This performance is part of the nationwide 70th commemoration services of the infamous Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, when, all over Germany and Austria, synagogues were systematically burned, Jewish homes and businesses destroyed, and the deportation to the concentration camps accelerated in ever larger numbers.
Discovering Third Reich secrets
Metronome Ticking came about when I asked my mother in Germany to send me my father’s many handwritten journals in which he had documented his life during the Third Reich on an almost daily basis.
I knew from many accounts that my father, Ernst-Alfred Eger, known as Alf, was a lively, highly talented young writer who worked as a foreign correspondent in London before World War II, a propaganda officer in occupied France, in charge of the press in Cherbourg and the west of France, and later as a war correspondent in Russia, but that was about all.
In spite of many conversations with my mother during my teenage years, I had no idea of my father’s involvement in the Third Reich, let alone that of my mother who consistently denied any involvement.
My mother, however, always told me that when I was old enough, she would give me my father’s journals. As a youngster, I took one at random and forgot about it until, many years later, I opened it at random, and discovered an entry in which my dad gleefully described a visit to a local priest in 1935 during which the priest at the Catholic rectory happily told my father that he had been a member of the NSDAP (the Nazi party) for many years.
At that moment I had a suspicion that there may be more information in those journals that would shed light on the inner workings of the worst time in German history. I therefore asked my mother to send me all of my father’s many journals and added, naively, that I wanted to publish excerpts.
I regret that statement to this day because my mother subsequently took my father’s handwritten life work and threw all of his daily journals into an incinerator at the garbage disposal unit of her hometown. I was so upset that I could barely talk with her.
Determined to write a play about this scenario, I then searched for photo albums that my mother had given me many years ago. In between those 20 or so old tomes I found half a dozen albums with handwritten love letters that my father had written to her and which, mercifully, my mother had forgotten, letters that made frequent references to the importance of my father’s daily diaries.
Rescuing important texts from oblivion
As I cannot read the old German Suetterlin handwriting, I almost despaired, but found the Suetterlinstube in Hamburg, an organization that transcribes old letters, diaries, and documents into modern German and sends the documents via MS Word documents to readers all over Germany and as far as Israel and the US.
The seniors at the Suetterlinstube—under its coordinator, Dr. Peter Hohn—who already had worked on the writings of Holocaust survivors, went all out and faithfully transcribed the 500 letters my father had sent my mother from occupied France, a total of about 2000 pages.
Once they arrived in Philadelphia via e-mail, I could not stop but read and highlight the best and the worst parts, ranging from funny, witty, highly original passages to devastating statements about making Europe “frei von dem Juden” (“free of the Jew”).
I found myself laughing one moment and crying the next, learning a great deal about my parents and even the beginning of my life, but also feeling utter despair when I came across racist and anti-Semitic comments, such as, statements on what to do with Jews and the “racially mixed.”
German-Jewish cooperation in Philadelphia, USA
It was at that time, in the summer of 2006, that I met Bob Spitz in Philadelphia. His father, Fredl Spitz, an Austrian Jew, had been transported to Dachau and later to Buchenwald. Bob’s young mother, Lily Spitz, after some nerve-wracking experiences at the Gestapo headquarters in Vienna, managed to get Fredl out of the concentration camps, just in time to take the last train out of Austria before the borders closed with the outbreak of World War II. After horrifying years, constantly being on the run, the little family survived and made it to the U.S., where Lily Spitz later wrote her memoirs.
As soon as I read those haunting memoirs, I knew that I needed to change my play and, instead, base it on the survivor’s memoirs and my father’s personal writing. Many months of feverish editing and translating over two thousand pages led to the first performance of Metronome Ticking on Nov. 9, 2006 in the presence of quite a few Holocaust survivors at Martins Run in Media, America’s oldest retirement community.
Various performances at synagogues followed, with many audience members crying and asking us many questions afterwards, and with lots of hugs all around.
Inside the heart of Darkness
Metronome Ticking, the docudrama, makes visible the process of language being used to conceal: Alf manipulates through censorship of the press in occupied France while Lily’s mother tries to find a way around the German censorship imposed on the inmates in a death camp near Minsk, omitting explicit details, while foreshadowing her own execution with the use of just one word: “Amen!”
ALF: In Normandy, even though I write less than before, I now steer, lead, entice, manipulate, and mislead in order to head off the cross-flow of the French press. I am busy translating French articles; that is one of the main things that should bear fruits later. I negotiate with directors, with high ranking clergymen; I make many newspapers wastepaper basket-ripe, promote only a few daily papers, and play one against the other. In short, it is excessively interesting.
Politically there’s a lot going on, more and more French activists are joining our plan. You know as well as I that the red vermin must be destroyed, and with it the gold kings [his code word for Jews].
LILY: The contact with our mothers was only interrupted while we were in Napoli in prison. We had no newspaper. All we knew was that the war was still going on. The only strange thing was that mother ended her letters and postcards with "AMEN". It disturbed me, but I had no explanation for it. One day a postcard came from a Gentile friend of my mother, to let me know, that my mother had also gone on "vacation" like so many of her friends.
Now we understood: they were taken to concentration camps. When I read the card I started to shake. I had no control of my arms and legs and I could not speak coherently.
Ironically, Alf, the German propaganda officer who once had manipulated as many influential French people as possible to join the “German mission,” later saw the result of that “mission” at a mass execution that he witnessed as a war correspondent in Russia. Afterwards, the man, once dedicated to Hitler and the Third Reich, no longer wanted to talk and even lost his will to live. In one of his last letters to my mother, the young Third Reich Faustus recognized that he had made a pact with the wrong Party, when he wrote:
ALF: Read more than my letters. Read that which I did not write. Read that which could shatter my heart.
The silence of the Jewish grandmother in Minsk echoed Alf’s silence on his last visit back home before he, too, got killed in Russia in the summer of 1944, at the age of 31. Interwoven with this theme of being confronted by harsh realities is Lily’s lifelong guilt for not having been able to rescue her mother.
Both Alf and Lily are overcome by emotions and recognize that it’s too late. Yet, their two sons stand on the stage together—the sons of Abel and Cain—playing both their parents’ roles, even changing their roles, embracing each other, aware that we must be vigilant and never allow another Kristallnacht to happen again.
Jewish and Christian Cooperation in Hamburg, Germany
The various performances, co-sponsored by the Suetterlinstube and the Jewish Congregation of Hamburg, under the leadership of Board president Ruben Herzberg—a school principal and Middle East coordinator of the School Dept. of the Hamburg Senate where, among others, he arranges meetings between Jewish and Palestinian organizations—will also include a performance at the Thoraschule, now the Jewish Community Center of Hamburg, a community that is made up largely of Russian immigrant families but which also has many students from other schools who will attend the event on Nov. 10, a performance at the famous Ansgarkirche, and a farewell performance at the Walddörfer-Gymnasium, a Hamburg high school.
The first performance on Nov. 7 will take place at the Ansgarkirche (church) where Anita Ree, a Jewish artist had been commissioned in the early 1930s to paint the Ansgar Triptych. The church elders at that time, however, withdrew the offer for “cultic reasons” when they found out that her parents were Jewish, even though she had been baptized as a Christian. Hounded out of the Hamburg Artist’s League because of her ancestry, she committed suicide in 1933.
Pastor Tobias Götting, the minister at the Ansgarkirche today, takes an active stand on discrimination issues, and organizes annual programs on the pogroms of November 9 in memory of the victims of the Nazi period—of those who had no chance. He even refused to have an old brick swastika removed from the church tower as a symbol of evil and a daily reminder of the past and the lack of support for one’s fellow human beings during the Third Reich. We will read the first German performance of Metronome Ticking next doors to the copies of the burned originals of Anita Ree’s art work at the Ansgar church.
The songs in Hebrew, German, English, and French that accompany the play will be sung by Hanna Wehner of Krefeld, Germany, whose father, a young worker for the post office in Celle during WWII, passed the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp daily and secretly threw clothing and food over the fence until his wife threatened him with divorce as there was little left in their home. He then asked for donations from the postal workers in Celle and they chipped in so he could continue throwing his food and clothing packages over the fence, until he was drafted and sent to Russia where he died young, just like my father.
Metronome Ticking ends with the “Healing song” by Aryeh Hirschfield, sung in both English and Hebrew, followed by “Hevenu Shalom Alechem” peace be with you—moving from a dirge-like rendering to a joyful song that invites everyone to join in, ending a docudrama that encourages the audience to respect others in their otherness, aware that, ultimately, we have much more in common than anything that might separate us.
The son of the Jewish concentration camp prisoner and the son of the German propaganda officer during the Third Reich who have become friends in Philadelphia, will stand next to each other on the stage of the Kammerspiele in the former Jewish quarter of Hamburg, the hometown of Alf Eger, with the metronome of consciousness ticking, even now, 70 years after the horrendous event.
May we always listen to our innermost voice and act accordingly. May we always be there for each other.