ORLANDO — At the end of her play “Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany,” Ingrid Garner shows photos of her grandmother, Eleanor Ramrath Garner, along with her parents and older brother as they were in 1939, when they lived in New Jersey. Then we see a photo of the family in 1947, when they were living in New York. In both cases, they seem to be a cheerful, happy, close knit and loving family.
It’s the years in between 1939 and 1947 that make up the harrowing, often frightening story of what it was like for Eleanor, an American girl raised in a beautiful home in New Jersey, to studdenly find herself living in Berlin, under the iron grip of the Nazis. As an American child born to German parents, and as a Catholic, she’s not subjected to the horrors inflicted on German Jews and homosexuals.
Instead, Eleanor discovers the surreal misery of what it’s like to watch a country fall to the Allied Forces they were fighting — and just how horrifying it is to watch your city not only get bombed into oblivion, but also taken over — in this case, being on the eastern side of Berlin, by the Soviet Red Army.
“Eleanor’s Story” is now being performed at the Orlando Museum of Art as part of the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival, and this is truly a must see show, both for the unique story it tells about the torment inflicted on the people of Berlin, but also to watch Ingrid’s stunning performance. She plays not just her grandmother, the wide eyed 8-year-old girl who starts a new life in Germany, but also the rest of her family, and at times the people of Berlin. Her performance is superb on every level.
The play, which Ingrid adapted from her grandmother’s memoirs about her childhood, is a stark and devastating reminder that for as much suffering as Hitler brutally inflicted on other European nations, Germany would ultimately endure a similarly appalling and heartbreaking downfall as well.
The story begins as a happy one, a family living a quiet and pleasant life in New Jersey. That is, until Eleanor’s father gets offered a lucrative job as an engineer in Berlin, with an apartment throw into the deal. He decides it’s time to bring his family back to the country where he was born. Although sad to be leaving behind their home and her friends, Eleanor finds great adventures await as they board a German ocean liner heading for their new homeland.
But there are warning signs from the start. The first of their 11 day journey is an important date: Sept. 1, 1939. Midway through the day, the ship’s captain makes the announcement to the passengers: Germany has invaded Poland. Later he will make the even more ominous announcement, that England and France have declared war on Germany.
The family settles into their new Berlin apartment, but life in Germany isn’t quite the same as in New Jersey. Eleanor discovers that when she goes into a local market, everyone is required to salute Hitler, so she too learns to say “Heil Hitler” wherever she goes. But the first true glimpse of the horrors to come occurs one day as Eleanor is walking near a park. She notices a man off in the distance. At first, he seems to be floating in the air. As she gets closer, she suddenly understands why. He’s swinging from a tree, a rope tightly gripped around his neck. The next morning, she notes, the body is gone, but the noose is still there, as a reminder — or a warning.
As it becomes clear that Germany is starting to lose the war, Eleanor finds that a growing number of Berlin residents, including those waiting for hours in food lines, are now willing to openly mock Hitler for what he’s done to their once proud nation. But the play truly shifts into a far more terrifying reality as the Allies bomb Berlin into miles of rubble. While Eleanor and her family survive the air raids, they find that the takeover of East Berlin by the Soviet Red Army will become an even more torturous existence than anything they’ve endured so far.
Ingrid does a phenomenal job capturing the sweet innocence of a young girl who understands virtually nothing about politics, but going on this seemingly exciting journey — only to begin to mature under the most agonizing circumstances. It’s a unique perspective on World War II; although she is not a Hitler supporter, she and millions of other Berlin residents pay a savage price for their leader’s genocidal actions.
Although Orlando Fringe is best known for zany comedies and light musicals, don’t let the mature dramatic themes of “Eleanor’s Story” scare you off. This is a theater production that’s riveting and gripping, a show that packs a genuine emotional wallop.
“Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany” is being performed in the Gold Venue at the Orlando Museum of Art. Tickets are $12 and you first need to purchase a $10 Fringe button to get in to see the shows.
Upcoming performances are on Saturday, May 26 at 4:45 p.m. and Sunday, May 27 at 1:30 p.m. Don’t miss this one.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..