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Two Men, 'Victims' of the Accident of Birth, Confront Their Legacies

November 22, 2006 - Bryan Schwartzman, Staff Writer

After performing the docudrama "Metronome Ticking," Henrik Eger (left) and Robert Spitz show photographs of their respective parents.
Two men born exactly nine days apart back in 1941 -- one the son of Jewish parents struggling to escape physical harm and make it to the land of Israel, the other the child of a Nazi war correspondent and propagandist -- have teamed up to share their parents' stories.

So, they have compiled what they describe as a "docudrama," titled "Metronome Ticking."

A performance, really, it interweaves family letters and memoirs that convey the past as seen through the eyes of a member from each of the two families. The piece -- meant to simultaneously condemn bigotry while shedding light on human commonalities -- had its debut earlier this month at Martins Run, a Jewish retirement community in Delaware County that's home to a number of Holocaust survivors.

While no future performances have been scheduled, the man most responsible for the drama has high hopes that it can find an audience with school-age children across the country, and in Europe as well, serving as a reminder of how poisonous words and ideas can lead to catastrophic consequences.

"I want the audience to see the contrast of two people -- one being the hunted, and one being part of the regime that was working to destroy the Jewish people," said Henrik Eger, son of Ernst-Alfred Eger, a Nazi Party member who was killed on the Russian front in 1944, before his son turned 3.

A Chance Encounter?

Eger -- an English and communications professor at Delaware County Community College -- said he has long made it a point to be engaged with the Jewish community. A resident of Upper Darby, Eger serves on the board of directors of the local Jewish performance group Theatre Ariel, as well as runs a weekly news-discussion group at Martins Run.

It was through involvement with Theatre Ariel that Eger wound up visiting the home of Robert Spitz, whose sister-in-law also sits on the group's board. The meeting took place not long after Spitz's mother died.

Lily Spitz -- who, following her husband's death in 1989, spent more than a decade as a resident at Martins Run before she died in 2005 -- had in the early 1970s written down the account of her and her husband's trials during World War II. The couple fled to Italy from Austria -- and later sailed to Libya -- in the hopes of making it to British-mandate Palestine. But once Italy entered the war, they were detained and sent back to an internment camp in that country, where Robert Spitz was born.

The couple and their young son survived the war, but they never made it to Israel. Instead, they wound up immigrating to Bolivia before finally making their way to the United States in 1951. Spitz grew up in Cleveland and came to Philadelphia more than 20 years ago. (To this day, he multiplies numbers in Spanish, since he went to grammar school in South America.)

For years, Spitz, a vice president of a software company, had wanted to do something with his mother's memoirs.

"The value of the story is that people can relate to the humanity of it. It's not just a statistic." Yet nothing happened with the manuscript until the two men met.

Eger -- who grew up in Germany and has lived in several countries, including India and England -- himself had a box of letters, from his father. Most were written to Eger's mother, Margaret. Originally, he'd planned to publish his father's diaries, but after learning that, his mother -- with whom he'd had a troubled relationship over the years -- burned the papers shortly before she died in 2000.

What Eger discovered after he and several others translated the letters was that his father possessed a powerful and poetic voice on the page. It was also evident that he shared the Nazi Party's racial prejudices, at one point writing to his young bride that a German victory in England would mean that Europe would finally be rid of its Jews.

Eger took the material and melded it into a series of dramatic readings.

The performance -- which begins with the ticking of a metronome -- is aided by family and historic photos, but essentially consists of two men standing at podiums, reading aloud. Spitz imitates his mother's German accent when he assumes her character, telling first of meeting her husband and falling in love, and then of the family's struggle to survive and stay together, all the while never losing her sense of humor.

Eger then read his father's words: This counter-story begins in a similar way, with a courtship, before the two tales drastically diverge. Midway through the performance, Spitz and Eger switch roles and speak the words of one another's parents, the German and the Jew.

"The point of the switch was that, to some extent, we are all products of accidental births," said Spitz. "Where you are born determines what you are going to do in life or how you feel."

But what does the title signify exactly?

Explained Eger: "A metronome can be a harmless musical instrument. But it can also be like a time bomb. The play is like like a time bomb -- at any moment, it could explode."