Kira Loretto is a 2009 graduate of Haverford College. She currently lives and works in Philadelphia, and plans to return to graduate school to study cultural journalism.
These hauntingly beautiful instructions are the beginning lines of Metronome Ticking, a powerful docudrama that I had the fortune to take in last week at Temple University, sponsored by the Dialogue Institute . The play, which takes place in Nazi occupied Europe during the rise of the Third Reich, is based on the real life letters of two individuals divided by the war—one, a Third Reich Correspondent and Propaganda Officer, the other an Austrian Holocaust survivor fleeing persecution with her family. The disparate story lines are woven together by the actors who narrate them, each the son of the author from whose letters they read, both born the same year, the same month, during World War II.
In a powerful creative decision, the audience listens as Henrik Eger, the writer and director of the docudrama, gives voice to letters that his father wrote to his mother while he traveled with the German army as a journalist. They are juxtaposed by Bob Spitz, who reads from the memoirs of his mother, which detail her family's harrowing experiences as Jewish refugees, including time her husband spent in two concentration camps: Dachau and Buchenwald.
Alf Eger and Lily Spitz are brought to life not only through their letters, but become visually real as old photographs and historical images are projected on screens to each side of the stage. With these images, the docudrama transforms into a multimedia experience that gives life to these two contemporaries and the war-torn period they lived in.
Eger's inspiration for the docudrama came from the loss of his father's journals, documenting the entire Third Reich, which Alf kept religiously throughout most of his adult life. Decades later, when Henrik asked his mother for the journals so that he might publish them, she burned them all, likely an act of shame or fear intended to prevent Alf's bigoted ideologies from being broadcast to the world.
The devastating loss of important historical documents—a detailed daily account of the entire Third Reich—caused Eger much anger and pain, but ultimately inspired him to create a play based on the burning of the journals and his parents' lives. While searching through old photo albums, he found his material—upwards of 500 letters that his father had written to his mother from Occupied France in the early 1940's.
A chance meeting with Bob Spitz brought the drama's other half to life. Along with the discovery of their contrasting backgrounds, they found that they shared a common desire to tell their parents' stories, and both men happened to possess extensive first person accounts. Out of this unlikely union came Metronome Ticking, which was performed for the first time in 2006 and now in a new translation of the Hamburg version where both Spitz and Eger performed the docudrama to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It was the hope of the creators that their stories, told together, could begin a healing process, and that the current generation might learn from the mistakes made by entire societies in the past.
Their stories are real—so real that at times one feels invasive being privy to the raw emotion that pours from the letters.
In one particularly heart wrenching passage, Lily describes the crippling guilt she felt at leaving her mother behind to flee to Italy, when she discovered, hours after arriving with her husband, that the border had been closed to refugees. The audience cannot help but feel pangs of anguish at the news. It also feels her panic, and subsequent relief when a German soldier knocks loudly at the door of the little house where they are in hiding, sure that their cover has been blown, only to present her with sweets for young Roby (Bob): "You might need these for your child,” he said, then turned and left.
The audience also experiences a range of emotions toward Alf, who writes lovingly to his wife, "My Dear Gritt, You are my bride, my equal, my comrade who should never allow herself to get lowered. You are original in your whole being." Yet, the same man is poisoned by prejudice, evident in his writing when he explains, "Gradually, it seeped into our brains which beasts and which poor crazy folks had damaged our youth. With every change of the moon, we will exterminate the evil around us." His sentiments are made all the more painful to swallow by the skilled literary beauty with which he articulates them. It makes the audience wonder what he could have accomplished had he used his pen for good instead of evil.
Halfway through the performance, the actors switch roles in a symbolic maneuver that forces the audience to think, and perhaps, to reflect. On the one hand, there is an acute discomfort in listening to the son of the persecutor read the voice of the Jewish woman whose very existence was at stake because of writers like Alf; and it evokes bitterness as Lily's Jewish son reads the words of Henrik's father, the enthusiastic supporter of Nazi ideology who, through his many articles, contributed to the poison of racism and anti-Semitism during World War II. Yet, there is a strange catharsis in this push of the envelope:
Progress is made by breaking down the walls of comfort zones, which are often burdened by fear of the unknown. Alf was blindly prejudiced against Jews and people of color, though he did not know them. In the spring of 1944, he ultimately despaired by the atrocities of war and especially by a mass execution he had witnessed in Russia. A few months later, he got killed by Russian partisans—a troubled, conflicted man at 31, a victim of the war he so zealously believed in at the start. The Spitz family immigrated to America some years later.
Metronome Ticking shows us the destruction that our fear is capable of, and encourages acceptance of each other so that the past does not repeat itself. Though the events in the play took place several decades ago, this docudrama possesses an appeal that is ageless, drawing universal empathy from its audience, teaching them lessons they will not soon forget.
The switch of roles also speaks to the arbitrary coincidence of birth. One has no control over the family that one is born into. That Henrik was born into a German family who trusted the Führer and all he stood for, and Bob to an Austria Jewish family, was simply fate at work. The circumstances of our birth and the environment we are raised in shape us as individuals and provide us with the values we live by, but they are a matter of coincidence. It is important to remember this arbitrary aspect of life when we think and talk about others and ourselves as we move through life.
The purpose of the metronome, which ticks steadily throughout the course of the play—is to remind us of our ticking conscience, always present, but often drowned out by the noise of daily life. It asks, “Are you listening?”
The drama concludes as chillingly as it began, leaving the audience to ponder this question as the actors slowly exit the room. Lead by Juliet Spitzer, the composer and performing artist of Jewish music , the two sons, born on the opposite side of the terrible divide during the Nazi era, sing a Hebrew song reserved for joyous occasions, but their tone is subdued, almost mournful. The audience sits, stunned for several silent moments, before they begin a thunderous applause.
“Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” Peace be upon you. “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.”