By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Immersing himself in Simon Wiesenthal’s character, Tom Dugan did his due diligence.
As an Irish-Catholic without any relatives who were caught up in the Holocaust, Dugan could only acquire via osmosis Jewish sensibilities to bring Nazi hunter/human-rights advocate Wiesenthal’s character to life in his one-man play.
Dugan’s wife, the former Amy Opell, is Jewish. The couple raised their two now-teen-age sons Eli and Miles Jewish. He needed to research Wiesenthal’s character and worldwide searches for war criminals for a year to complete a play that has gone from Broadway to Los Angeles and many points in-between, including two performances at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie on Oct. 20-21.
But the spirit of Wiesenthal, who died at 96 in 2005, would nod in approval at the unseen hand that helped craft playwright-actor Dugan’s play, “Wiesenthal.” In essence, his late father Frank Dugan is the silent co-author.
The elder Dugan was a military policeman (MP) in the U.S. Army’s 83rd Infantry Division. The elder Dugan was on the scene in 1945 when elements of the 83rd liberated Langenstein, a satellite camp of Buchenwald. He witnessed horrors on both the camp grounds and in the cynical German commandant’s office, and took action.
“He was an infantryman, a grunt,” Tom Dugan recalled. As he got older and his father realized he could handle the difficult story, Frank Dugan opened up to his son.
“When they opened the camp, the commandant invited representatives of the 83rd into his office,” said Tom Dugan. “He had prepared a lavish breakfast for the GIs. He was a fat guy.
“My father and the other GIs had to walk past the bodies and the walking dead to get to the office. The commandant wanted this to be a civil exchange, showing that he was the elite and should be treated as such. My father and the other GIs were children of the Depression. He lived in Jersey City, N.J. This commandant did not know who he was dealing with.
“The commandant was eating as he talked, and had greasy lips from the sausage. There was a 4-by-4 foot cage in his office. My dad quickly ended the presentation and ordered the commandant into the cage. My father was not the kind of a man to shoot him. But they left him in the cage (for a short time).”
The horrors did not end with the Americans in control of the camp.
“A bread wagon was coming by,” Dugan said. “GIs hailed the wagon. The zombies, as my father called them, stumbled toward the bread. The cart driver got out his whip and attempted to whip the inmates to keep them away. He got a (GI rifle) butt to the head.
“It was a matter of denial. This man felt he was being victimized, he worked hard to bake the bread and deliver it. It was a narcissistic attitude, an attitude that we did not know what was going on denial. The town nearby had to know. The smell from the camp was so pungent it was an insult (to deny knowledge of the killings).”
Frank Dugan soon came home with millions of other GIs. But the story of the camps would not go away, further searing his experiences for all time.
“After the war, my dad was hitchhiking to a construction job. In the car, the radio was on, and reported about a study on the first food distributed (to just-liberated inmates). Some died because they had starved and their systems couldn’t (immediately) handle the heavy food. I can only imagine the emotions going through a soldier’s mind, thinking you’ve done a good thing when you didn’t do a good thing.”
After being awarded a Bronze Battle Star and a Purple Heart before coming home, Frank Dugan and countless veterans filed away experiences in a back, almost inaccessible archive in their souls. The mid-20th century way to deal with forms of PTSD or lesser bad memories was to simply go on with their lives, establish careers and raise families in the overall plenty of post-war America. Years or decades later, though, all kinds of triggers unlocked these guarded secrets.
“I was the youngest of four,” Tom Dugan said. “My father did sit on this information. I was 10 years younger than (his next-youngest Dugan sibling). I guess I was more curious. As a kid I had problems you go to your dad for. In middle school, we living in what was a low-income housing project. There was a lot of frustration. One bully didn’t realize what a prototype he was in history.”
Dugan got a mini-lesson in the rise of totalitarianism, the psychological path that Wiesenthal studied and categorized.
“(The bully) intimidated one kid to be his sidekick. And another. They formed a five-kid gang. They reigned terror over our school. I saw that quite clearly, I was one of the kids who was terrorized. The system wasn’t helping us. I dreamed of the scenario where the good guys win. When I shared that with my dad, he (finally) shared his World War II experiences.”
Frank Dugan had boundaries of morality left over from the war. At a party, he met a German Wermacht veteran. The elder Dugan had no problem – the veteran had been a grunt just like him. Later, an aunt asked Dugan to meet a former SS officer. “My dad said not in my lifetime would he ever greet an SS officer,” said Tom Dugan.
The procession of events a generation after the war began building the motivation for the younger Dugan’s writing and performing career.
“It was the concept of tolerance and the atmosphere of current events in the Sixties,” he said. “I was awash in all these conflicts in the U.S., and provoked conversation at home. I looked at my parents. They were liberal-thinking and well-aware of the values of open-mindedness. My father had direct experience in how prejudice can lead to the most horrible behavior, that anyone could be capable of anything.
“We talk about banality of ego, a scenario of how an average person could become an (Adolf) Eichmann. It’s disturbing for some audience members as Eichmann is referred to as a human being. But there is recognition of the savage in all of us.”
All these perspectives influenced Tom Dugan when he began kicking around the idea of a play. He came upon Wiesenthal’s story, which was recently re-told due to his death.
Wiesenthal earned world renown by the 1970s pursuing fleeing Nazis. An Austrian camp survivor, he was credited with tracking down some 1,100 in a 58-year career. He was often called “the Jewish James Bond” and “the Conscience of the Holocaust” for investigations and, more importantly, teaching talents about humanism.
Dugan took the most informal of polls when he thought up channeling Wiesenthal, party as the sum total of his own family experiences. “I’d ask everyone, from my wife to the mailman, would you see a show on Wiesenthal?” he recalled. His research spanned 2007, the scripting took up 2008 and the play finally premiered in Torrance, a large suburb of Los Angeles, in 2009.
Dugan hit the right chords in “Wiesenthal.” The play won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. “Wiesenthal” was honored with nominations for the New York Drama Desk Award, New York Outer Critics Circle Award and Los Angeles Ovation Award. A film script is being adapted for DreamWorks.
The setting for “Wiesenthal” is April 2003, when the globe-trotting detective reluctantly retired and closed his office at the Jewish Documentation Center in Austria. Wiesenthal tells the last group of students visiting his office – really the live theater audience – about his life and work.
No doubt surprising some theatergoers, Dugan/Wiesenthal says an entire group of people cannot be condemned for the actions of an extreme group in their midst. He reveals some former inmates testified on behalf of Nazi officers who had not committed war crimes while showing some empathy for their charges. In one instance, a camp guard saved his life, and he invited the man to his daughter’s wedding. Wiesenthal’s goal is not revenge, but justice.
“He fought for the rights of Jewish, Soviet, Polish, Gypsy, Jehovah’s Witness and homosexual Holocaust victims,” Dugan said. “However, for me, his greatest legacy is his teaching: he shared his message of tolerance with countless young visitors at his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna. Simon Wiesenthal was truly an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.”
The play will be interactive with the audience in the two performances in Skokie. Alison Pure-Slovin, Midwest Regional Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, will discuss the Nazi’s hunter’s life and its lessons with Dugan.
Eight Holocaust survivors from the Chicago area will be introduced at the Oct. 21 show: Aron Blumenstein, Clair Ross, Lilian Bajor, Leonie Bergman, Scharlotte Honorow, Jean Berk, Gdalina and Khasan Novitsky.
Pure-Slovin said the talkback section of the play is far more effective in capturing the audience’s engagement than an old-school speech.
“The important aspect of the show is to educate why Simon was so important to not only bring justice to the Nazis, but also bring more justice to the entire world,” she said.
Wiesenthal’s success was looking forward to ensure the proverbial ounce of prevention based on the lessons of history. His message rings loud and clear in a polarized country.
Jews may be accepted more than ever in the mainstream, but they are still a target, said Pure-Slovin.
“Seventeen percent of the increase in hate crimes are against Jews,” she said. “The world has become frightening. But also frightening is the lack of education among Jews about the Holocaust. When I speak before audiences, numerous people have never heard of Simon Wiesenthal. With a lot of people under 40, our history is going away.”
Wiesenthal would gladly bear the weight of the world to fight the rampant demagoguery today. He had a heavy personal capacity for caring.
“He said when he died, he wanted to meet the six million,” Pure-Slovin said.
“Wiesenthal” will be staged at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. Tickets range from $42 to $72 and are available at NorthShoreCenter.org or at 847/673-6300.