Knock, knock. Who’s there? A former Gestapo officer asking the Jewish man he used to give orders to for a job reference. There is no need to guess the punchline because this is not a joke.
It reflects a meeting that took place in the summer of 1945 in the German city of Mainz and is the subject of The Gestapo Minutes, a Radio 4 play by Adam Ganz, which is being broadcast next week.
Almost daily for six years from 1939 to 1945, the head of the Jewish community in Mainz, Michel Oppenheim (portrayed by Julian Rhind-Tutt in the play), reported to Gestapo officer Gerhard Schwoerer (Ed Stoppard). The Nazis had made Oppenheim, a lawyer, Jewish community head in the Rhineland city because his wife was Aryan. And because of the marriage, he was not deported to a concentration camp. But after years of taking orders from the officer, the war ended and the tables were turned. Now it was Schwoerer who relied on Openheim for his survival.
Ganz — who teaches screenwriting at Royal Holloway University — stumbled upon the minutes of the wartime meetings while researching his great-grandfather’s art collection in the city’s archives. The play is interspersed with readings of these minutes, which detail the daily, almost mundane cruelty of the Nazi regime, from the long list of names and addresses of those who committed suicide before mass deportations, to a reprimand for a Jewish man for visiting an ice cream parlour.
“Nothing spoke more powerfully than these incredibly banal lists of arrests,” Ganz says. “The horrendous detail of everyday family life in Mainz.” The clipped voice reading the minutes is that of long-time BBC radio broadcaster Robin Lustig, “the perfect person, both as someone with a wonderful voice and a huge amount of experience at bringing information to life on radio, and as someone with a personal connection with the story”.
Lustig’s father Franz was a German-Jewish refugee to the UK who worked with Ganz’s father as a “listener”, recording the conversations of captured German generals. Their work was the subject of Ganz’s first radio play, Listening To The Generals.
Among the minutes was a letter from Schwoerer to Oppenheim asking for a persilschein — clean bill of health — the formerly oppressed vouching for their oppressor.
“What on earth would you do?” Ganz says. “I thought about my father, who in a smaller way as a frequent visitor to 1950s Germany was quite often in that situation. What is it like to have a business relationship with a member of the Gestapo and with this particular man, who clearly on a personal level is not the worst of the worst, at least to the extent that he felt that he could ask for this pardon in good conscience?”
The play is a dramatisation of the conversation between the two as Schwoerer requests the reference and explores the shifting of the power dynamic. “The revenge fantasy exists for everyone,” Ganz adds. “The real question I had was what it would take to make someone sign that document.”