Burgtheater sit on stage, only their faces illuminated behind two layers of half transparent canvas. They remain still with stern expressions, hardly moving except for the occasional twitch.
"We are here," is what these faces seem to be saying, "and our stories are now being told - right here, right now." It's the tale of how they survived the Holocaust and the nightmarish years between 1938 and 1945.
We are here
Lucia Heilman, Rudolf Gelhard, Vilma Neuwirth, Marko Feingold, Suzanne-Lucienne Rabinovici and Ari Rath are all between 80 and 100 years old. With the exception of Ms. Rabinovici, they all grew up in Vienna where they witnessed the annexation of Austria by the German Reich in March 1938.
They experienced first-hand the enthusiasm of the pro-Nazi masses, the police uniforms suddenly becoming adorned with swastikas, and neighbors that were once friendly suddenly turning into vicious Arians.
They witnessed how anti-Semitism suddenly turned into sheer violence, generating constant acts of evil, which the performers still vividly remember.
As the audience watches silently, Vima Neuwirth tells her story.
The first train went to the Dachau concentration camp on April 1, 1938, with 60 Jews among the total number of 151 deported men. Back then, Vilma Neuwirth's brother Kurth decided to pack his backpack. All he wanted was to escape. According to him, any attempt to live under Hitler as a Jew was basically suicide.
That's when families began to fall apart, Neuwirth says. What followed is well-known, and yet, it suffocates the audience in the theater, because the witnesses - whose stories the performers recount with sober voices - are present every single second.
They had to endure hunger, violence, cramped trains to the concentration camps, humiliation, disease, agony and mortal fear. But somehow they managed to survive and now they are sitting on stage as silent admonishers, confronting us with the darkest chapter of European history.
The audience listens, childhood pictures of the witnesses' parents and siblings as well as historic photographs from Austria, Germany and the Baltic States are projected on the canvas.
Never to forget
There was a seventh participant in the project, Ceija Stojka, a Romani woman and Holocaust survivor, who died in a Vienna nursing home on January 28, 2013. An internee in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen, she, her mother and four siblings were among the few survivors of an extended family of 200.
Her seat on stage remains empty, covered with a colored cloth. Toward the end of the evening, Ceija Stojka's voice can be heard from a tape, singing a moving song, and exhorting us to never forget.
His life is a priviledge, says director Rudolf Gelbard, when he finally comes on stage to address the audience with a few words. He says he never stopped wondering what he could do for those who didn't survive. That's why he decided to become their mouthpiece and he is worried that current neo-Nazi movements are not being taken seriously enough.
Some say neither Germany nor Austria have really come to terms with their past yet. To some observers it seems that in Austria in particular, fascism and genocide have not been properly dealt with.
Many Holocaust survivors felt they were not welcome there, anti-Semitic statements in the public were not always met with outrage, and Kurt Waldheim, a former NS-soldier with detailed knowledge about war crimes and deportations, served as the president of the country from 1986 to 1992.
After the performance, the witnesses also talk about their lives since 1945 in moderated talks with the audience - with brightness and humor.
The cultural festival "Berliner Festspiele" runs through May 18. The play is part of the theater festival "Theatertreffen" and is called "Purgatory in Inglostadt."