Growing up in post-war America, Charleston playwright Dan Kehde struggled with his German heritage.
With the horrors of the Nazi regime laid bare for the world, many German-Americans wanted to downplay their ties to their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland.
“I remember my parents talking to my relatives in Germany 15 years after the war and still sending them food, clothing and money, and being very angry with my parents for doing that,” Kehde said. “I don’t know if this is true for all German-Americans, but there was an extreme amount of guilt for me.”
Those feelings resurfaced early last year when he began work on “Dachau,” his latest collaboration with composer Mark Scarpelli. The somber musical drama tells the story of the Dachau War Trials, and is a study in contrasts between American justice and Nazi inhumanity.
The research was grueling. At times, he had to walk away from it.
“This is absolutely the most difficult musical I’ve ever written,” Kehde said. “I didn’t want to write it. I’d write a scene and then want to go shoot myself.”
Presented by the Contemporary Youth Arts Co., “Dachau” opens at 8 p.m. today at the West Virginia State University Capitol Center on Summers Street in downtown Charleston.
The production is the result of a project spearheaded last year by Helen Lodge, co-chairwoman of the Holocaust Remembered: Witness and Legacy committee. The project brought lecturers, photo exhibits and an education workshop to Charleston last fall.
“Helen contacted us and we wanted to participate but weren’t able to put something together so short-term,” Kehde said.
Among the books he read for the piece was “Justice at Dachau” by Joshua Greene. The book is about the efforts of William Denson, the American man who prosecuted the butchers of Dachau. Although he holds the record for most Nazis prosecuted by a single attorney (177) Denson’s story was somewhat overshadowed by the Nuremberg Trials, Kehde said.
“Nuremberg was for flash,” he said. “It had all of the generals in it. Dachau had all of the lieutenants and sergeants, and all of the guys who actually got their hands bloody.”
That made reading the testimony of the Dachau trials particularly gut-wrenching. He describes the production as a “work of fiction that is based on fact.”
“I couldn’t take the actual testimony and put it on stage,” he said. “The things ... it just didn’t lend itself to being portrayed, so I had to rework it a bit.”
Dachau was the first concentration camp, opened in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS. Its original intent was for political prisoners (like Communists and social democrats), but was later expanded to imprison Jews, gays, American prisoners of war and others.
At least 32,000 people died at the camp. It’s thought that thousands more deaths were simply undocumented.
In some ways, Kehde’s familial connection to Nazi Germany is more direct than many other German-Americans.
In the early 1930s, his maternal grandfather decided to move the family back to Germany from America.
“And then he took a look at what Hitler was doing and packed the kids up and turned around,” Kehde said.
But not before Kehde’s mother met and began dating a German boy. Their young romance ended when the family returned to the United States, but the boyfriend would go on to join the Kriegsmarine, the German navy.
“He was later killed in a U-boat off the coast of Massachusetts,” Kehde said.
He also reviewed a number of photos taken by the late James H. Hall, a Mink Shoals native who documented the liberation of Dachau, the search for Nazi war criminals and the Nuremberg trials.
The photos were sometimes more than he could bear.
“You go back and you start researching and you see how terrible this was, the horrendous things that the German people did to these people. Not just the Jews, but the Hungarians, gypsies, homosexuals and the American prisoners. You take a look at that, and you realize that the villagers knew everything that was going on in those camps and those villagers were very much related to me.”
For the production, performers on the main stage will sing lines as others act out the scenes on a slightly elevated stage behind them.
“The witnesses are doing their singing and six feet above them and behind them, the atrocities are being enacted,” Kehde said.
Cast members range in age from 12 to 73.
Kehde was hesitant at first to include such young actors. He doesn’t think anyone under 12 should see the play.
The two youngest performers — Afton Myers and Abigail Pauley — impressed him with their maturity and ability to handle the challenging piece.
“We talked with their parents beforehand, and said if they couldn’t do it, that was fine,” he said. “And boy, they jumped in with both feet. Evidently, they have been studying the Holocaust in school.”
It’s a bigger cast than usual. Of the more than 60 plays he has written, most had a cast of 20 or fewer performers. “Dachau” has about 40.
The music was another challenge.
“The words don’t rhyme. It’s all free-verse,” he said. “It’s opera, basically. There are spoken parts, but the parts that are sung are far more operatic than musical theater. You have to do that.”
Bob Sylvester, a 73-year-old retired FBI special agent who now works as a counselor with the West Virginia Institute for Spirituality, plays the part of the judge.
“The trial actually had a panel of judges, but I represent that panel,” he said.
It’s the third role he has ever played. He was also in Contemporary Youth Arts productions of “The Blob” and “Lincoln.”
He said he was honored to learn from Kehde and Scarpelli. With most cast members just a fraction of his age, he sees his role as a kind of mentor.
“I’m not of their generation,” he said. “I’m glad though that I am a person that they can come to, connect with and like. A lot of them have even allowed me to friend them on Facebook,” he said with a laugh.
Rehearsals began in mid-February.
“When we did the first read-through, it was pretty hard,” Kehde said. “I think as we went along, everyone got a very, very strong attachment to the people they were portraying.”
Asked how he thought the young actors were able to deal with the horrific subject matter, he said, “I don’t know how they do it, but they really do it well.”
“You end up having to crack jokes, and I hate to say that but there is no way to go through this without somehow becoming human again.”
The cast features a range of soloists, including Daniel Calwell, Jeremy Drake, Nik Tidquist, Erica Clonch, Maddy Gourevitch, Leah Draper, Myers, Austin Lowe, Jonathan Tucker, Matt Connelly, Brett Smith, Gage Snodgrass, Aaron Stull and Erin Martin, along with a chorus of volunteer singers and dancers ranging from middle school age to college.
Additional performances are April 3, 4, 9, 10 and 11. Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and are available at the door. The Capitol Center Box Office can be reached at 304-342-6522.
Reach Life editor Billy Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org