How Art Imitates Life

Written By Cindy Lefler 10/10/2015

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the opening night audience of the Woodbury Sketch Club’s “Cabaret.”

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
~ Elie Wiesel

The show was wonderfully acted, danced, and sung; the set design, costumes, and lighting catapulted the viewers back in time to the seedy underbelly of Berlin, 1931. But most importantly, the show was directed deftly by Pat Mangano, who captured the sociopolitical aspects of a Germany caught up in the madness of Adolf Hitler’s quest for a new world order – one that didn’t include Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, and anyone he deemed to be unworthy. In the play, three segments of society are represented: those who saw Hitler as a visionary securing “tomorrow” for his people; those who recognized the depravity and injustice aimed at the groups who weren’t part of that “tomorrow”; and those who – either out of selfishness or fear – chose to deny or ignore the signs that Hitler’s dangerous “tomorrow” could ever become a reality.

The play’s progression is carefully written to reflect the era. Act I begins light and funny, capturing the good times in a carefree Berlin of the early 1930s. The songs are upbeat, the humor is abundant, and the Emcee is larger than life. But the last scene of Act I is a foreshadowing of what’s to come in Act II: the rise of the Third Reich; fear, devastation, a world spinning too fast on the path to destruction. In Act II, things fall apart. The good times are gone, the songs are sadder, the dread is mounting, and the Emcee shrinks in his own trepidation until he is a mere shadow of himself. By then, it is too late to run for those who chose to deny or ignore the warning signs. “Tomorrow” came quickly and suddenly.

The last production of “Cabaret” I saw five years ago was my sons’ high school show. It, too, was a masterpiece; director Scott Glading took the production beyond the “high school musical” and gave it an austere maturity infused with morality. My youngest son, Ben, was a Kit Kat Boy. My middle son, Jake, portrayed Herr Schultz, the old Jewish fruit vendor who falls in love with Fraueline Schneider. Herr Schultz was one of those who wouldn’t believe – couldn’t believe – that anyone or any group could pose a threat to an entire race of people. Admittedly, it was quite a concept to grasp, even for those caught in the middle of it. As Nobel winning author Elie Wiesel wrote in his novel, “Night”: “Yes, we even doubted that he (Hitler) wanted to exterminate us. Was he going to wipe out a whole people? Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century!” Similarly, in “Cabaret,” Herr Schultz rejects the notion that he – and his people – are in danger, saying “it’s politics… it will pass…” and “after all, I am a Jew, but I am also a German…” And yet, by the time the second act ends, and the lights go down, we know Herr Schultz’s fate is sealed; elderly, frail and Jewish, he will be one of the first to die as part of the Final Solution.

The first time I heard my son speak Herr Schultz’s fateful lines I felt a chill. Jake is the great grandson of a man who lost part of his family in the Holocaust. My grandfather, his brother, four sisters, and mother immigrated to the United States in early 1900’s. Staying behind in Eastern Europe were two brothers, their wives, and children; neither of the eldest brothers wanted to uproot their families to travel to a strange land and start anew. By the mid- to late-1930s, as anti-Jewish sentiment and policies swept across Europe, life became difficult for the families, so my grandfather and grandmother would send packages of food, clothing, and money to them. And there were always letters back. Until there weren’t. It was the chaos of the war, my grandmother rationalized; when things are settled, we will hear from them. But the war ended, and the silence was deafening. It was never spoken, but it was understood.

I can only imagine what my family experienced during that time in Europe; the early days of denial, followed by later days of fear. Elie Weisel wrote of that fear in his village of Sighet in Transylvania as the Nazis gained control: “Night. No one prayed, so that the night would pass quickly. The stars were only sparks of the fire which devoured us. Should that fire die out one day, there would be nothing left in the sky but dead stars, dead eyes.” And later, after his liberation from Buchenwald, he looked at his face in the mirror, only to see “a corpse” gazing back. Wiesel says the look in his eyes has never left him. Over the years, I have met many Holocaust survivors, and I have seen that look in some of their eyes. Often it made me inconsolably sad, and at times, it made me uncomfortable.

“Cabaret” is full of uncomfortable moments. It is written that way, and written brilliantly. The song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” with its beautiful, lilting melody and lovely imagery is actually terrifying in the context of the show. The audience laughs its way through “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” as the Emcee sings about his “love” – who happens to be wearing a gorilla suit. But the last line of the song is like a bucket of ice water in the face. It is designed to make you gasp. It is designed to make you think. The sting of hatred, the sting of prejudice, is all summed up in just six words at the end of a song that was so amusing at first. The sting still exists today. It is perhaps more subtle, but it is just as pervasive. And to ignore or deny it out of fear or selfishness is to invite the rise of the kind of hatred and intolerance the world saw some 80 years ago, and to risk another atrocity.

“Cabaret” serves today, as it has served in the past, as a cautionary tale of that old cliché, “those who choose to ignore the past are doomed to repeat it.” Only those who acknowledge the inhumanity of the past have the ability to take action to prevent injustice and tragedy today – and tomorrow. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

I wish you all shalom and mazel – peace and luck.