With the recent news that the Holocaust was far worse than anyone realized — some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe and Russia have now been documented — a play about a man whose work helped bring nearly 1,100 war criminals to justice serves as a reminder that at least some of those who created or operated the Nazi death machine didn’t escape punishment.
Wiesenthal: The Conscience of the Holocaust has come to the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center for a brief run through Sunday. The solo show is the creation of its star, Tom Dugan, who portrays the late Nazi hunter and evokes the malevolent, defiant natures of some of his prey.
Under Jenny Sullivan’s direction, the actor portrays Wiesenthal circa 2003, as he packs up materials from his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna for shipment to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The conceit is that the audience is one final student group eager to hear the stories of a man dubbed “the Jewish James Bond.” The setup allows Dugan to speak directly to audience members and briefly interact with a few. Calls received and made on an attention-getting red phone also add variety to the low-key play, which runs an hour and 45 minutes (including an unnecessary intermission).
Speaking in Wiesenthal’s accented English, Dugan plays the dedicated, indefatigable Nazi hunter at the age of 94. He charms at first, telling a joke to break the ice, promising his wife (who has called that red phone) that he’ll remember to bring home milk. He seems a genial, grandfatherly gent whose age has slowed his gait to a careful shuffle.
But then Wiesenthal starts sharing his stories. He explains that during the war, he sent his blonde, blue-eyed wife Cyla to what he thought would be safety in the Warsaw Ghetto, which soon erupted in a bloody uprising. He details his suffering in the camps, his liberation at Mauthausen by American forces, his miraculous reunion with the wife he thought had died. He notes that between them, he and Cyla lost 89 family members during the Holocaust.
The most fascinating material in Wiesenthal is about his self-assigned mission, the way he worked and the personal price he paid — death threats, his wife’s ongoing depression — for his unwavering dedication to bringing ex-Nazis to justice.
With patience, persistence and paperwork as his chief tools, Wiesenthal played a role in the hunt for such war criminals as Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “final solution” that led to the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews and 5 million others; Franz Murer, the “Butcher of Vilna;” Franz Stangl, commander of the death camp at Treblinka; and Karl Silberbauer, the S.S. officer who arrested Anne Frank and her family.
To demonstrate Wiesenthal’s methodology, Dugan has a bit of the hunt for Alois Brunner — Eichmann’s assistant and the commander of the Drancy concentration camp outside Paris — unfold during the play. After a tip from a reporter that Brunner has been spotted in Syria, Wiesenthal makes several calls to the hotel where Brunner is allegedly living under an alias. Turning on the charm and borrowing the name Richard Kimble from The Fugitive, he tries — again and again — to persuade an uncooperative employee to confirm Brunner’s presence.
Though thwarted, he doesn’t give up. And that, the actor-playwright suggests, is how Simon Wiesenthal’s dogged quest for justice turned into a powerful way of honoring the millions whose lives were lost.