In 2010, my play, The Promise, about the Balfour Declaration of 1917, was produced at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. As the product of a mixed marriage (my father is Jewish, my mother not) like the one between the Cabinet minister Edwin Montagu and the aristocrat Venetia Stanley in The Promise, I assumed that play about the British origins of the modern state of Israel would be my first and last dramatic venture into such a significant and controversial subject in Jewish history.
So I then wrote Three Days in May, about Churchill persuading the British cabinet not to make a peace deal with Hitler in May 1940 (though as John Nathan pointed out in his JC review of the West End production, this was, arguably, equally relevant to Anglo-Jewry), and A Splinter of Ice, about Graham Greene’s visit to Kim Philby in Moscow in 1987.
But then, a few years ago, I happened to come across a reference in a newspaper to Himmler having had a masseur who persuaded him to meet and negotiate with Jews. This surprised and intrigued me, so I got hold of Felix Kersten’s memoirs and in these found the story of the secret meeting that took place on the night of 20 April 1945 — Hitler’s last birthday — between Himmler and a Swedish Jew called Norbert Masur.
With extraordinary courage, Masur flew secretly with Kersten to Berlin in the dying days of the war to try to persuade Himmler to release the surviving members of the concentration camps, contrary to Hitler’s order that no Jew should outlast the regime. One historian has described it as surely the most remarkable meeting of the Second World War and I immediately knew that I had to write a play about it.
As with The Promise and Israel/Palestine, I realised that with such sensitive subject-matter as the Holocaust, I needed to be on very secure factual ground, and it was known that Kersten’s memoirs were not always 100 per cent reliable. Indeed, Woody Allen parodied them as “The Schmeed Memoirs” — about a Berlin barber — in the New Yorker in 1971, which I’d read as a teenager in the collection Getting Even.
Fortunately, however, I discovered that Masur had written an account of the meeting for the Swedish section of the World Jewish Congress as soon as he got back to Stockholm, and that 48 years later, his nephew, Henry Karger, had translated it into English and lodged it at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC to mark Yom Hashoah on April 27, 1993.
And the Nazi head of foreign intelligence, Walter Schellenberg, also wrote an account of it.
So to answer the question I keep being asked about this almost unbelievable meeting, yes, it really did happen.
Having revived The Promise for a reading to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in November 2017, JW3 organised a reading of The End of the Night in May 2019 (directed by Richard Beecham), after which Park Theatre planned a production. This was subsequently delayed by Covid of course, but it seems fitting that the first preview performance instead took place on Wednesday 27 April — Yom Hashoah.
The End of the Night is at Park Theatre until May 28
Himmler met a Jew — I had to write a play about it
Ben Brown's new play is about an unlikely meeting