Auschwitz in New York

The Investigation

by Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss has said about The Investigation that it could be recited or sung, but could not be acted. At one time, when the work was in progress, he called it “Auschwitz Oratorio,” and actually the text is a sort of counterpoint of voices, uttering an inexpressibly awful libretto. All except a few lines of the text is taken from the testimony in the 1964 trial, in Frankfurt, of the SS men attached to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. No attempt has been made to shape the testimony dramatically, although certain things are included, such as the mention of German industrial firms, to support Weiss’s idea that the camps were an economic advantage to Germany and are a product of capitalism and a possibility for every capitalist society. “The Camp is still here,” one of the survivors says. It lives on, according to a recent interview with Weiss, in the prisons in Spain and Portugal, in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Communists in Indonesia (bringing that dubious nation to “our side”), in Vietnam, in South Africa. For the most part, however, The Investigation is a recitation and remembrance of torture and murder and gas pellets and crematoria and individual acts of sadism. The stage is just a bare court room. The witnesses and defendants face us. The witnesses produce their ghastly memories and then turn to point to the defendant, in his business clothes, who some twenty years before had done the dreadful acts.

What are we supposed to feel, there in the theater, listening to the unadorned recitation of horrors? The idea for such a work is more complex than it would seem on the surface. To whom is it addressed and for what purpose? And what is the reality of the theatrical fact? First of all, the limitations of the stage, or of any art form for that matter, are dramatically exposed when you attempt a realistic presentation of the crimes of the Nazis. The sheer magnitude of the crimes, the numbers, cannot be taken in. The case history—and that is what a trial inevitably is—seeks the general by way of the particular, the national in the individual, the many through the one. This is a way the imagination will try to cope with enormity and yet it will necessarily reduce, personalize. The spectator, watching the representation, will watch in sorrow, or guilt, or pain; and yet he will also feel sorrow, or guilt, or pain about the smallness of his own feelings, the abject insufficiency of his response. The limits of art and the limits of the private emotions meet suddenly as the testimony goes on.

THE REALITY OF AUSCHWITZ is not on the stage. Nor are the criminals represented on the stage. Everything is not only once but twice or many times removed. When you see a representation, in the body of an actor, of the monstrous sadist, Boger, you experience only the sense of a faint shadow hinting at …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.