After discovering her mother’s secret past, Playa del Rey resident Tania Wisbar turned forgotten history into a romantic drama

By Christina Campodonico

Tania Wisbar holds a portrait of her mother, whose early life inspired “The Red Dress”
Photo by Maria Martin

When Tania Wisbar was just a baby, her recently divorced mother, Eva Kroy Wisbar, brought her and her older sister to the U.S. from Germany. This was in 1938, the year before World War II engulfed Europe.

The war loomed in the background of Tania’s childhood, but the exact circumstances of her mother’s immigration and split from her father remained largely unknown to her and her sister until decades later.

“We didn’t know anything,” says Tania, a Playa del Rey resident, recalling how her mother, who hailed from a well-connected German film family, never really spoke of her married life or her Jewish heritage. “We had nothing religious in our house. We didn’t belong to any community. So we celebrated at Christmas and Easter. Never, ever were we in a synagogue.”

Aside from a few family photos, artifacts from her mother’s life before the war were non-existent — sold off by the Nazis, according to Tania.

“I wish I just had one spoon,” she says.

But in 1999 — 15 years after Eva’s death — a German university professor doing research at Harvard uncovered an 88-page manuscript written by Tania’s mother about the Nazi takeover of the German film industry. The document from 1939 also provided a wealth of information about her marriage to Tania’s distant father, Frank Wisbar, a German filmmaker with ties to the Nazi propaganda machine, who later directed the pioneering American television series “Fireside Theatre” (a.k.a. “Jane Wyman Presents”) and married three more times.

Among the revelations: that her mother was Jewish and that the Nazis had forced Eva and Frank to divorce to comply with the Nuremberg Laws’ prohibition of inter-marriage between Germans and Jews.

“We were just shocked. None of that had been shared with us,” recalls Tania.

Eighteen years later, Tania has transformed insights from her mother’s manuscript into a play based on her parents’ star-crossed relationship amidst the rise of Nazi Germany.

In “The Red Dress,” now playing at the Odyssey Theatre, Wisbar has channeled her parents’ spirits and tumultuous story into the characters of Alexandra Schiele, a fictionalized film actress, and Franz Weitrek, a budding filmmaker. Their marriage is torn apart by the Nazi party, a menacing Gestapo officer and conflicting ideologies about the role of art in politics.

Tania spoke to The Argonaut about the play, her family’s hidden history and her mother’s rebellious streak in the face of Nazi oppression.

 

Tell me about your mother’s manuscript.

In 1999, the phone rang one morning. And I remember there was this deep, German guttural voice saying, “Are you Tania Wisbar?” … He had come upon this manuscript and he said, “Were you aware your mother wrote about her marriage to your father, and all about the five years they were married and the fact that the Nazis separated them and then divorced them?” And I said “No, actually I don’t know anything about my mother.”

 

Why did the Nazis force your parents to divorce?

A racially mixed couple was of course illegal under the Nuremberg Laws. So my parents had to agree to get a divorce, which they did. … [But] they had to go to court to agree to get this divorce. They both had to show up. Well, they played this game where either he wasn’t available because he was on location, or she wasn’t available because she was, I don’t know, doing what. So they actually never did get divorced in Germany, but the day [my mother] left for good, [with] the permanent exit visa, the Nazis issued a divorce.

 

What else did you learn about your parents from the manuscript?

One, that my mother was Jewish. Two, that [my mother and father] each had their Gestapo followers — that my mother had to report to the Gestapo for, not a physical inquisition, but interrogation twice a month.

Rather than being so terrified twice a month when she had to go to the Gestapo headquarters, she would force herself to go an hour early and would look at the pictures of the great leaders of Nazi Germany, and she would talk herself down from being in a panic by saying, “Someday you’re all going to hang or be killed, because you are criminals.”

 

Do you think that was your mother’s way of being rebellious?

My mother was nothing but rebellious. She was very small, very beautiful and had a gigantic temper, which she only unleashed on the Nazis one or two times. One was defying the dress code at this premiere of my father’s. This was early on in the Nazi regime. Then she very often would just get up and refuse to sit at the restaurant if any Nazis came in.

[One time] she just got up and walked out and said, “I’m not sitting with Nazis.” One of the Gestapo came the next morning, knocked on the apartment door and said, “I must beg you to divorce your husband; you are contaminating him.” And she said, “How dare you come to a Jew and ask for a favor?”

That’s in her manuscript. She was very mouthy. Another thing that’s in the manuscript, which is typical of her: The Nazi women collected money every Christmas for veterans. They came to her and said, “Well, we know your name is Wisbar and we expect you to donate something.” And she said, “Exactly why should I donate anything to you, who now intend to kill me?”

So she wasn’t too cautious, I would say. But, she didn’t believe [the Nazis] had the power they ultimately showed the world they had.

 

Why do you think your mother kept all this family history hidden from you and your sister?

I really truly think that she didn’t want us to be hurt. I think she was very protective. Maybe it’s also because she couldn’t look at the past.

 

What made you finally decide to turn your mother’s story into a play?

It took me 15 years to really decide if I could do it. I knew it was going to be difficult. … I just didn’t think it through sufficiently to realize that you don’t go peel the onion of your family’s tragedies without maybe getting a lot of onion in your eye.

It took three years [to write the play]. I spent almost a year trying to adapt my mother to the role of Alexandra. I think I was in the hospital three times. I just stopped eating. So, I ended up in good ole Marina del Rey hospital a few times.

If you’re lucky, your characters will do some of the heavy lifting. But the person that really helped me was [the character of Gestapo Officer Dieter Keller]. The Gestapo guy, who was a conglomerate of … I’m sure my mother had a good dozen Gestapo people following her. In the middle of the night, one night, Keller said to me, “I want to be a dancer.” And I thought, “How interesting?” That suddenly gives him a human arc that I would never have found without his help.

Writing is only magic when it carries itself. I think it finally got there.

 

What do you hope audiences take away from “The Red Dress”?

Watching what is going on with this country today, I would hope that people take away from it that losing small pieces of freedom, of the rights of others — dismissing groups of people as not worthy or not entitled — is to slowly nibble away at what we think we revere and love. … People don’t understand it’s a very quick slide from democracy to tyranny.

 

“The Red Dress” plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 19 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Tickets are $30. Call (323) 960-5521 or visit plays411.com.

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