Previous ages have dealt various ways with pandemics and plagues. According to Oberammergau’s story, their passion play — a reenactment of the final week of Jesus Christ’s life — was conceived as an entreaty to God to halt bubonic plague deaths.
The event has been an economic and spiritual mainstay for the small town outside Munich, Germany, since 1633. Oberammergau has been famous — and infamous — ever since.
Over its nearly 400-year history, the play has been performed daily from May through September in each decade year. The only exceptions have been 1920 and 1940, due to the World Wars; and 2020: the Coronavirus version of the plague.
Over most of those centuries, only Catholics were cast and no married women or women over age 35 were allowed. Elements like horns for some of the Jewish characters and provocative dialog made it anti-Semitic in tone. Hitler saw it twice, remarking, “ … never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation.”
In 1980, the American Jewish Committee named Oberammergau “the international capital” of religious antisemitism.
Despite this backdrop, the six-hour long performance has persisted as an extraordinary spectacle. Over the centuries many Christians have considered it a worthwhile pilgrimage. When my Episcopal diocese re-organized a trip postponed from 2020, my husband and I decided to see for ourselves.
We arrived in Europe a week before our organized tour to spend a few days in the Czech capital of Prague, followed by some time in Berlin. Then we joined our church group with a Polish guide to explore Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest and Vienna.
In each city, our location guide delved into the origins of the Holocaust with frankness and respect. Our guide in Auschwitz reflected somberly and answered our penetrating questions fully. She allowed us quiet time to take in the sickening piles of abandoned prayer shawls, shoes and eyeglasses.
Over the last few decades, Central Europeans seem to have engaged in serious self-examination.
Vienna was a different story. Our handsome young guide beguiled us with stories about the Hapsburgs, the family that ruled from 1282 to 1918. When his historical narrative reached the end of the Hapsburg dynasty at the beginning of World War I, he mentioned they “were part of Germany” for six years and then proceeded straight to modern times.
He left little room for questions about Austrian involvement in Nazism and the Holocaust.
Cue Oberammergau, nestled in the Alps, a mere 60 miles from Hitler’s birthplace in Austria. By this time my expectations were diminished. I feared a schmaltzy extravaganza with latent antisemitism. Instead, we watched an amazing, modern open-air show: part dialogue, part musical, and part Hebrew Bible tableaux.
Besides eschewing religious tests for performers and age or gender restrictions, director Christian Stuckl emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus. He takes the principal actors to Israel to prepare for their roles. The actor playing Jesus recites blessings in Hebrew; all male Jewish characters wear yarmulkes.
Stuckl is an Oberammergau native who has worked tirelessly on reforms. This year, with the recent influx of refugees into Germany, Stuckl focused on Jesus’ acceptance of outcasts. Jesus’ angry side is revealed as he clears the temple of merchants and tries to enact social reforms.
Abdullah Kenyan Karaca, an Oberammergau native whose parents emigrated from Turkey, plays Nicodemus, a follower of Jesus. He began as an 11-year-old and is one of two Muslim men in principal roles. “It’s my tradition, too,” he says.
Town Mayor Andreas Rodl played Jesus in 2010. He says of the play’s text, “You always need to work on it, and bring it to the people of the day.”
I found the changes to be a moving tribute to the advantages of diversity, equity and inclusion. While it hasn’t been easy for immigrants in Oberammergau, the play has provided a safe, welcoming and supportive place to explore living and thriving in diverse communities.
It would be disingenuous to claim that the inclusiveness of the play could help prevent further Holocausts, but this year the American Jewish Committee presented Stuckl with the Isaiah Award for Exemplary Interreligious Leadership.
Recognition and celebration of our commonalities and unique differences makes us all better people, and better able to cooperate on this increasingly small planet.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.