Jelinek’s ‘Rechnitz’: The Horror of Silence

At the Wiener Festwochen, a powerful ensemble theater piece takes another step in Austria’s reconciliation with the past

While others may debate whether art is, or should be, political, Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek has never been in doubt.  Through much of her work, she portrays the pathologies she saw in a post-war Austria suffocating under a conspiracy of silence, an inability to confront its role in the horrors of National Socialism.

This society-wide denial leads to a litany of emotional distortions, as reflected by her play titles Greed and Lust. Human perversity, Jelinek tells us, is a direct result of self deception, of a flight from reality, and the explosion of unresolved inner conflicts in people living with unspoken, intolerable truths.

Rechnitz (Der Würgeengel) the extraordinary theater piece that premiered in Austria May 23 at Theater Akzent as part of the Wiener Festwochen, is surely among Jelinek’s most successful works for the stage. It relates the events of one ghastly night of Mar. 24-25, 1945 at the Schloss Rechnitz in eastern Burgenland near the Hungarian border where a certain Countess Margit von Batthyany hosted a crazed soiree of drinking and debauchery whose highlight was the slaughter of 180 Jews exhausted from forced labor were being held prisoners in a shed on the property.

All in fun, you understand, just a little carnival act to entertain the guests, including two dozen of the countess’s titled neighbors, several SS officers — at least one of which was a lover of the Countess — and a pack of other Nazi sharp shooters. Two of the Jews were forced to dig mass graves for the bodies, and then themselves were murdered the next day.

Originally a prose essay, Jelinek’s text has been reworked as the reports of five “messengers,” who speak in alternating voices of aristocrats, officers and servants, relating the horrific events of that night as witness-participants whose moral compass has come unpinned. It was created and first performed by the Münchner Kammerspiel in 2008. Threats of harassment prevented Jelinek form authorizing performance in Austria until now.

It was this mix of lust and violence that disturbs Jelinek the most: To show these dissolving boundaries, the actors gradually disrobe to lingerie and long johns, blithely unfolding their tale while stroking an arm here or a thigh there, nibbling on slices of pizza, crowning the banal absurdity of the proceedings.

“What made this massacre so monstrous,” Jelinek said in a recent interview, “was the linking with the orgiastic. The drunken pumped up murderers get undressed and then fire on the unprotected victims as if it were target practice.”

The greatest horror of the Nazi era is perhaps the recognition that moral systems in human beings are relative — this is how we are made, it is a survival skill to be able to adapt. We define sanity in the West as having a clear grasp of the reality that everyone in our group, in our society, has agreed on.

To be an outsider, an independent thinker, is to be at risk, and after a certain point such a person inevitably meets the standard of what it means to be insane. If we reject everyone else’s reality, we are, by definition, insane.

In our adaptability, we are all capable of dividing the world between “we” and “they”, in fact we do it every day as members of any group that exclude others — which is all of them, every institution, political party or sports team, every family or group of friends. Knowing what we are not is how we know what we are.

So how do we do this essential thing — building an identity — without also doing the in-tolerable, without deconstruction into bestiality. How can we be sure we won’t forget where to stop?

Jelinek’s answer is to ßÜtalk about it, to get a conversation going, and keep it going. The conversation is essential, she suggests, to invite the correction we need to stay honest. In Rechnitz this conversation was completely lacking for decades after the event. Evidence was destroyed and many of the central figures emigrated to far off lands. The mass graves were never found. “Then,” writes author Robert Misik, “a blanket of forgetfulness as heavy as lead, fell over the land.”  Shoulder to shoulder, the residents kept their secret.

“The Jews have their wailing wall,” one Rechnitz was quoted as saying. “We have our wall of silence.”

At the end of the 1960s, then suddenly some of the bodies of the victims were found, quite by accident — 18 corpses were exhumed and moved to a Jewish cemetery in Graz. For a brief time, researchers reconstructed the story, tried to find evidence. Then the trail died for another 30 years, finally revived by a documentary film Stecken, Stab und Stangl, bu Erne/Heinrich, and book by David R.L. Litchfield.

This play is an important correction. And while conversation is no guarantee of resolution — which no one understands better than Jelinek herself — healing is probably impossible without it.

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