Treblinka Café

(Change of rhythm, diction)
Had I heard that
the acting commandant
at Treblinka, Kurt Franz,
is supposed to have held
so-called sporting events
that ended with the death of the loser,
and that this commandant, a trained chef, had trained his dog to tear people to shreds, beginning with their genitals, and that when Franz was arrested,
they found a photo album from Treblinka with an inscription reading GOOD TIMES; even if I’d known it were possible that this Kurt Franz, who’s since been pardoned, may still linger among the living, cooking himself soup somewhere in Germany, or warming up his blood sausage,
even had I known of this,
I’d not have wanted to know,
certainly not about this!

Kurt Franz—
No!
GOOD TIMES—
yes, and
enough!
Good times. Enough.

(Quickly back and forth, sentences insistent, stereotyped, “resistant”)
Showers and disinfection chambers—
The sand is white!
Disinfection via sanitations technology—
The sand is white!
Racial hygiene—
The sand is white!
Gas vans—
The sand is white!
Gas chamber—
The sand is white!

Wannsee Conference—
The sea is blue!
Final solution—
The sea is blue!
Sonderkommando—
The sea is blue!
Sonderbehandlung—
The sea is blue!
Operation Reinhard—
The sea is blue!

(Change in rhythm, in a rage, throwing props against the projection screen—snow)
No!
Café—closed!
Closed!
Expired!
Not even an evening’s worth!
Borderland Theater!
Theater!
The sea is blue, the stage is set—
Theater!
Municipal Theater!

(Resumes pacing)
Lublin—
The sand is white, white is the sand.
Belzec—
The sea is blue, blue is the sea.
Sobibor—
White is the sand, the sand is white.
Treblinka—
Blue is the sea, the sea is blue.

(Interrupts his pacing center stage; addressing himself either to “A” or to the audience)
The sea is blue, blue is the sea,
and now the café is closed.
(Moves back and forth in the same rhythm as before, INAUDIBLY declaiming; the stage goes dark as slowly as possible.)

—2001

 

translator’s note: When Tanzcafé Treblinka was first performed in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 2001, it went largely unremarked by the critical press. His failure to produce the scandals that make literary careers was a longtime lament of Werner Kofler’s, a lament he often strategically overplayed in order to get at something else. As a writer who, in his own words, proceeded from the conviction that “crime has a name and an address” to calling by name and to task “criminals” of all stripes, Kofler never generalized but localized the facts and outcomes of history. When these hit too close to home, the critical community looks away, and therein lies the scandal.

The café proprietor in this drama, Ernst Lerch, was indeed instrumental in the mass murders that were carried out in Poland during World War II. And, indeed, Lerch returned to Klagenfurt after the fact to resume running the café that earlier had served as the illicit meeting grounds for to-be Nazi war criminals and later would launch the careers of many middling entertainers in the postwar schlock entertainment industry. Throughout the war years, Harry Piel kept the masses in good humor with spectacular motion picture hijinks. Since the late 1990s, Wörthersee in Klagenfurt has been host to the International Federation of Volleyball world championships. Twice now since the start of the third millennium, the city’s municipal theater has premiered productions of Lehár’s sentimental orientalist operetta The Land of Smiles, once in 2000 and again last December. Kofler’s writings have little recourse to authorial invention, so far as detail of plot is concerned.
It is not difficult to detect, therefore, a disingenuity in both the persistent question—do you recall?—and the recalcitrant answer—no. The drama hinges less on the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, less on the agon of generations, than it does on questions of consequence and value: even if one remembers, then what? The past becomes a projection screen for self-dramatizing fantasy? Or, perhaps more palatably, one chooses instead to experience contemporary life as a sequence of thin, perfectly commensurable and self-flattering entertainments. There has always been a certain operative indistinguishability between politics and popular entertainment—a circumstance that has recently hit home hard for many Americans. Kofler’s text angles even deeper into this morass to ask: is the only option left to a politically committed theater the staging of its own co-option and self-dismantling?

A brief remark on the translation: The language of the Nazi regime represents a special case, because it is a language of euphemism. The phrase special treatment conceals dark happenings. For some, this euphemistic deranging of signifiers and what they signify permanently contaminated the German language, made poetry impossible. For this reason, some of this language must not be translated, in order to preserve this derangement, its ghastly specificity. Euphemism like this operates by exploiting the openness of language, ravaging the promise of relation contained in that open. For this reason, some of this language must be translated, in order to make relatable the ghastly process of derangement.

Kofler was an avid reader of world news. It would not have been lost upon him that the euphemistic language of the Reagan administration—Lee Atwater’s so-called Southern Strategy in particular—was not without certain historical precedent.

Werner Koffler (1947–2011) was an Austrian novelist and playwright. His other works include the trilogy Triptychon: Am Schreibtisch, Hotel Mordschein, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, the first volume of which, At the Writing Desk, is available in English from Dalkey Archive Press.

Lauren K. Wolfe is the translator of Werner Kofler’s 1988 novel At the Writing Desk (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016) and Ernst Kapp’s 1877 study Elements of a Philosophy of Technology (University of Minnesota, forthcoming 2018). She has contributed translations of poetry and scholarly essays to several anthologies. She is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at New York University.