A Hidden Holocaust Hero at Park Theatre
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INTERVIEW

A Hidden Holocaust Hero at Park Theatre

Ben Brown's new play tells a staggering World War II story that is unknown to most

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Ben Caplan as xxx and xx as Himmler
Ben Caplan as Masur and Richard Clothier as Himmler in The End of the Night

Just when you think you have heard almost every astonishing story from the Holocaust, another comes along. The End of the Night, by Ben Brown, which opens at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park this week, is the extraordinary true story of a secret meeting in the closing weeks of the Second World War. Norbert Masur, a 43-year-old Jew from Sweden, went to Berlin on behalf of the World Jewish Congress, to try to persuade Heinrich Himmler to release the remaining Jews from the camps.

It was the most uneven of negotiations: Himmler was head of the SS and notorious as the architect of the Holocaust, while Masur, a German-born Jew, was a volunteer from the Swedish section of the World Jewish Congress, with “nothing to offer”, according to Brown.

“He was a very straightforward hero”, says Brown, and, indeed, reading Masur’s own account of the meeting with Himmler, you can’t help but admire his bravery. The two men met for two-and-a-half hours on the night of April 20-21 1945. Himmler had come directly from celebrating Hitler’s birthday, the last such occasion on which all the senior Nazis saw each other.

Himmler (right) with physio Felix Kersten

Brown, one of whose previous plays was 2010’s The Promise, about the Balfour Declaration, stumbled over this almost unheard-of story around five years ago. “I was reading a book review, and there was a reference to Himmler having had a masseur, who persuaded him to meet and negotiate with Jews”.

Exploring this intriguing premise, Brown discovered that the masseur was Dr Felix Kersten, who had written his memoirs — at the end of which there was an account of the meeting. (In fact Kersten was Himmler’s personal physical therapist, allowed to travel out of Germany as long as his housekeeper/secretary Elizabeth Lube remained on Himmler’s estate as a sort of hostage-guarantee of Kersten’s return).

And there were two more versions of the encounter. One was by Walter Schellenberg, who was head of foreign intelligence for the SS and was one of Himmler’s closest associates, and who met Masur before Himmler arrived; and the last was by the head of the Swedish Red Cross, Count Folke Bernadotte, who wrote his own account of negotiations with Himmler for the release of Jews.

Armed with these sources — although Bernadotte’s meeting followed on the heels of the Himmler/Masur encounter — Brown said he was “stunned” that the event had received so little attention.

He has his own theory as to why the meeting was not better known. “Perhaps it was because of the taboo of negotiating with Nazis, as illustrated by the Rudolf Kastzner case. There were Jewish historians who wrote about it, like [Yad Vashem’s] Professor Yehuda  Bauer. But then it seemed to drop out of sight”. He also cites the tendency of Count Bernadotte “to claim all the credit for himself. In his book he made out it was all him, and erased Kersten and Masur from the record”.

Brown’s cast for The End Of The Night includes Ben Caplan (Call the Midwife) as Norbert Masur alongside Richard Clothier (Young Wallander) as Himmler. Michael Lumsden, who appeared in Brown’s first play, All Things Considered, plays Felix Kersten. And completing the well-connected line-up is Alan Strachan, a long-time associate of Brown’s, who has directed six plays of his over 26 years, one of the longest-running partnerships in British theatre.

By a weird coincidence the play is opening almost exactly 77 years after the original meeting, which sends a chilling message, if it weren’t there already. It is pure chance, Brown says: “We did a rehearsed reading in 2019 at JW3, and then the play was due to go on at the Park in 2020 — and then Covid struck. So it was rescheduled. But [actor] David Horovitch came in to record a real-life speech made by Joseph Goebbels to mark Hitler’s birthday — and David suddenly said, hang on, today is April 20….”

Though Brown has dived in and out of Jewish history, he doesn’t really consider himself Jewish. His father was Jewish but not observant, his mother not Jewish. But he was brought up in north London and says his uncle, Malcolm Brown, was involved in the Jewish Historical Society of England, while his aunt by marriage volunteered at the Jewish Museum. So in a sense he has brushed past the Jewish community — and holds it in some affection.

And he speaks with admiration and affection of Norbert Masur, an unassuming man who volunteered to fly into Berlin in the dying days of the war when it became clear that Germany had lost — and the danger was even more heightened. “It was enormously courageous of him: he flew in on a German plane with a swastika on it which normally took Red Cross parcels. Anything could have happened, he could have been shot down, Berlin was under attack [by the Allies] and they were having to drive without lights to get to the house where the meeting was due to take place. Just being a Jew in Germany was incredibly dangerous. Himmler signed a pass for Masur to travel, but the meeting was totally secret, and if anyone had stopped him… it was beyond brave”.

Masur, incidentally, went to live in Israel after the war. He had a son, Kurt, says Ben Brown, but little or nothing is known of Masur’s post-war life. Brown hopes that the play will revive interest in this scarcely known hero of the Holocaust.

The End of the Night runs until 28 May at Park Theatre. For tickets,
visit www.parktheatre.co.uk or call 020 7870 687

 

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