Hannah Mae Sturges, MaryKathryn Kopp and Hallie Griffin in a scene from HITLER’S TASTERS.
Are we allowed to laugh about Hitler? Is it okay to joke about the dictator responsible for World War II and the deaths of millions—including six million Jews— during the Holocaust?
Michelle Kholos Brooks has pondered these questions a great deal. She’s the author of “H*tler’s Tasters,” a dark comedy about the German girls who sampled dishes to be served to the infamous Nazi. The writer considered changing her play’s title due to pushback over using the fascist leader’s name.
But her father-in-law, according to The New York Times
, convinced her to keep it. What makes him an expert? He wrote a little song called “Springtime for Hitler”— yes, the one from “The Producers.” Michelle Kholos Brooks is married to the son of Mel Brooks, who has famously said, “Not only should we laugh about Hitler. We must laugh about him.”
In this Q & A, Ms. Brooks muses about the origin of her off-Broadway play, explains some of the history behind its subject matter, and shares her opinion about whether it’s socially acceptable to poke fun at Adolf Hitler.
You’ve written a play about the women who tasted Hitler’s food. It’s a very specific—and obscure—bit of history. How did you become aware of the topic?
I wish I could tell you a sexy story about stumbling on obscure archives in some remote alpine village. But the truth is that I happened to be at a war museum in Indianapolis with my then-writing partner. Our play had just opened in Bloomington, and we were killing time before our flight home. As we looked around a World War II exhibit, he said to me, very casually, “Did you see that story about the young German women who were Hitler’s food tasters?”
And then he kind of walked away as if he hadn’t just changed my life. “Wait,” I said, “Halt. Reverse. What did you just say?” Everything that pushes my buttons of concern is encapsulated in the story of Hitler’s food tasters: the way society treats young women as expendable; the way children are used as tools and shields of war; the complicated relationships young women have with themselves and each other—not to mention the complicated relationship that young women have with food. And don’t even get me started on the tyranny. I knew I would write this story the second he said it.
How difficult was it for you to research the subject?
In 2013, a 95-year-old German woman named Margot Woelk came forward, for the first time, with the incredible story of having been one of Hitler’s food tasters. Most of my information was garnered from articles about her. That’s what’s wonderful about being a playwright. I can take an existing story that speaks profoundly to me, then filter that material through my heart and imagination. And, of course, there is no shortage of material for background research. You should have seen my husband’s excitement when I told him I wanted to watch World War II movies.
Michelle Kholos Brooks says “H*tler’s Tasters” is a play about “many things but, most importantly, … [+]
Was there a specific method used to choose women for the job?
Hitler said he wanted women of “good German stock.” This became one of the important questions of the play. Why would Hitler choose young, German women—the potential bearers of German children, the future of the Reich—to taste his food for poison? Why wouldn’t he choose Jews, homosexuals, Poles, or any of the many “others” he raged against? It’s a fascinating meditation on the place of the privileged in a dictatorship. It turns out that aligning yourself with the tyrant doesn’t necessarily make you safe.
It seems that employing food tasters would deter poisoning attempts. Were any of the women poisoned? Did any of them die in service to the Führer?
As far as we know, none of the women actually died as a result of poison. However, according to Ms. Woelk, she was the only Taster who escaped being shot by the Russians when they invaded. Apparently, one of the guards took a shine to her and helped smuggle her out just in time. Unfortunately, she was later captured by the Russians in Berlin and had a horrific experience—held captive and repeatedly raped for two weeks. Sadly, as a result, she was never able to have children.
How can focusing on the experiences of a tiny group of women be resonant to threats confronting society today?
I’m interested in trying to make enormous geopolitical events feel very personal. It was important to me, in writing this play, that the girls of “H*tler’s Tasters” did not feel like sepia-toned people in history. I wanted us to see our sisters, daughters, and nieces in each one. It is through their innocence that the absurdity and horror of the world around them are exposed. So much of their experience is being mirrored in our world right this minute.
Did you see the recent articles about Putin’s food tasters? If we can go on the journey with these girls, if we can somehow be invested in them, even while they’re doing the tyrant’s bidding, then maybe we can have more awareness of how far things can go. These are girls whose families didn’t fight, or worse, looked the other way. They were in denial. How many times over the past few years have we said, “That will never happen?” And then . . . boom. It happens.
First and foremost, with any play, you want people to be entertained. But underneath that, it is my deepest wish that people will connect with the girls of “H*itler’s Tasters” in a way that reminds them of the dangers of complacency.
“H*tler’s Tasters” debuted in 2018 and has since toured Chicago, LA, East Hamptons, and had a sold … [+]
Courtesy of “H*tler’s Tasters”
I suspect that any play with “Hitler” in the title would turn off a lot of folks. Have you found that to be a problem in attracting an audience? Also, you made the decision to replace the second letter of his name with an asterisk. What’s the reasoning behind that?
There has been occasional pushback. We had one reviewer in Los Angeles who refused to cover the play because of the title. Some news outlets have confessed that they’re worried about saying the “H” word out loud—which is extraordinary to me, considering we’re talking about a real person in history. And with totalitarianism on the rise, wouldn’t this be a good time to remind people of what happens when tyrants get their way?
But honestly, most people have been unaware of this footnote in history, and I find they are, on balance, more intrigued than scared away. The title tells you exactly what the play is about. Once people see it, they want to know more.
The asterisk emerged as an attempt to work around social media algorithms. We have been pulled off more than once for “violating community standards.” Again, extraordinary considering the egregious and violent rhetoric we see on numerous platforms. But we really embraced the asterisk when we realized it created a great opportunity to engage in a conversation about what is, and what is not ok to say these days. Words are a hot topic and many of us feel like we’re navigating a minefield. Theater can be the opposite of social media in that we gather in person and, hopefully, listen to each other instead of anonymously slinging insults and accusations.
There’s a lot of funny in the show, but for a lot of people, it’ll always be “too soon” to joke about the Holo
caust. What kind of opposition has the production faced?
I couldn’t agree more—it will always be “too soon” to joke about victims of genocide, but when it comes to the perpetrators of genocide, it’s never too soon to go after them. For me, humor is a terrific gateway to other emotions. It can open us up to connect powerfully with characters and leave us available for some of the harder, more serious moments.
The humor in “H*itler’s Tasters” emerges organically from the pressure on three young women stuck in a room together, reckoning with their fate, waiting to see if they will live or die after every meal. I got to explore how young women would fill up time in that limbo state. It is truly amazing how much drama and comedy can come out of waiting.
I haven’t experienced much pushback about the humor in the play, especially once people have seen it. Occasionally, people seek me out after a show and ask me if it’s ok that they laughed. I try to reassure them whatever reaction they have is legitimate. It’s not a play that sees things in black and white, and it can be an adjustment for people to simmer in that gray area for a while.
Have you had survivors in the audience? If so, what have their reactions been?
I have only had the pleasure of meeting one survivor in the context of this play, and I was thrilled and relieved when she wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed it. This production also ran in Skokie where there is an enormous Jewish community—many of whom lost family members in the Holocaust. Our reception there was wonderful. The audience was not afraid to laugh, and really understood the power of using anachronisms and contemporary references to make the horrors of World War II accessible to young people. After all, it’s the younger generation that has to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“H*tler’s Tasters” runs through May 21st at Theatre Row, Theatre One (410 West 42nd Street, NYC). Ticket information may be found at www.bfany.org.
Featuring an all-female-identifying company and creative team, “H*tler’s Tasters” is a thought-provoking play written by award-winning playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks (War Words, Kalamazoo) and directed by Sarah Norris (Everything is Super Great, This Wrestling Place). The cast features Hallie Griffin as Liesel, MaryKathryn Kopp as Hilda, Kaitlin Paige Longoria as Anna, and Hannah Mae Sturges as Margot. H*tler’s Tasters has choreography by Ashlee Wasmund, scenic design by An-lin Dauber, costume design by Ashleigh Poteat, lighting design by Christina Tang, and sound design by Carsen Joenk.
“H*tler’s Tasters” is presented by New Light Theater Project (Artistic Director Sarah Norris, Producing Director Michael Aguirre) in association with NewYorkRep (Founding Executive Director Gayle Damiano Waxenberg, Artistic Director Justin Reinsilber) and Josh Gladstone.