January 19, 2020

Baring their soles: Holocaust shoes tell unusual saga

There have long been rumors — never authenticated — that the Nazis made lampshades and other merchandise from the skin of human victims at Auschwitz.

Testimony at a war crimes trial asserted that such items were produced at Dachau, according to Aaron Breitbart of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Whether these grotesque creations were ever manufactured, Polish playwright Sebastian Majewski has imagined such an artifact as the “protagonist” of his play, “right left with heels,” which will have its United States premiere July 8-Aug. 14 at City Garage Theatre at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.

The experimental play is narrated from the perspective of a fictional pair of high-heeled black pumps, created from human skin and fat in Auschwitz for Magda Goebbels, wife of the notorious Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The shoes are portrayed by two actresses; a camera will broadcast the pumps’ actions live, in close-up, on a large screen behind the mostly bare stage.

During the course of the play, the shoes tell the story of the Holocaust and postwar Poland through the travails of their respective owners: First, Magda Goebbels, who in real life killed her children and herself rather than surrender to the Allies; then a Red Army soldier who confiscates the shoes and eventually uses them to pay for an abortion. They are followed by the wife of the abortion doctor, who sorely regrets turning in a Jewish woman during the Holocaust; a Communist secret police interrogator who tortures a Solidarity activist until she names names; and finally a transvestite brutally killed at the hands of “real men” — young Polish patriots in the 21st century.

“I like to deal with the history, the alternative narrations, the manipulation and the processes of remembering and forgetting,” Majewski said in an email from Poland, as translated by Tomek Jekot, a playwright and dramaturg who often works with the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Lodz, where Majewski is artistic director. “For these reasons, I told a story of Polish history from the point of view of the shoes that go feet to feet, starting from the end of World War II. 

“I believe that in the art of the theater, it is good to apply some contrasts,” added Majewski, whose play premiered in Poland in 2007. “That is why I propose to talk about the complex fate of the people and the nation through the object, in this case, the shoes. In my play, those shoes are just some shoes telling the story of their life. It becomes a country’s history only in the audience’s reception.”

The device of the shoes is a “genius idea,” Frédérique Michel, the artistic director of City Garage and the director of the play, said during a recent interview at the theater alongside her husband, Charles Duncombe, the company’s producing director. “These shoes seem so naïve and even silly at the beginning, and you actually smile listening to them. But the more they get into the story, the more horrifying they become. These shoes are so scary.”

The pumps’ somewhat innocent demeanor during the first half of the play represents the attitude of the Polish people regarding the Holocaust and other savage elements of their postwar history, Duncombe said. “It’s as if they want to disconnect and deny any complicity with these events. They regard themselves as victims. It’s their owners who had the problem, not them.”

Michel, a native of France, was drawn to the play, in large part, because of her family’s experience during the Holocaust. Her Jewish grandfather and uncle were turned over to the authorities by non-Jews in Paris and eventually died in Auschwitz. Michel’s then-teenage mother, grandmother and great-aunt survived the war in hiding with a Christian family in Normandy.

Even though Michel’s father was Catholic — and she was raised in that faith — she felt more Jewish because of the wonderful times she spent with her Yiddish-speaking Jewish relatives. Although her mother and grandmother were too troubled by their experiences to speak of the Holocaust, her great-aunt would tell her the stories in secret.

The family continues to be traumatized by French anti-Semitism, especially in the wake of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher market in Paris last year. “They say that somebody is always worried that someone can just go and blow something up,” Michel said.

“It’s just like what is happening with Donald Trump in this country and all over Europe,” added Duncombe, who was raised Catholic in suburban Pittsburgh. “There’s this very strong xenophobic, right-wing mentality that seeks to demean other people, create division and pull back all of the progress that’s been made in [recent] years.”

In the late 1990s, City Garage produced another controversial play that tackles anti-Semitism, “Garbage, the City and Death,” by the late German filmmaker and author Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Michel and Duncombe — who prefer political, ideas-oriented experimental works — were drawn to Majewski’s play because it explores similar territory.

They discovered “right left with heels” in a book of contemporary Polish drama not long ago. Michel’s vision for her production was immediate and specific: As the play moves forward, the pumps become more and more menacing. “It’s in the attitude of the actresses and the movement — the shoes become more and more aggressive and violent,” she said.

Some months before the Los Angeles production was scheduled to open, it was already stirring up controversy. Duncombe and Michel allege that the cultural attaché of the Polish consulate in Los Angeles, Ignacy Zarski, offered to support the play until he actually read the text. Thereafter, Duncombe said, the official withdrew his pledge to help with financing and promoting the production. According to Duncombe, Zarski was concerned about the play’s controversial content and a possibly negative reaction from the country’s new right-wing government.

In an email to the Journal, Zarski denied that he ever made such statements. He insists he never promised to support the play and that “our lack of financial support has nothing to do with the political situation in Poland. It is merely the result of a limited budget.” Zarski added that the production is already sponsored, in part, by a Polish state institution, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute; that the consulate has posted information about the play on its Facebook page; and that he plans to attend a performance.

Has “right left with heels” ever offended Jewish audiences? Majewski said he has never heard any complaints, perhaps because he didn’t intend the drama to be about the Holocaust.

Duncombe, for his part, insists, “The play is literally an accusation against people who would support this kind of mentality or allow it to continue. It’s a condemnation.”

Polish scholar and journalist Eva Sobolevski will moderate a post-performance discussion with Majewski on July 8, 9 and 10.  For tickets and more information, call (310) 453-9939 or visit citygarage.org