The Nazis called her “Blonde Poison.” Stella Goldschlag was a tall, blond, blue-eyed, Aryan-looking young Jewish woman who grew up in a comfortable, assimilated Berlin family. In order to save herself and her parents from being sent to a death camp after the Nazis came to power, Stella agreed to collaborate with the Gestapo and turn in other Jews who were hiding or passing as non-Jews.
Her story is told in the solo play “Blonde Poison,” which was first mounted in England and is getting its American premiere at Theatre 40, on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Playwright Gail Louw said she originally heard about Stella in a talk given by a historian and found the story fascinating. “How does someone like that live with themselves at the time and certainly afterward, when the tide has turned and the power has moved away from their masters?” Louw wondered.
“I was also very interested in the morality issues, but didn’t want to make her an obvious hate figure, as there are so many sides and nuances to people,” Louw said. “But I, personally, always detested her, though I was interested — in Q-and-A sessions we had at theaters — in the extent to which people were able to empathize with her.”
Louw herself is the granddaughter of Holocaust victims and, though she is not observant, said she was brought up with a strong Jewish identity. She went to a Jewish school in South Africa, was part of a Jewish youth movement and was a strong Zionist who went to live in Israel after completing school.
“Most of my plays, particularly the early ones, have a strong Jewish theme,” she said.
In “Blonde Poison,” Stella (Salome Jens), now in her early 70s, is reluctantly awaiting a visit from an old schoolmate who had been in love with her when they were children. Now he is a reporter and wants to speak to her about her experiences. The play is based largely on the book “Stella: One Woman’s True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler’s Germany,” by the late journalist Peter Wyden, who was, in reality, the schoolmate in love with Stella. Peter Wyden, father of Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, managed to escape Nazi Germany with his family, and, decades later, located Stella, interviewed her and wrote his book.
Louw has Stella reliving her past as she anticipates the impending interview. She remembers that, by the time her parents realized they had to leave Germany after the Nazi takeover, they couldn’t get visas. She talks of becoming a U-boat, the designation for Jews who went underground or hid their identity, and obtaining fake papers from a well-known forger. Eventually, however, she and her parents were arrested, and she was brutally tortured by the Gestapo. Then, in exchange for the promise that she and her family would not be deported, along with a pass allowing her to roam freely, a comfortable apartment and a revolver, she agreed to become a “greifer,” or “catcher,” turning in other Jews who had gone underground.
Despite the choices Stella made, Jens doesn’t consider her a villain. “As far as I’m concerned, what we’re really confronting is our humanity,” Jens said. “What I hope at the end of the experience is that you will see that we are all human, and we all are capable of making the choices that she made, for the reasons that she made them.”
But the Nazis betrayed her and sent her parents to a concentration camp, where they died. Still, she continued the work she had begun. In the play, Stella says: “It was toolate by then, don’t you understand. You can’t just stop doing what you’re doing, being what you are, once you’ve gone that far.”
After the war, Stella was arrested by the Russians and spent 10 years in a labor camp. Upon her release she was tried in Berlin, but her sentence was commuted because of the time she had already served. When she tried to reunite with the daughter who was taken from her after the war, she was rebuffed with undisguised hatred. So, Jens insisted, Stella suffered for what she did.
“She was an outcast. Anybody who knew about her would have nothing to do with her. She lived in guilt all her life. All she had was that this child would care about her, but the child, too, turns on her. She didn’t have an easy life. She paid the price for that. She never had joy in her life after that,” Jens said.
For Louw, “Blonde Poison” is a morality tale more than a Holocaust play. “It is about the central question: What would I have done in her place?” the playwright explained. “And that is why this is a piece that resonates so strongly with audiences. We have seen it in the sessions after the performance, when people want to talk and explore how they feel, themselves, about it. I think this is why people empathize with her, because they question whether they, themselves, could have done the same.”
She added: “But [it’s] also looking at those incredible people who could have chosen the ‘easier’ route — is it easier? — and survived at the expense of others, and yet behaved with such amazing strength and commitment to humanity. Which way would I have gone?”
“Blonde Poison” opens Jan. 8 at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills.