November 19, 2019

Family history informs justice, guilt in ‘Wiesenthal’

He was often called “the Jewish James Bond” and “the Conscience of the Holocaust” for his activities in the pursuit of Nazis. It was a mission to which the late Simon Wiesenthal dedicated some 58 years of his life, after having been a prisoner in several concentration camps during World War II. The iconic figure lives again in the one-man show “Nazi Hunter — Simon Wiesenthal,” starring and written by Tom Dugan. The production is now running at Theatre 40, a professional theater company located on the campus of Beverly Hills High School.

The play is set in April 2003, on the day of Wiesenthal’s reluctant retirement and the closing of his office at the Jewish Documentation Center in Austria, where he remained after the war, despite the fact that, as he states, the Austrians were responsible for the slaughter of at least half of the 6 million Jews exterminated by the Nazis.

“If you want to find a cure for malaria,” Wiesenthal says in the play, “you must live among the mosquitoes.”

Wiesenthal is addressing the last group of students he will entertain at his office, lecturing them about his work, his experiences, his philosophy, and the Nazis. He is emphatic that one can’t condemn a whole people for the evil actions of some, and he tells his listeners that former camp prisoners testified on behalf of Nazi officers who had not committed atrocities and had shown some sympathy for the inmates. He says that one guard saved his life in a camp, and he invited that man to his daughter’s wedding. He also insists that, in hunting Nazis, he is not out for revenge but wants the perpetrators of Nazi atrocities brought to justice.

For purposes of the performance, the audience members become the students, and the character on stage regularly interacts with them. He also takes them back in time, reliving events from his past.

During a recent interview, Dugan, who is Irish-Catholic, explained how the idea for this project was born. “I’ve always been interested in World War II and particularly in the Holocaust, because of my father’s place in history. His infantry unit liberated the Langenstein camp, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, and I specifically remember one time when I was a child of about 7 years old. I had watched some World War II movie, and I was feeling the shrapnel that he still had under his skin. I said to him, ‘You know, Dad, you must really hate Germans.’ And he said to me, ‘Are you crazy?  Half of my family is German.’ ”

Dugan continued, “My father said, ‘I don’t judge people by the group to which they belong; I judge them by their actions.’ As a 7-year-old, that took me a while to digest. “It was that rejection of collective guilt that drew me to Wiesenthal’s story. And when I heard that he had passed away, I read his obituary; I read his books; and then I read books about him. I thought this would be an appropriate story for me to tell, not only because of my father’s connection to it, but, because, years later, I married a Jewish woman, and I have two beautiful Jewish boys, ages 8 and 9.” 

Dugan remembered wartime memories his father shared.

“The stories that he told me over the years were appropriate for the age that I was. But the main themes, especially when I was young, were very powerful. He talked about the cowardice of the SS officers once their guns were taken away.”

That cowardice is highlighted at certain points in the play. In one section, Wiesenthal talks about being at the War Crimes office, saying that, just as he had trembled before the SS men, they were now trembling before the Americans. At another moment, Wiesenthal tells his listeners that he takes his greatest pleasure not from apprehending Nazis, but from one Nazi threatening another by saying, “I will tell Simon Wiesenthal where you are.”

To add some leavening to such a dark subject, Dugan includes a dose of Wiesenthal’s engaging humor. “I don’t think I could have told this story if Wiesenthal himself did not have a fabulous sense of humor,” the actor said. “When he was a young man, he actually did amateur stand-up comedy. So, I thought, ‘What an opportunity to tell such an important story, share the words of wisdom from such a man and have the challenge of making it entertaining as well.’

“The most important thing, for all the shows I do, is that I really have to feel like I’m sharing something important with each and every audience, giving a message that is positive and uplifting. I always tell the students that come to see my shows that they’re meant to be entertaining and, if you’re not careful, you might learn something.”

According to Dugan, Wiesenthal wanted the public to learn how banal evil can be. In the play, the Nazi hunter describes his reaction when he attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. He says that, as the defendant entered the courtroom, he appeared as harmless and innocuous as a bookkeeper.

“It took me a while to get my brain around the banality of evil,” Dugan said. “How can there be a man so evil that he isn’t obviously a sociopath or a sadist? There’s also the realization that just blind obedience to authority can create the Holocaust.

“The theme that struck me the hardest, going back to when I was 7 and my father talked to me about his experiences, was his contention that anyone is capable of committing evil acts, in the right circumstances, with the right desperation … anyone. And I said, ‘Not us, Dad, right? Not you, not me, not Mommy.’ And he just said, ‘Anyone is capable.’ It frightened me, but it’s true,” Dugan said.

“I say in the play that the savage in all of us lurks underneath this wafer-thin veil of civilization,” Dugan concluded. “He will always be a part of us. All we can do is contain him. That’s what I want audiences to take away with them, that we’re all part of this history. This is not distant from us; this is our story.”

“Nazi Hunter – Simon Wiesenthal,” Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. through June 21. $25.00; students and members of the 4A’s half price on standby at the door. Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills High School Campus (off Little Santa Monica Blvd.). Free indoor parking. Reservations: (310) 364-3606.