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History & Writing of Metronome Ticking


Book burning in the Third Reich: Book burning in our own time

My father, Ernst-Alfred (“Alf”) Eger (1912-1944), faithfully recorded his impressions and insights about the events of his life in a daily journal.  His diaries started from his 18th birthday and continued through his work as a Foreign Correspondent in London, his involvement as a writer contributing to the rise of the Third Reich, his experiences as a Propaganda Officer in occupied France, and later, his personal accounts as a WWII War Correspondent from the battlefields of Russia.  His journals ended abruptly when he got killed in the summer of 1944.  My mother, Gritt Eger (1918-2000), told me several times over the years that she had kept these journals as his inheritance for me, so that I could one day come to know the father who died when I was less than three years old.     

During my adult life, I moved around a great deal, living and teaching in six countries on three continents, and consequently was unable to take these numerous volumes with me.  I had never read any of my father’s writing until I settled in Philadelphia, and while sorting through my books, found one of his journals that I had inadvertently taken from our basement in Germany many years ago.  Opening it, the first thing I came across was an entry from 1935 in which my father gleefully described visiting a rectory, and his reaction upon hearing a Catholic priest’s proud confession of longstanding membership in the NSDAP (the Nazi Party).  

This one entry, chosen randomly, made me believe that there was more living history to be found in my father’s daily journals from the Third Reich.  I wrote to my mother to send all my father’s journals. However, when she learned that I wanted to publish parts of my father’s diaries, she had them thrown into an incinerator—all of them.  To this day, I still do not know whether she was embarrassed or angry with me, whether she wanted to shield me from my father's violent anti-Semitic and racial prejudices—very much part of Nazi ideology—or  whether she was trying to make the Third Reich an event that never happened. 

Phoenix Rising: From diary burning to the creation of a new play
 
To this day, I burn with anger over the loss of journals that would have shown how a bright young man who came from what is called “a good family,” the upper crust in Hamburg, could have fallen into the fangs of a vicious regime and how he coped with pangs of conscience.  Out of my anger and pain came the idea to write a play about my parents and the burning of the journals.  

While searching for albums with photographs that I had from the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, which my mother had given me years ago, I discovered several albums with close to 500 letters and almost 2000 pages of love letters that my father had written to my mother from Occupied France in the early 1940’s.  Most of them were written in an illegible old German script, but luckily I discovered the Sütterlinstube in Hamburg, where Dr. Peter Hohn and retirees of all backgrounds volunteer to transcribe documents sent in from all over the world. 

As soon as the letters arrived in their transcribed form, I couldn’t stop reading them, as they contained an extraordinary mixture of highly literate writing, humor, down-to-earth observations, and deep affection for my mother, interspersed with horrifying references to “Negro cadavers,” Jews, and “racial aliens.”  Example: “Racial aliens will be – evacuated [. . .] And then it’s time to get hold of England, so that there will be peace on earth and that the Jew will leave Europe’s soil!”  

Reading these letters, I realized that my father had not only given numerous speeches to groups of soldiers and officers and had written many articles, but had penned a regular column for German soldiers, and even had written at least one article for Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), the SS magazine.  I was determined to incorporate these facts into the play I was writing, because they show that even someone who does not pull a trigger can still do irreparable harm with his pen.

Sharing History: Sons of Cain and Abel today                          

While working on my play about the loss of my father’s Third Reich diaries, tentatively titled The Rehearsal, I attended a Board meeting of Theatre Ariel, the Jewish Theatre of Philadelphia, held at the home of the Board’s Chair, Susan Lodish, where I met her brother-in-law Bob Spitz.  During what began as a casual conversation based on our common European background, we discovered that we were both born in the same year and even the same month: one to Jewish refugees, the other to a journalist and member of the German Army

I began to ask him questions about his background and within minutes realized that he and I were like the unfortunate sons of Cain and Abel—born into two different families with two different ideologies—the oppressor and the oppressed.  When I told him about the play I was writing based upon my father’s letters, he informed me that his mother, Lily Spitz (1911-2005), had written her memoirs about her life, which included rescuing her husband from two concentration camps (Dachau and Buchenwald), fleeing the Nazis in occupied Austria, and living first as prisoners, then as refugees in war-torn Italy.

Bob offered to let me read her memoirs, and after finishing them, I immediately contacted him to ask whether he would allow me to use his mother’s harrowing experiences as a Jewish refugee fleeing occupied Austria, and integrate them into a play that combined them with my father’s letters from the Third Reich.  He agreed at once, saying that it was an old dream of his to celebrate the life of his mother by reading her memoir to others but that he had never gotten around to doing it.  What had begun as a simple conversation quickly evolved into an idea to create a healing process, where our shared history could perhaps even help the next generation learn from such a dark and painful past. 

Metronome Ticking: From first draft to first performance         
 
I then took Lily Spitz’s straightforward, chronological storyline as the basis of this evolving docudrama, which I called Metronome Ticking, taking out anything that preceded her life before 1938 and anything after her arrival, finally, in the United States in the 1950’s.  I then went through all of my father’s letters to my mother and looked for passages that matched Lily’s writing, both historically and dramatically

An almost feverish process of creativity began: writing, pre-selecting sections, translating, and editing--almost around the clock during the summer of 2006.  During our first rehearsal, when Bob talked about his father being carted off to Dachau, and other passages, he could not continue reading his mother’s texts.  We shared his tears and waited in silence until he was ready to continue.  I had the same reaction when I read the part about Jewish soldiers from Palestine in 1945 driving through liberated Italy in a truck and Lily Spitz and her husband desperately trying to make themselves understood as fellow Jews, showing their solidarity, but realizing that the soldiers only spoke Hebrew, so impromptu sign language had to convey their Jewish identity. 

Bob and I presented the first performance of Metronome Ticking on November 9, 2006, the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and celebrating our joint 65th birthday.  It was my birthday wish that we would premiere the docudrama for the first time at Martins Run in Media, PA, one of America’s oldest Jewish retirement communities, and home to a number of Holocaust survivors.  

After the first performance, the response was overwhelming.  People wrote in almost every hour.  For details, see the feedback section (click here).  We then received an invitation to perform the play at Temple Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, on March 28, 2007.  Afterwards, members of the audience and representatives of the Downingtown High School—who had already invited us to perform Metronome Ticking as part of their Holocaust program—encouraged me to go beyond a docudrama and, instead, rewrite the play in such a way that young Americans could relate more strongly to the events of the past and connect them to the prejudice in our own time.

Metronome Expanding: 45 and 90 minute versions               
 
Inspired by the positive audience responses, I began phase two of the writing process, where I created a sinister voice that, like a snake in Eden, tries to lure Adam down a path of wickedness: a voice which replicates the hate and bigotry so prevalent in pre-war Europe, a voice that led to Kristallnacht 1938 and the horrors of the concentration camps.  I also made the play more relevant to younger audiences by confronting them with a contemporary, modern American voice that, like the serpent in Paradise, tries to persuade young people to malign minorities--connecting the evil of the past with the evil of the present.

I was asked by the head of the English department at the Downingtown High School system and by the Education Department at the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia whether I could reduce the 90-minute play to 45 minutes so that it could be performed in an educational environment and allow enough time for a short discussion with the students.  After many months of editing and rewriting Metronome Ticking, just when I thought I had completed my work, I had to start all over again, because unlike a collection of poetry which can fairly easily be cut down in size, I was working under specific constraints: both the storyline and the most relevant parts had to be kept alive, and I had to retain the unique, human moments without destroying the overall impact or the chronology of the play.  It was a very difficult task.

As one of the last steps of the editing and re-writing process, I searched through literally thousands of images to illustrate the entire drama with original documents—not only photographs of Lily and Alf, but of the people who contributed to the Holocaust and those who suffered from it, with the goal of illuminating the essence of the play and accentuating the powerful text with equally powerful imagery.  From this long process, Metronome 45 was born—no longer a docudrama made up of letters and journal entries, but a multimedia work that hopes to do justice to two contemporaries and their lives in a way to which all generations, even video-game addicted young audiences, can now relate. 

Through Metronome 45, young people can now see that the “game” of hunter and hunted is real—a game that results from the same sort of prejudice, distortions, and poisonous ideas still being spewed out by some of the leading lights in this country via a variety of public media, including radio, television, and the Internet.  Unfortunately, these discriminatory ideologies are often repeated and passed on—sometimes deliberately, casually at other times—but frequently with long-range negative effects on those who have not yet learned to see through the dangers of stereotyping and the malicious misrepresentation of history. 

From the ashes of my father's burned journals, and the sorrow of Lily's experience under the regime he served, a docudrama has risen, a Phoenix born of pain and prejudice.  May this play soar and encourage young people to play a much more honest, active, and thoughtful role in life than previous generations, respecting and celebrating other people in their differences—real or perceived—so that those who follow us no longer inflict on others the wounds that this play has set out to heal.

 

 
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