Powerful Drama Examines Whether a Great Conductor Was Also A Nazi
By Fredric Dannen
On two occasions in the 1990s, I was a guest on the Charlie Rose show, both times discussing the most controversial article I had ever written as a journalist. John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-born American citizen living in Cleveland, had been extradited to Israel to stand trial for being “Ivan the Terrible,” the infamous, sadistic gas chamber operator at the Treblinka death camp in Poland during the Nazi occupation.
Demjanjuk had been found guilty in a months-long trial broadcast live on Israeli radio. The court sentenced him to hang. Demjanjuk appealed the verdict to the Israeli Supreme Court, based on newly discovered evidence pointing to a different man. My own reporting, in Israel and elsewhere, bolstered the argument that Demjanjuk was not “Ivan the Terrible.”
Citing my article on the case, published in Vanity Fair, a federal US court reversed Demjanjuk’s extradition order. Later, the Israeli Supreme Court, in a supreme act of courage, accepted the new evidence, vacated the conviction and death sentence, and sent Demjanjuk back to Cleveland.
However, Demjanjuk was not wholly innocent, and I said as much in my article and in interviews. Most likely he had been a prisoner of war in Chelm, Poland, and improved his own chances of survival by becoming a guard at Sobibor, a different Polish death camp. I could find no evidence that he had ever committed a hands-on murder, but I could not rule it out. I argued on the Charlie Rose show (against my principal antagonist, attorney Alan Dershowitz) that even a man such as Demjanjuk was entitled to due process. As a Jew, the whole experience made me profoundly uncomfortable.
Recently, I came across a brilliant 1995 play by Ronald Harwood called Taking Sides, set in postwar Berlin, and based on true events. US Army Major Steve Arnold has the job of interrogating Wilhelm Furtwängler, possibly the greatest conductor of the twentieth century, to determine whether Furtwängler should be condemned as a Nazi collaborator.
Arnold has ammunition: Furtwängler was not forced to leave Germany in 1933, like many other musicians, because he was not a Jew. But by remaining the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, he became, in Arnold’s words, “an advertising slogan” for the most barbaric criminals of the century. Worse, the conductor had accepted honorary positions in the Nazi regime, performed at a Nazi rally, and conducted a concert for Hitler’s birthday. But Furtwängler mounts a powerful self-defense, citing a case the Gestapo had built against him for assisting Jewish musicians.
On Tuesday through Thursday, February 19 to 21, at 7:30pm at St Paul’s Church, San Miguel Playreaders will present Taking Sides with John Wharton as Steve Arnold and Jim Wright as Wilhelm Furtwängler. I am directing the play. Tickets will be sold at the door at 6:45pm each evening on a first-come, first-served basis. Admission is 30 pesos.
Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood
Tue–Thu, Feb 19–21, 7:30pm
St Paul’s Church Parish Hall