Review: ‘The Investigation: Oratorio in 11 Cantos’ at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene

The cast of "The Inheritance"

By Jonathan Spira on 19 January 2020
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Peter Weiss’ “The Investigation: Oratorio in 11 Cantos” was presented as a reading at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City Thursday Evening in conjunction with Theater of War Productions.

The somewhat uneven reading included six of the original 11 cantos, the term German playwrights used for subdivisions, although only one canto – Canto 6 – was presented in its entirety. 

Published in 1964 as “Die Ermittlung,” “The Investigation” takes place in a courtroom during derzweite Auschwitz-Prozess, known in English as the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which took place from December 1963 through August 1965.

Holocaust survivors Ruth Zimbler (far left) and Fredrick Terna (far right)

Twenty-two defendants, who were mid- to lower-level officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, were charged under German law for their roles in the Holocaust. 

“Law & Order: Criminal Intent” actress Kathryn Erbe performed the role of Hans Hofmeyer, the Chief Judge. Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg was Witness 3, and Tony-nominated actor Zach Grenier was the defense counsel.  The cast also included Jumaane Williams, New York City’s Public Advocate, as Witness 8 and Defendant 16, and two survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Consolee Nishimwe and Jacqueline Murekatete, as Witness 9 and Witness 2 respectively.

Weiss did not intend the play to be performed in a courtroom setting and wanted Auschwitz to be present only in the words of the Auschwitz-Birkenau guards and lower-echelon leadership, the victims, and the prosecutor.  It is important to note that the Frankfurt trial singled out those who were believed to be guilty of murder on their own initiative and not those who had perpetrated genocidal actions while following orders, as the courts had held that to be the lesser crime of accomplice to murder.

The most moving portion of the program was a panel featuring two Holocaust survivors, Ruth Zimbler, born in Vienna in 1928, who along with her brother Walter left the city via a Kindertransport in December 1938, and Fredrick Terna, born in Vienna in 1923, who was interned in several concentration camps including Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Kaufering, which was part of the Dachau complex.  The two led an audience discussion concerning what they experienced under Reichtskanzler Adolf Hitler.


The Investigation
National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene
Museum of Jewish Heritage
36 Battery Place
New York, N.Y. 10280
Runtime: 2 hours

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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