September 18, 2019

Germany Bound

In 1995, Israel Horovitz endured a tongue-lashing from his German play agent. Horovitz had repeatedly rejected invitations to visit productions of his plays in Germany, the agent said. The playwright wasn’t making his job easy.

The famous author was puzzled. He hadn’t meant to ignore his German fans. Then he began to do the arithmetic. “In recent years, by my own calculations, I’d found reasons not to visit Germany some 15 times,” he wrote in the introduction to “Lebensraum,” his award-winning play about Jews and Germans now at the Fountain Theatre. “In fact, I’d never seen a play of mine in the German language. Never. Never isn’t a lot.”

Then Horovitz recalled how, as a child, he used to lay awake in his bed at night in Wakefield, MA, convinced that the Nazis would soon come through his window to kill him. He recalled the gruesome concentration camp photographs he saw during programs of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. The message was clear. “It was, ‘Keep out of Germany. Stay away from Germans. They’re not our friends. They’ll kill you,'” Horovitz says.

The paranoia was exacerbated by his “constant” experiences of anti-Semitism in Wakefield, where the Horovitzes were one of only three Jewish families in town. So it was not surprising that he responded with fear and loathing the first time he heard German spoken while vacationing in Europe in his 20’s. “I broke into a sweat,” recalls Horovitz, the author of more than 50 plays, including “The Indian Wants the Bronx” and “Today, I Am a Fountain Pen.” &’009;

Cut to 1995, when Horovitz, an acclaimed playwright with a number of German friends, realized he still harbored a grudge against Germans and Germany. “I thought, ‘I’d better go over there and deal with this right away,” says the author, who arranged a whirlwind tour of his then-current German productions.

He was puzzled, however, during a performance of his “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard” in Bonn. Horovitz didn’t understand German, but something seemed to be missing. Afterward, he cautiously approached one of the performers. “Did the character of the old man ever make his speech about being a Yankee Jew?” he queried. “Oh, no,” the actress replied. “You can’t have Jews on stage in Germany. It doesn’t smell good.”

In Berlin several days later, a livid Horovitz stayed up all night discussing the incident with one of his German translators and her boyfriend. He learned that Miriam, the translator, had grown up without knowing a single Jew; and that her parents had given her a Jewish name “to replace a dead Jewish child” from the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Miriam said, she and other young Germans continued to feel guilt about the Shoah. And some resented Jews for making them feel guilty.

At 6 a.m., a sleep-deprived Horovitz set out on his morning run and obsessed about the German resentment of Jews and his own bias toward Germans. Suddenly, the first image of “Lebensraum” flashed into his mind: The German chancellor, awakening from a nightmare, deciding to invite 6 million Jews to ‘come home’ to Germany. Horovitz felt faint. “I stopped running and grabbed hold of a bench, next to a small, rectangular trashcan upon which a Nazi swastika had been hand-drawn by Magic Marker,” he wrote in an essay. “I was weak, sweating. Suddenly a pack of unattended dogs rushed past me, barking ferociously. At first, I thought I would die of fright. And then, I actually laughed aloud. It was all so shabbily theatrical.”

Horovitz dropped all his other projects and began compulsively writing the first draft of “Lebensraum.” Because he wanted the parable about tolerance to appeal to young people, he gave the ambitious piece an unusual format: The play features three actors performing 80 roles. “I felt that any play dramatizing Jews, Germans and the Holocaust at this point in history needed a fresh approach,” says Horovitz, who went on to co-write Istvan Szabo’s film “Sunshine,” about three generations of a Hungarian family who encounter anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

While “Lebensraum” has, to date, been performed all over the world, it has not yet been produced in Germany, Horovitz notes; he feels that may be a result of lingering discomfort about the Holocaust. When the play finally appears in Germany later this year, he adds, he plans to be there. “I’ve shlepped this baggage around all my life,” he says. “And now I want to sit down with Germans my age and really talk about the issues.”

“Lebensraum” opens May 5 at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood, and runs Thursdays through Sundays. For tickets, call (323) 663-1525.