About Gerda's Lieutenant
Gerda's Lieutenant -- a remarkable true story of love, loss and survival -- is an innovative work for the stage based on the life and love letters of the 85-year-old Gerda Weissman Klein and her late husband Kurt Klein, the American soldier who liberated Gerda after six years under Nazi rule. The play is being developed under the direction of Leigh Fondakowski (The Laramie Project).
Moving between past and present, Act I chronicles the initial meeting of Gerda Weissmann and Kurt Klein, the German-born American soldier who liberated her at the end of World War Two. As their friendship develops, Gerda reveals that she is one of 120 survivors of a “death march” of 2,000 Jewish women that took her from a slave labor camp in Germany to the Czech border. Kurt declares his love for Gerda and asks her to marry him—but at the same time announces that the Army is sending him back to America to be discharged, and that he must leave the next day. After accepting Kurt’s marriage proposal, Gerda tells the audience: “Everything within me cried out to plead with him to stay, but I found myself persuading him to take the opposite course of action.” Act I ends with Gerda and Kurt beginning a passionate, year-long correspondence as Kurt returns to the U.S. to be discharged from the Army and Gerda obtains several jobs, including a position in the civilian censorship division in Munich.
In Act Two, as they come to know each other through their correspondence, Gerda and Kurt discover the parallels in their lives: Both are Jewish, and both lost their parents during the war. Throughout these months in late 1945, Gerda—like countless other Displaced Persons—faces a series of horrendous bureaucratic barriers as she struggles to find a way to leave Europe and travel to America in order to marry Kurt, who has meanwhile received his discharge from the Army and is establishing life as a civilian in Buffalo, New York. Gerda recounts her daily activities, including her reactions to living with a German family whose son had served as a German army officer. Missing Kurt terribly and in desperation, Gerda is smuggled into Paris with false identification papers; she precipitously throws her own identification papers out the window of a speeding train, fearing that if she is caught with two sets of papers by visa inspectors, she will be sent to jail. The inspection never happens, and Gerda arrives in Paris in the middle of the night, frightened, homeless, and penniless.
The love story intensifies as Gerda and Kurt reflect upon the horrors of war and the miracle of the bond they have forged with one other, in contrast to the fate of so many of their friends whose lives have been shattered by the war and its aftermath. Gerda is now safely in Paris, while Kurt is in New York City. Though Kurt faces unexpected obstacles in getting to France, the play ends as the two are at last reunited and married in Paris in 1946—more than a year after their first meeting. The poignant wedding scene takes places in an abandoned synagogue in Paris, where Gerda and Kurt start their new lives as husband and wife completely alone, with no witnesses except for family photos and memorial candles that represent the family and friends they have lost. The scene is silent except for the haunting melody of the ancient Kaddish prayer for the dead, the notes slowly fading into Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Throughout the play, we catch glimpses of Gerda today in private moments at home and in public, as everyday objects and actions trigger memories of her past. For example, the simple act of hulling strawberries conjures a wager that 15-year-old Gerda made with her best friend in 1939 that the war would end within a year; the bet was payable with a pint of strawberries topped with cream. A photo of Kurt in her bedroom recalls the family photos that Gerda hid in her shoes—tiny photos, cut into the shape of hearts, that survived the forced march in the winter of 1945. Setting the table for a family meal evokes the last lunch that Gerda shared with her parents and brother Artur in Poland before Artur was “drafted.”
When documentary filmmaker Bennett Singer and writer Ellen Reeves approached me about creating a play based on The Hours After, the letters of Kurt and Gerda Weissmann Klein, I read an early draft and was impressed: Bennett and Ellen had crafted a clear narrative from hundreds of letters, not an easy dramaturgical task. But the letter form is as full of theatrical possibilities as it is challenges, and it really needs to be explored on stage.
What I craved was a voice that would provide a contrast to the letters, the memories, and the past—a voice from the present to help me understand why it is important to revisit this story right now. I was looking for something immediate and urgent. I met with Bennett and Ellen and they began to tell me stories from their meetings with Gerda: how she constructed her life as an American wife and mother in Buffalo after the war, and how today, having lost her husband of nearly 60 years, she is struggling to find meaning in the face of overwhelming grief. Entire worlds and possibilities opened up. Not only do Bennett and Ellen have the rights to the letters, but they have access to Gerda’s writings, and—most importantly of all—to Gerda herself. They have a relationship with Gerda, and they have her trust. Gerda speaking from the here and now is the great treasure among the volumes of source material.
Having been mentored in the theater by Moisès Kaufman and having worked with Tectonic Theater Project since 1995 to create new work, I am convinced that the model of the playwright toiling alone in a room does not work for everyone. Most playwrights need the time and space to think and dream theatrically in order to fully understand what they are creating. Through a technique I use known as Moment Work, the elements of the stage become the great inspirers, and theatrical language and form dictate narrative and event rather than the other way around. This process has enabled us to explore the theatrical vocabulary of this story and to find the overall event of the play itself. We have found ways to explode and re-invent the letter form—discovering, ultimately, how past and present can be combined on stage to tell the epic love story of Gerda and Kurt Klein.
I haven’t come across a more suitable project for development in many years: two brilliant artists from other disciplines, with an amazing story to tell, and incredible source material. Gerda’s Lieutenant will be a major contribution to the American theater, especially coming at a time when there are those who deny that the Holocaust occurred. Gerda and Kurt’s story is a piece of history that the theater can tell beautifully, poetically, and with the transcendent power that only the stage can achieve. It is a timely and important new work.
Sample Scene from Gerda’s Lieutenant • Liberation: The Start of a New Life
Downstage are two chairs. GERDA sits in one (stage right); the other (stage left) is empty. There is a case of letters, photos and objects. It is closed. GERDA is looking at the case. She opens the lid of the case and picks up a photo.
“To Gerda, at the start of a new life.”
PROJECTION: Image of the stained and faded text written on the back of the photo in English. Camera widens so we see the fingers holding the photograph. We see the photo turn over and see YOUNG KURT’s picture.
GERDA turns the picture over along with the image.
YOUNG KURT appears out of the projection, in his uniform and sunglasses.
PROJECTION: Again the image is turned over to the text side, but this time the back of the photo is fresh and the ink crisp.
YOUNG GERDA appears behind GERDA. She is holding a photo the same way.
“… at the start of a new life.”
PROJECTION: Again the photo is turned over to show YOUNG KURT, and the photo is new.
My dear, brave liberator. You said…
YOUNG KURT appears out of the projection, in uniform. He places his hand on hers.
It’s all over. May I see the other ladies?
“Ladies!” … maybe you didn’t know…
We are Jewish.
(After a long pause.)
So am I. (beat) Won’t you come with me?
PROJECTION: Again the photograph is turned over, and again, the text is faded and stained.
GERDA kisses the photo and holds it to her breast.
…the start of a new life. When you were by my side, I could do anything. (Shrugs, asking the “What now?” question without asking it.) I have never lived without hope for a happy ending, even when hope was only an illusion. As long as we were together, we had a happy ending. We reached our summit over morning coffee. No one else understood or knew. And sometimes even you did not know. Was it yesterday or a century ago?
In January 2009, Gerda’s Lieutenant moved to Scottsdale for two weeks of collaborative development presented by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and directed by Leigh Fondakowski. Actress Lynn Cohen and her husband, actor Ron Cohen, joined the cast in Scottsdale to play Gerda and Kurt. (Cohen has extensive stage credits in addition to playing Golda Meir in Steven Spielberg’s film Munich and Magda, Miranda’s Ukrainian housekeeper, in the television and feature film productions of Sex and the City.) The development work culminated in a series of public showcases and audience discussion sessions at Theatre 4301, in Gerda Klein’s hometown of Scottsdale.