Toward the end of World War II, an increasingly paranoid Adolf Hitler worried about poison. To protect himself, he required young women—girls of “good German stock”—to taste his food before each meal. When she heard about these tasters, virtually forgotten to history, the playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks knew she had found a theme that went beyond history or Hitler. Her play H*tler’s Tasters garnered praise and won prizes at several theater festivals before being interrupted by COVID. Now running off-Broadway at New York’s Theatre Row through mid-May, it turns the spectacle of these four young girls into an uncanny meditation on complicity, femininity and victimhood.
Brooks belongs to a family of comic artists—she’s married to the World War Z novelist Max Brooks, whose father is Mel Brooks, the legendary comedian and filmmaker. The story of Hitler’s tasters is, she says, “dark comedy” about something that’s very serious indeed. She spoke with Moment’s Amy E. Schwartz.
I feel I should start by congratulating you, not just on bringing the play to off- Broadway, but on finding something new to say about Hitler.
I know! When I first heard Hitler had used young German women to taste his food for poison, my reaction was, “Just when you thought you’ve heard every freaking possible horrible thing about Hitler…” It’s terrifying how he seems to be an endless source of material.
My other immediate thought was, “Isn’t adolescence hard enough without wondering if you’re going to die at every meal?” So my way into the story was through themes about the treatment of young women. I don’t even know if I ever consciously decided that Hitler was not going to make an appearance in this play. I wasn’t interested in seeing him. We’ve seen enough.
A rave review in the Jewish Journal said that the play “turns a historical footnote into a provocative social study.” How did you come across this strange historical footnote?
I was in Bloomington, Indiana, for the opening of a play I’d cowritten with a friend, and he and I had some time to kill before our flight back to Los Angeles, so we went to the local war museum. And he said to me very casually, “Hey, did you read that story about those German women who were Hitler’s food tasters?” And I said, “Wait, what did you just say? Are you going to write that? Because if you’re not, I am.” And my friend—who’s tall, male and Irish—said, “No, I’m not going to write that.” As soon as I heard this tiny piece of the story, I knew it hit all my buttons: the treatment of young women as dispensable, how we raise them up and toss them away; being Jewish, how to talk about World War II and the Holocaust; and the enormously complicated issues around young women and food. Every once in a while you get a call from the universe, and something screams, “This is you.” At the risk of sounding very playwriterly, I felt like it was meant for me to write.
It unfolded for me more organically than anything I’ve ever written. I was in a playwriting group in LA, and we did one of those 48-hour play challenges, where somebody gives you a sealed envelope, and you open the envelope and there are four or five prompts, and you can’t look back or edit as you go. I said to myself, I am not going to write my Hitler’s tasters play for this exercise; I’m not! And I sat down, and after the first sentence, I was writing the play. I just rolled it out in 48 hours. I have obviously since gone back and done surgery on it, but it was living so profoundly in me that I just had no choice.
Why do you think it called to you so strongly?
Hitler didn’t use Jews for this, he didn’t use Roma, he didn’t use Poles. He didn’t use any of the myriad groups of people that he railed against. He used the future bearers of German sons, the future of the Reich. He specifically chose them, saying he wanted women of good German stock to test his food for poison.
What it said to me, and what has become so obvious in the time since I wrote the play in 2016, is: It doesn’t matter how privileged you are. It doesn’t matter how much status you have. When you align yourself with a tyrant, when he is done othering everybody else, when he’s done with the Jews, with the LGBTQ+ community, with the immigrants, with the Muslims, he eventually turns on his own. Always, always, always. Nobody is safe. That struck me so profoundly.
Do we know historically why he used young women?
No, I don’t know. I suspect that there were no men available, because they were all fighting. But the girls in the play talk about that question, trying to figure it out. They tell themselves that this is an honor. How else would you get through three meals a day with the potential of dying at every one? They had to tell themselves that this was being bestowed on them because they were something special.
That resonates with a lot of women’s history, doesn’t it? Women putting up with what we think of now as atrocities, like foot-binding, and thinking that they’re a great honor?
Yes. I think men have historically been pretty adept at creating a narrative that makes us say, “Oh, well, I should feel lucky that I’m given this honor,” whatever it is. And also, I think there has to be a healthy amount of denial. I read an article recently about Russians who are denying the atrocities that are happening right now in Ukraine, and a Russian scholar and psychologist was quoted saying that that’s the only way to live with it, to tell themselves that it’s not happening. And that really resonated with me in the play, because the girls have to be in denial in order to get through the day. I think we all have to be in a lot of denial to get through many days.
So it’s partly about complicity?
It is. The question of complicity plays into it. Are they complicit? People have said to me, well, what if they just refused to eat the food that was given to them? But I feel like if Hitler tells you to eat your peas, you eat your peas. And they were very young, and brought up with Hitler as a father figure. And also, this was toward the end of the war, and they were probably starving. So it’s easy to judge, but it’s not easy to put ourselves in those shoes.
I won’t ask about what happens in the play, but in history, were any of them poisoned?
Not to my knowledge. I only worked from the account of one woman, Margo Woelk, who came forward to tell her story in about 2012. She was in her 90s and had never told it before, and it was reported in some German media and in the UK. And according to her—ironically, now—it was really the Russians’ coming in at the end of the war that brought all the girls to a terrible end. She claimed that one of the guards took kind of a shine to her and smuggled her out, I believe on Goebbels’s train, and then she was actually captured by the Russians and held for a couple of weeks in an apartment, where she was tortured and raped and all the horrible things that we would expect, but she came out of it and went on to live into her 90s.
Did COVID change the play or heighten any of its issues?
I started writing it, not to put too fine a point on things, around the 2016 election. And I found that the rhetoric out in the world was terrifying and familiar. And so although the play takes place close to the end of World War II, it contains anachronisms and contemporary elements as a way to make a point about the possibility of history repeating itself. The girls use cell phones, there’s contemporary music. In various productions we’ve occasionally added some contemporary references, hopefully not too heavy-handedly. When I imagined the time period, it was around the end of the war, but a little bit timeless, in that vague way you can do in theater.
If they’re taking selfies and they have cell phones, they’re not bored the way people would have been bored in the 1940s.
Right, although they’re still bored, because it turns out there are only so many selfies you can take. But the idea of using the cell phones came to me when I was out somewhere in a public place watching a group of beautiful young women who were in pursuit of the perfect selfie, scrutinizing themselves, going through all these contortions to get the photo. And I remember thinking, oh, these are the girls that would’ve been conscripted for this job. They could have been our sisters and nieces and cousins. I wanted the girls to feel very, very present. I’ve had a lot of young people write to me, or their parents have told me, that it was really helpful to include the cell phones, because they understood that these girls could be them.
Has the play changed in coming to off-Broadway?
I think it has deepened, in the writing and in the presentation. The four actresses playing the girls have really grown and bonded. It’s such a rare thing to be able to work with the same team over this period of time in different venues, because they have learned so much listening to how audiences responded to them in Skokie, Illinois, in Edinburgh, in North Carolina and so forth.
Did anything interesting happen with audiences in Skokie, given its history with survivors and Nazis?
Not so much. Really, I was very worried about Skokie. I was worried that people would be offended, but wow, we were packed. And we had talkbacks every night, with a lot of questions and a tremendous amount of support.
I find that people who are closer to the story for personal reasons are even more supportive of it. When I did an event with the Alliance for Jewish Theater, there was a Holocaust survivor who was part of the event. And she wrote to me afterward and said, “This play is so important. You’re making it relevant to people again.” And I was so grateful for that, because it’s a dark comedy also, and I don’t want anybody to feel like I’m trying to minimize their experience or minimize their feelings.
One really interesting thing happened in Skokie. A woman came up to me after the show and mentioned a moment in the play when the girls are dancing and they shed their outer clothing, and you see swastikas on their underwear. And she said, “Was I supposed to be upset by that?” And I said, yes, you were! They’re dancing and having fun, and they’re so winning, these girls, they’re amazing to watch. And then this is revealed, and you remember, oh, we can’t get too carried away, because look at what they’re representing.
And the same woman, I think, wrote to me later, saying, “I really wrestled with this, because I’m Jewish, and I try to find compassion for everybody. And I’ve never been able to find compassion for Germans. And something about this play made me feel compassion for these women.” Just to be clear, nobody’s feeling compassion for Nazis. But when you’re talking about young people and how they get indoctrinated, she felt that she was able to open herself up to that. And I was very moved.
Do people criticize you for trying to identify with these young girls who are essentially Nazis?
Not that I’ve heard. Some people have asked the actors how it felt to have to play these women. And I think that they’ve answered that question beautifully in terms of having to find compassion for any character that you create or embody, or else you’re not playing them authentically. Everybody has a story, an ugly story or a pretty one, about how they got to where they are.
Are any of the actors Jewish?
Are there other things people have found offensive?
Some people are very concerned about the play because of the title. They don’t want to see it or report on it. A couple of reviewers, and even a news organization here in New York, refused to review the show because Hitler was in the title. In fact, our title, Hitler’s Tasters, now has an asterisk instead of an “i,” because we were being identified by search engines as hate speech. We got kicked off Facebook, though we’ve since been put back on. And while I appreciate hate speech being identified, I found that a little confounding. This is not a love letter to Hitler. He was a real person in history. Ignoring his name doesn’t erase what happened.
Mel Brooks is your father-in-law, so you have a family connection to Springtime for Hitler, which in its day created similar reactions.
That’s right. There’s even a bit in the film itself where the producers want to change the name to Springtime for Mussolini.
Do you feel like you’re part of the current debate on whether it’s okay to make jokes about Nazis?
I’m obviously in a family that has a deep belief in the power of humor. By laughing at something, you can actually do a lot more damage to it in some ways than by just criticizing it.
There’s such a cultural push now to hide things, but that’s dangerous. The question of what we can say and how people react to it has become more loaded even since I wrote the play. I don’t think we should be saying horrible things to each other, but I don’t believe that so many things should be off the table. You can’t whitewash history. You can’t pretend it didn’t exist. And it breaks my heart when people try to erase history because they’re afraid of people being upset. We need to upset people. Life is really upsetting. It’s better to be offended and have a conversation about things than to pretend that they didn’t happen or don’t exist. If they don’t exist, how are you going to stop them from happening again?
Top photo credit: Zach Griffin