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Israelis and Germans Confront Painful Past

The Akko Theater brings an interactive performance piece to Berlin

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IT'S the stillness of the place that is most striking. Set at the end of a long, gravel path wending its way through a thicket of tall, spindly birch trees and conifers, the cozy, gleaming white villa has the aura of an idyllic country retreat. We enter, some 30 of us, and wait.

An elderly woman in matronly dress suddenly materializes. Wordlessly, the tiny figure beckons us to follow. We fall into step behind her. Around the first corner, her frail hand makes a slightly weary but all-encompassing sweep, and our eyes take in what she is seeing: black-and--white blowups of Nazi horror, hatred, and humiliation writ large. "I've come from Israel to touch our mutual wound," she says, with the soothing intonations of a kindly grandmother, "to show how democracy turns into dictatorship ."

This is the villa at Wannsee, just outside Berlin, where, in 1942, Hitler's henchmen met to map out the "Final Solution" - their systematic plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. After the war and until a few months ago, the place was in private use; now it's a museum. For a period it also became the first step of what some Berliners are describing as one of the most powerful theatrical experiences of their lives.

The Akko Theater Company (ATC), a tiny avant-garde troupe that takes its name from the northern coastal Israeli town where it is based, has devised a startlingly unusual production, "Arbeit Macht Frei from Toitland Europa" (a mishmash of German, Hebrew, and Yiddish meaning, "Work Makes You Free from the Deathland of Europe"), which, since its first staging in Akko, has caused a sensation. Not a Holocaust retelling


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