Treblinka Café

By Werner Koffler
Translated from the German by Lauren K. Wolfe
[view as .pdf]

Closed performance. Spoken word, with music.

A—an older, B—a younger actor.

These are not psychological portraits (this is no “old Nazi”—though it sometimes seems, cannot but seem so) but fictional characters, holding forth on memory and history, repudiating it too, in a deliberate and absurd reversal of the exhibition of evidence, the burden of proof.

They are not in dialogic (communicative, dramaturgical) relation with one another but deferred, “time-lagged”; there are two theatrical worlds—in terms of melodics, cadence, pitch—that do not so much collide as follow one after another, each performance passing the other by.

A—Leave unresolved for as long as possible whether this is a monodrama, internal monologue (imagined dialogue), delirium, etc.—Some words to be spoken with relish, as if “rolling off the tongue,” as if listening in on himself.—Must be able to hit MY notes, somewhere between Bernhard (coarse) and Beckett (subtle).

B—Faster tempo, destruction, tighter choreography, somewhere between Handke (earlier works for the stage) and—no idea, really—Sarah Kane.

(Stage directions for B even before the start of the second part.)


An assortment of (writing) desks cluttered with papers and written documents, books, and so forth; a variety of places to sit; a freestanding table around which one must be able to walk, with a slide projector on top of it, and behind that, in the background, a projection screen.

On the right, an open window, but only slightly open.

Near the window, half in darkness—the darker the better—a stereo system (a “tower”—radio, turntable, CD player) from which can be heard excerpts of The Magic Flute (from Act II onward)—louder at times, then softer, at times as if wafting in through the window.

Shadow, half-light, indirect lighting—desk lamps, spotlights; the light should basically be such that there is doubt as to whether B who is being addressed—“B”—is actually on stage or not.

(In the second part, when B speaks, vice versa for A—“A”)

(On the projection screen, black and white photographs of the Municipal Theater (Borderland Theater))1

A (reads from a sheet of paper, like a prologue)

The gates to our home have given way
To hard times forced by solemn hand.
When the Führer speaks, we obey
And stand in wait for his command.

As the soldier, with German arms,
Brings brash defiance to kneel,
So shall we, with German arts,
Thus discharge our duty with zeal.

Enter, then, the stage is set,
Today it mirrors a difficult moment.
We hope our play shall beget
Sober grandeur, joyful foment.

So the stage proves in essence alike
With the drama of these times,
So shall you to our work consign
Yourselves in this our unified Reich!
Gustav Bartelmus

—Gustav Bartelmus, Artistic Director . . .

(Slide change: photo of Bartelmus, then the Municipal Theater again)

(to “B”)—Astonishing, isn’t it . . . that must have been at least sixty years ago—wait (recalculates, counts)—nineteen eighty nine, nineteen ninety nine, nineteen—nineteen (falters)—Sixty years, give or take, anyway . . . Back then, by the way, it wasn’t the Municipal Theater, back then it was the Borderland Theater, the Borderland Theater’s Magic Flute . . . Back then there were no stage managers either, back then they were wardens of the play. Wardens and prompters, not souffleur back then, but prompters . . . Prompters, Wardens . . . Astonishing indeed; the theater must astonish . . .

(Slide change: SA/SS march: A goes to the window, listens. The Magic Flute gets louder. Half to himself)—Must have been marvelous evenings back then . . . —Unfortunately, back then I wasn’t there, I was somewhere else, back then I was always somewhere else, only where exactly escapes me . . . Brilliant premiers in early December, joyful evenings of reprieve in the midst of needful times . . . —or needful evenings of reprieve in want of joyful times? Evenings in Advent . . . the Klagenfurters’ longing for a leader sated, wartime winter settled over the land . . . After the performance, they’d likely gather at Café Lerch . . . —Pardon? That’s right, Café Lerch, a highly respectable and prosperous establishment, in good times and bad . . .

(Standing again before the slide projector, pointing suddenly to an SA-man on the screen)

—That’s me, by the way; or rather, not me, but could have been me, back then . . . The Gau Party Congress, a demonstration . . . Me, as an SA-man . . . Just look at my cadet’s cap, see? I’m sure you’d have liked to have had a cap like that . . . And the cobblestones, look how they sparkle under those boots . . . Do you see?—Yes, those bitters years spent suffering under the System2 over at last . . . Our longing for a leader sated . . . Homecoming3 . . . (goes to the window) Wartime winter settled over the land, to the café following the performance, to commune at Café Lerch . . .

(Listens out the window, as if The Magic Flute were wafting in from outside; to “B”:)

—Do you hear that? No? You don’t hear anything?—What about now? Still nothing? Now? Nothing at all?—That’s unheard of, that you don’t hear anything—as though you weren’t there . . . as though—something weren’t right . . . !

(Back to the projector)

—Where were we? Oh yes, the SA march; me, an SA-man . . . So, what do you say, what’s the abbreviation mean?

(Aghast) SA, Sturmabteilung, Storm Battalion, this means nothing to you? That I can hardly believe . . .

(As if trying to “jog his memory”)

—SA. The Field Marshals’ Hall. Munich. The Beer Hall Putsch. March on the Field Marshals’ Hall, a skirmish, bang bang . . . never heard of it? Unbelievable . . . ! What about the name Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, top SA commander, no idea?—A fine name, by the way, Pfeffer von Salomon . . . But you will have seen the film SA-Man Brand, or at least heard of it . . . —No? Not that either? Astounding!—Ah, you’re just messing with me . . . —We’ll try something else . . . What about Maier-Kaibitsch, a man local, even, Arthur Maier-Kaibitsch, SA Standartenführer, a full colonel, still no idea? No? But everyone around here knows who Maier-Kaibitsch is! You’ve never heard of Maier-Kaibitsch? Really?—But you wouldn’t dare go so far as to say the name RÖHM means nothing to you, ERNST RÖHM, the fat-ass, yes, you know—you wouldn’t go that far . . . Röhm, SA Chief of Staff, one of the Führer’s closest comrades and confidantes . . .

(Half to himself) Also a homosexual, by the way . . . but back then, who wasn’t . . . ?—Pardon? No, not . . . (in a low voice) The Night of the Long Knives . . . You’ll have seen the Visconti film—only, what was it called?—I can’t remember . . . starring Helmut Berger . . . Helmut Berger, right, exactly, look, now you remember, now—

No? It doesn’t seem to be sinking in . . . It’s really not sinking in. You’ve never seen or heard of it?—But listen up (forcefully)—Röhm, Ernst—SA, Sturmabteilung, Chief of Staff, Comrade Sepp, what are you doing?!—This man Röhm, whose last words, cried out at Stadelheim Prison in Munich to SS General Dietrich, SEPP DIETRICH, upon seeing the pistol that Dietrich had brought to Röhm in his cell, with which he, Röhm, was meant to shoot himself . . . Comrade Sepp, what are you doing?! Fine last words, huh—No, still nothing? You don’t want to know, do you? Stubborn, aren’t you? Stubborn indeed . . . And here in Carinthia, no less . . . !

(Goes to the window as if to get some air, listens—Magic Flute)

(Murmurs) Wartime winter . . . Winter Relief of the German People . . . Wartime winter’s Magic Flute . . .

(Goes back, again to “B”)

—But we’ll get you back onto history’s track . . . just have to bring you around by other means: The Horst Wessel Song, do you know it? No, of course you don’t, and this circumstance puts me in the awkward position of having to sing it for you, the beginning at least, pay attention:

(Sings) Raise high the work, stand rank on rank, Storm troopers mar—(breaks off)

—I always make the same mistake: not raise high the work, raise high the flag, stand rank on rank . . . (sings) Storm troopers march / with steady quiet tread . . . (continues singing, fumbling a bit, hesitant; an incidental, unobtrusive sound of shattering glass from somewhere – a water glass perhaps, breaking indoors; breaks off singing, as if struck suddenly by an idea)

—Wait— . . . That’s it—that’s the cue, the magic word, now you can’t but get with the program: KRISTALLNACHT . . . THE SA REICHSKRISTALLNACHT, THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS . . . Kristallnacht—but hear how it clinks and tinkles now!—The Night of Broken Glass, it happened here too, not far from here, at the Friedländer Department Store, for example, on Neuer Platz . . . A year or so before the Wartime Winter Magic Flute was Kristallnacht . . . Or, a year or so after Kristallnacht was the Wartime Winter Magic Flute . . .

(At the window) The many galas . . . Cock-sure Fritz Fischer4 in the role of Monostatos, are you listening? And Papageno, he was a bit husky for the part, did you know that? Still—I imagine—joyful evenings of reprieve in the midst of needful times; afterward—I imagine—afterward perhaps—in any event: Kristallnacht, SA, Reichskristallnacht, clink, clink, Friedländer, Neuer Platz, now you can’t just keep on . . . Well?—What do you say?—Wrong? But why wrong? How wrong? Friedländer not a Jew? Or was it not Neuer, but Alter Platz?—Kristallnacht wrong, SA wrong how? Kristallnacht: never heard of it, the SA, never heard of it—is that what you mean by wrong? But tell me—(pauses, considers)—no, don’t—(Clicking through some images in the slide projector—marches, cordons, SA, SS, among them a photo of Harry Piel.5)

—Tell me, how did I even get started on the SA? Me, an SA-man? That’s got to be a mistake, I must have mistaken myself among the men in uniform . . . Me, in the SA? No, never, I certainly will not have been in the SA, nor in the SA Cavalry, and not in the NSKK, the Nazi Motor Corps either, or—the Motorcycle Corps, I have not, I have never been, as at ease as that . . . These gaps, these gaps . . . But never in my life would I have been in the SA; German Stewpot Sundays, collecting donations for Stewpot Sunday—that I would not have been able to stomach . . . All that aside, even, the SA!

(Scornfully pointing to a few details in one image)

Here—impossible, they look like they’ve got nothing but beer and bratwurst between their ears! As if they were waiting for a field mess suddenly to appear! Or here, this guy, tugging at his belt, as if making room . . . ! That anyone could mistake me . . .

(Goes to the window, comes back; in a low voice)

But who, then, as who, then, back then? . . . —No, I will have been destined for other, for higher duties; I will have been—must have been—in the SS . . . Yes, why not, the SS, of course—here, that’s who I will have been, me as . . . —The sober solemnity, do you see that? And the flag there, too, no doubt about it, the Blood Flag, waving from police headquarters as it must have waved above me, standing at attention, the fine black, the white runes . . . the ORDER OF THE BLOOD . . . (ruminating) . . . Our honor is fidelity . . . fidelity . . . unto death . . .

(Pauses; goes to the window—The Magic Flute gets louder; then all of a sudden)

—You don’t know the Order, do you? Or what the abbreviation stands for, skeet shooting or— . . . Skeet shooting? You’re making fun of me. While there was an element of sport to it, SS stands for Shutzstaffel, Security Squadron, a little misleading, I know . . . But you will have heard of the Ordensburgen, the officer training strongholds, the SS Ordensburg at Sonthofen in Bavaria, the term LEBENSBORN will mean something to you —Font of Life, no?—The SS division DAS REICH, or the DEATH’S HEAD SQUADRONS—not that either? Not even the Death’s Head Squadrons . . .

(His tone changes—faster, somewhat gruffly)

We cannot go on like this. How am I supposed to help you wrap your head around history while you persist in your ignorance?! You’re going to have to make a decision: if not the DEATH’S HEAD SQUADRONS, then at least the FONT OF LIFE, and if not the FONT OF LIFE, then the DEATH’S HEAD SQUADRONS—You absolutely cannot have heard nothing about anything! Heard nothing, knew nothing, as if none of it were familiar! Then what about the REICH MAIN SECURITY OFFICE SD—(Pauses, his hand to his ear, then a detonation, loses his temper)

—Excuse me? No, it does not mean self-dramatization! SICHERHEITSDIENST, SD, the SS security service . . . ! Doctor Kaltenbrunner, if that’s correct, ERNST KALTENBRUNNER, a lawyer from Ried im Innkreis, high-ranking SS and police commander and chief of the Reich Main Security Office . . . (in a low voice) Didn’t live to a ripe old age, by the way . . . (venomously) DEPORTATIONS, of course you never heard of those either, deportations . . . In the Netherlands, for example, HANNS ALBIN RAUTER: he too a high-ranking SS and police commander; he, Hanns Albin Rauter, (calmer now) that name must mean something to you, a native son of this very town, by the way . . . —No, not him either? Wait (Clicks through the slides until an image of a “barracks cover” appears)

—Here, a Hanns Albin Rauter-style barracks cover, nice, don’t you think?—Yes, Hanns Albin Rauter, a commendable man, a lovely name . . . Surely by now the city must have dedicated a Hanns Albin Rauter Park, maybe even Hanns Albin Rauter Homes—No?—Why not?!—If there are Per Albin Hansson Homes in Vienna, why shouldn’t there be Hanns Albin Rauter Homes here in Klagenfurt? Have the visiting Dutch not been urging the Ministry of Tourism to build one? No?—No, of course it needn’t be an entire housing complex, but a park at least, or a mall, a Hanns Albin Rauter Promenade running along the seaside, beside an open air theater—no? Not yet?—It’ll happen, just wait, you’ll see. (Pause)—It ought to happen, at some point.—Clear summer nights, I imagine, clear summer nights, sauntering along the Hanns Albin Rauter Promenade, a melody wafting on the air, a song from Lehár’s Land of Smiles or an aria from The Magic Flute—or, no, not from The Magic Flute, but something perhaps from The Magic Violin, by Werner Egk, the scene with Guldensack, the Jew, that’s more appropriate . . . Magic Violin, Land of Smiles . . . And strolling—I imagine—strolling with incredible lightness, as if barely aware one was moving at all, with an incredible lightness of being, along the Hanns Albin Rauter Promenade . . .

(At the window: Priests’ Chorus or No. 19, trio—absently, more to himself than to “B”)

Sarastro . . . SA—SS—Sarrasstro . . . It’s the unveiling, the unveiling . . . the unveiling of history . . . Nothung6, Nothung . . . input output . . . bone mill powder mill . . . chimney, industry . . . the German Industry Standard . . . industry, final solution . . .

(directly to “B”)—FINAL SOLUTION—never heard of that, have you? WANNSEE CONFERENCE, not that either?—Universal history, nothing?—HEYDRICH, Reinhard Heydrich, the predecessor of our Dr. Kaltenbrunner at the Reich Main Security Office—No?—Pardon? Why predecessor? Well, Heydrich suffered a little mishap in Prague, from which certain repercussions . . .

(Hollers) LIDICE, perhaps you’ve heard of it—?!—Lidice, Oradour-sur-Glane, Marzabotto7, but in this connection, only Lidice, Reinhard Heydrich and Lidice—no, nothing?

  1. During the Third Reich, after the annexation of Austria to Germany, the Austrian municipal theaters came to be known as Borderland theaters, to reflect their status in relation to the Fatherland; in this case, the so-called Borderland Theater is the Municipal Theater of Klagenfurt, Carinthia, then under the direction of Gustav Bartelmus.
  2. Nazis referred to the era known as the Weimar Republic as the Systemzeit, or the time of the System. In Germany, this time spanned from 1918 to 1933; in Austria, though, Systemzeit also included the years after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, during which the NSDAP was still banned in Austria, and ended only after Austria’s annexation by Germany in 1938.
  3. Heimkehr, or Homecoming, is the title of a 1941 Nazi anti-Polish propaganda film, directed by the Austrian Gustav Ucicky, who is rumored to have been the illegitimate son of painter Gustav Klimt. The film tells the story of an ethnic German minority population living in Poland, where they are disenfranchised by the Polish authorities and abused by the citizenry.
  4. Fritz Fischer was artistic director of the Staatstheater am Gärntnerplatz in Munich, from 1937 to 1938 and again from 1941 to 1944. Hitler was an admirer of Fischer’s productions, particularly his staging of Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe. In 1941, the theater’s ensemble visited the Dachau concentration camp, where they are rumored to have performed for SS troops.
  5. Harry Piel was a prolific film director, actor and screenwriter. The preponderance of his work prior to and during WWII consisted of action/adventure and comedy films. He was among the first directors to film live explosions. Piel was a member of the NSDAP and of the SS. Though he attempted to continue his filmmaking career after his “denazification,” he did not have much success.
  6. Nothung is the name that Wagner, in his Ring Cycle, gives to the sword with which Siegfried is destined to slay the dragon. Some English translations of the Niebelung myth render this as Balmung, approximating both the need and the salve that resonate in the old German word.
  7. Each of these towns were razed to the ground and their inhabitants murdered en masse—in Czechoslovakia, France and Italy. Of these three examples, only the razing of Lidice was done in revenge for the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, which the Nazis linked to the Czech government in exile.