True stories of the atrocities that occurred during World War II are often as intriguing as they are disturbing. Certainly, the story of Stella Goldschlag, a German Jewish woman who worked as a ‘catcher’ for the Gestapo – essentially outing Jews who were hiding in Berlin – is a truly unsettling tale.
Many decades after the war, we find 70 year-old Stella (Belinda Giblin) at home in her humble little flat, waiting for a journalist to arrive and preparing her thoughts for the interview ahead. All alone now, but still proud of her looks and conscious of her appearance, she’s keen to justify to herself, to her late parents and to the audience that the actions of her past were necessary evils required to survive the Holocaust. Stella is a haunted woman, and as she confesses her crimes and defends her treachery, she seems to address the ghosts of her past.
As an assimilated Jew from middle-class family in 1930s Berlin, young Stella was more than aware of the influence on the Nazis on her life. She was segregated from the non-Jewish population at school and her father lost his job as the regime forced Jews in positions of power out of their roles. After Kristallnacht in 1938, her family tried to leave the country but they were unable to obtain visas.
Besides being highly intelligent and endlessly resourceful, Stella had an advantage over the rest of her kind – blonde hair and blue eyes, giving her an ‘Aryan’ appearance. Through the benefit of genetics and forged papers, she was able to go underground and avoid deportation to the extermination camps until the spring of 1943, when she and her parents were finally arrested and tortured by the Nazis, to give up the man who faked their identities.
In order to prevent her parents from being sent to Auschwitz, Stella agrees to become a ‘Greiferin’, hunting down other Jews in hiding and handing them over to the Gestapo. Paid a generous salary and offered a comfortable life in return for her betrayal of her old school friends, it’s easy not to empathise with the woman the Nazi’s delightedly called ‘Blonde Poison’. But through Gail Louw’s script and Giblin’s strident performance we’re forced to answer the question, ‘what would you do to save your life and the lives of your parents?’
Her actions become more difficult to reconcile however when she revels in the thrill of the chase and continues her work beyond her parent’s execution. Stella’s icy anti-Semitism makes it hard to summon up sympathy for the consequences that come to bear for her after the war.
Despite this discomfort, Blonde Poison is never anything but fascinating. Director Jennifer Hagan keeps this one-woman show moving constantly, never allowing Louw’s sometimes overly elaborate script to stagnate visually. Derrick Cox’s design is evocative of Stella’s mouldering life after the war, while lighting by Matthew Tunchon and sound by Jeremy Silver bring atmospheric developments that aid the storytelling.
Belinda Giblin is perfect casting in this role. Easily matching Stella’s vainglorious description of herself, Giblin is vibrant and lithe, and delivers a precise and elegant performance that is always fully respectful of her subject.
Sadly, the final moment of Louw’s script takes liberties with the facts, and is perhaps a bit too opportunistic for the sake of a melodramatic ending. Nevertheless, this riveting story is one worth hearing if for no other reason than to remind us just how lucky we are to not have been forced into such circumstances ourselves.