Imagine knowing every plate of food you eat could be your last. That breakfast, lunch and dinner are potentially deadly. And you have to eat them anyway.
For a group of young women in the Third Reich, this was their daily reality: they tested Hitler’s food during the last two-and-a-half years of World War Two. The Führer demanded young women of good German stock sample each of the meals made for him, in case the Allies, or one of his own, were trying to poison him. Such a role was seen as a kind of honour – a way to serve.
The astonishing story of these young women’s experiences only came to light in 2013, when the then 95-year-old Margot Wölk revealed her former role to the German magazine Der Spiegel. Now, Hitler’s Tasters, a play by Michelle Kholos Brooks freely imagines what risking your life, fork by fork, was really like.
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The show has been seen in various theatres across the US, but now comes to the Edinburgh Fringe – the world’s biggest arts festival – for a month. Performed by an all-female cast, it focuses on four young women (in reality, about 15 were used on rotation) who lived in a schoolhouse next to Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s Eastern Front headquarters in East Prussia (now Poland).
Brooks heard about Hitler’s tasters quite by accident – a writing partner mentioned the story in passing when they were killing time before a flight. “I said ‘are you going to write that? Because if you’re not, I’m going to write that,’” she recalls. As a story, it seemed instantly and obviously thematically rich to Brooks. “It just hits every button of things that I think about and worry about: how young women are treated, how children are used in fields of war, how hard it is to be an adolescent woman, political manipulation…”
I didn’t want these characters to be sepia-toned people in history, I wanted them to feel very, very present – Michelle Kholos Brooks
All of which sounds heavy-going, but the play is actually a comedy – albeit a black one. And Brooks sets it in its historical moment while also imagining these trapped young women as contemporary teenagers. The girls dance to pop music and pose for selfies, but gossip about fancying Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable and – queasily – Hitler himself; they speak like Californian valley girls, calling each other “girlfriend” or “loser”, but then spout hatred for Jewish people.
“I was watching these young women taking selfies, seeing their deep commitment to getting the right selfie, and it hit me that these are the same girls. There is no difference except for time,” says Brooks on her decision to have this double perspective. “I didn’t want these characters to be sepia-toned people in history, I wanted them to feel very, very present.”
The play uses this strange chapter of World War Two history as a way to examine the universal experience of being an adolescent woman – albeit in an extraordinarily high-stakes environment. But the thing about life for the tasters was that while each mouthful was fraught with peril, it was also an incredibly banal and boring existence.
Compared to many people’s experiences in the war, they had it easy on one level – by 1944, many people were going very hungry in Germany, and they were getting three square meals a day. Of course, they were vegetarian meals – Hitler famously eschewed meat – and Wölk described a diet of vegetables, rice, pasta, noodles and exotic fruits, a real rarity at the time. But although the food “was good – very good” she added that they couldn’t enjoy it.
The SS would serve the food, wait an hour to see if the girls keeled over, and if they didn’t, the food would be taken to Hitler
“Some of the girls started to shed tears as they began eating because they were so afraid,” she said in an interview in 2013. “We had to eat it all up. Then we had to wait an hour, and every time we were frightened that we were going to be ill. We used to cry like dogs because we were so glad to have survived.”
Members of the SS would serve the food, wait the hour to see if the girls keeled over, and if they didn’t, the food would be taken to Hitler. But in between each meal, the young women had little to do except sit around and wait to see if they died.
Getting under their skin in her writing was “about how they kill time, how they kill boredom,” Brooks explains. “What do they talk about? I feel like to survive that you have to just keep getting back to being girls: you have to braid each other’s hair, and laugh, find a way to make sense of the insanity that’s happening.”
As far as we know, none of the real girls were ever actually poisoned by the food. But their story is barely documented – if it hadn’t been for Wölk’s account, it would never have been known. It seems that she was the only of Hitler’s tasters who survived: as Russian forces advanced, a lieutenant sneaked her out on Joseph Goebbels’s train, heading to Berlin. It’s thought that all the other girls who remained were shot by Soviet soldiers.
Making comedy from such a situation can be “a funny line to walk” she acknowledges – and she has had people ask her if it’s okay to laugh at the play, or even refuse to see the show. “Some people have said they don’t want to see it because we’re laughing about something awful – but if you saw the show you would know [we’re not]. We’re not in cahoots with Hitler, we actually don’t like him!” jokes Brooks, a little incredulous that such a thing needs spelling out. Hitler’s Tasters is about laughing with these young, essentially innocent women – and acknowledging that laughing at melomaniac fascists is one way to diminish their power.
Hitler’s Tasters is playing at Greenside @ Infirmary Street, Edinburgh until 24 August 2019.
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