Do we have the right to laugh at Hitler? Is it okay to joke about the dictator responsible for World War II and the deaths of millions of people, including six million Jews, in the Holocaust?
Michelle Kholos Brooks has given a lot of thought to these questions. She is the author of “H*tler’s Tasters”, a black comedy about German girls who sampled dishes to serve to the infamous Nazi. The writer considered changing the title of his play due to the refusal to use the fascist leader’s name.
But her stepfather, according to the New York Times
In this Q&A, Ms. Brooks reflects on the origin of her off-Broadway piece, explains some of the history behind its topic, and shares her thoughts on whether it’s socially acceptable to make fun of. Adolf Hitler.
You wrote a play about women who tasted Hitler’s food. This is a very specific and obscure part of the story. How did you find out about the subject?
I wish I could tell you a sexy story about the discovery of obscure archives in a remote alpine village. But the truth is, I was in a war museum in Indianapolis with my writing partner at the time. Our play had just opened in Bloomington and we were killing time before our flight home. As we were looking around a World War II exhibit, he said to me, casually, “Have you seen that story about the young German women who were Hitler’s tasters?
And then he kind of walked away like he just didn’t change my life. “Wait,” I said, “Halt. Reverse. What did you just say?” Everything that pushes my worry buttons is summed up in the story of Hitler’s food tasters: the way society treats young women as expendable; how children are used as tools and shields of war; the complicated relationships young women have with themselves and with each other, not to mention the complicated relationship young women have with food. And don’t even get me started on tyranny. I knew I would write this story the second he said it.
Was it difficult for you to research the subject?
In 2013, a 95-year-old German woman named Margot Woelk first told the incredible story of being one of Hitler’s tasters. Most of my information was gathered from articles about him. That’s the wonderful thing about being a playwright. I can take an existing story that speaks to me deeply and then filter that material through my heart and my imagination. And, of course, there is no lack of material for background research. You should have seen my husband’s excitement when I told him I wanted to watch WWII movies.
Was a specific method used to select women for the position?
Hitler said he wanted women of “good German stock”. It became one of the important questions in the play. Why would Hitler choose young German women – the potential bearers of German children, the future of the Reich – to taste his poisonous food? Why wouldn’t he choose Jews, gays, Poles, or one of the many “others” he raged against? It is a fascinating meditation on the place of the privileged in a dictatorship. Turns out, aligning yourself with the tyrant doesn’t necessarily make you safe.
It seems that the use of tasters would deter poisoning attempts. Have any women been poisoned? Did any of them die in the service of the Führer?
As far as we know, none of the women actually died from poisoning. However, according to Ms. Woelk, she was the only Taster who escaped fire from the Russians during their invasion. Apparently, one of the guards admired her and helped smuggle her out just in time. Unfortunately, she was later captured by the Russians in Berlin and had a horrific experience – held captive and repeatedly raped for two weeks. Unfortunately, as a result, she was never able to have children.
How can focusing on the experiences of a small group of women resonate with the threats facing society today?
What interests me is trying to make huge geopolitical events very personal. It was important to me, writing this piece, that the girls in “H*tler’s Tasters” didn’t feel like sepia people in the story. I wanted us to see our sisters, daughters and nieces in each of them. It is through their innocence that the absurdity and horror of the world around them is exposed. Much of their experience is reflected in our world right now.
Have you seen the recent articles about Poutine tasters? If we can continue the journey with these girls, if we can somehow invest ourselves in them, even while they are doing the tyrant’s bidding, then maybe we can be more aware of up to where things can go. These are girls whose families didn’t fight back, or worse, looked the other way. They were in denial. How many times over the past few years have we said, “This will never happen? And then . . . boom. It happens.
First and foremost, with any game, you want people to be entertained. But underneath, it’s my deepest wish that people connect with the girls of “H*itler’s Tasters” in a way that reminds them of the dangers of complacency.
I suspect any game with “Hitler” in the title would put a lot of people off. Did you find that a problem in attracting an audience? Also, you made the decision to replace the second letter of his name with an asterisk. What is the reasoning behind this?
There were occasional pushbacks. We had a critic in Los Angeles who refused to cover the play because of the title. Some news outlets have confessed they’re worried about saying the “H” word out loud, which to me is extraordinary, considering we’re talking about an actual person in the story. And with the rise of totalitarianism, wouldn’t it be a good time to remind people what happens when tyrants get what they want?
But honestly, most people weren’t aware of this footnote in the story, and I find they are, on the whole, more intrigued than scared. The title tells you exactly what the piece is about. Once people see it, they want to know more.
The asterisk appeared as an attempt to circumvent social media algorithms. We’ve been removed more than once for “violating community standards”. Again, extraordinary given the blatant and violent rhetoric we see on many platforms. But we really embraced the asterisk when we realized it created a great opportunity to start a conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable these days. Words are a hot topic and many of us feel like we’re navigating a minefield. Theater can be the opposite of social media in that we get together in person and hopefully listen to each other instead of anonymously hurling insults and accusations at each other.
There are a lot of funny things on the show, but for many people it will always be “too early” to joke about the Holo.
I totally agree – it will always be “too early” to joke about the victims of genocide, but when it comes to the perpetrators of genocide, it is never too early to blame them . For me, humor is a great gateway to other emotions. It can open us up to powerfully connect with the characters and leave us available for some of the toughest and most serious times.
The humor in “H*itler’s Tasters” emerges naturally from the pressure of three young women stuck in a room together, dealing with their fate, waiting to see if they will live or die after each meal. I was able to explore how young women would fill time in this state of uncertainty. It’s truly amazing how much drama and comedy can come out of expectation.
I didn’t have a lot of qualms about the humor of the play, especially once people saw it. Once in a while, people come up to me after a show and ask me if it’s good that they laughed. I try to reassure them, whatever their reaction, it is legitimate. It’s not a room that sees things in black and white, and it may be an adjustment for people to simmer in that gray area for a while.
Did you have any survivors in the audience? If so, what were their reactions?
I only had the pleasure of meeting one survivor as part of this play, and I was thrilled and relieved when she wrote to tell me how much she appreciated it. This production also aired in Skokie, home to a huge Jewish community, many of whom lost family members in the Holocaust. Our welcome there was wonderful. Audiences laughed their heads off and truly understood the power of using anachronisms and contemporary references to make the horrors of World War II accessible to young people. After all, it’s the younger generation who have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“H*tler’s Tasters” runs through May 21 at Theater Row, Theater One (410 West 42nd Street, NYC). Ticket information can be found at www.bfany.org.
Featuring an all-female business and creative team, “H*tler’s Tasters” is a thought-provoking play written by an award-winning playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks (War Words, Kalamazoo) and directed by Sarah Norris (Everything is super awesome, this wrestling place). The characteristics of the cast Hallie Griffin like Liesel, Mary Kathryn Kopp like Hilda, Kaitlin Paige Longoria like Anna, and Hannah Mae Sturges like Margot. H*tler’s Tasters has a choreography of Ashlee Wasmondscenography by An Lin Daubercostume design by Ashleigh Potatolighting design by Christina Tangand sound design by Carsen Joenk.
“H*tler’s Tasters” is presented by New Light Theater Project (Artistic Director Sarah Norris, Production Manager Michael Aguirre) in association with NewYorkRep (Founding Executive Director Gayle Damiano Waxenberg, Artistic Director Justin Reinsilber) and Josh Gladstone.