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Himmelweg (Camino del cielo) (2002-2003), Juan Mayorga Ruano

English title: Himmelweg: Way to Heaven
Notable variations on Spanish title: Himmelweg, Camino del cielo
Date written: from 2002 to 2003
First publication date: 2002
First production date: 17 October 2003
Keywords: violence > murder, violence > cruelty, identity > race, history, history > memory, ideology > religion and faith, power > use and abuse
Genre and type: tragedy
Title information

In German ‘Himmelweg’ means ‘Way to Heaven’. This was the euphemism for the ramp that led Jews from trains into gas chambers. In the play the Red Cross Representative is told that it is a nickname for the ramp that leads to the camp’s infirmary.


In German, it’s ‘Himmelweg’. In English, it’s ‘Way to heaven’. Such beautiful expressions in either language. Yet they mask a deadly reality – cynical euphemisms for the ramp that leads Jewish concentration camp inmates to their deaths. They are linguistic disguises, just as performance becomes a disguise in Himmelweg to conceal the horrors of concentration camp life from a Red Cross Representative. Rather than gas chambers and cruel guards, the Representative sees nothing unusual, as the Jewish inmates are forced to perform ‘normality’ for their visitor. Duped by what he sees, the Representative goes away satisfied that the rumours of inhumane Nazi death camps are untrue.

Yet how much power does a performance have to deceive? Was the Representative really duped or was he happy to believe in the superficial pretence of reality in front of him? When faced with the bombastic and intimidating theatrics used by governments today to conceal atrocities, are we - unlike the Representative - prepared to speak out?


In 1944 Maurice Rossel, a Swiss Representative of the Red Cross visited the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Before his visit this camp had been converted into a model village. Any indication that the Jews were unwilling prisoners living in terrible conditions was disguised. This pretence of ordinary life fooled Rossel who wrote a favourable report about his inspection.

In the first act of Himmelweg – a play divided into five acts – a Red Cross Representative delivers a monologue describing a similar act of deception that took place when he visited a concentration camp in 1942. Contrary to expectations, the Representative was not greeted by monstrous guards or emaciated Jewish prisoners. Instead, a cultured and affable Nazi Commandant gave him leave to inspect what appeared to be an unremarkable Jewish town complete with a theatre and a synagogue. Accompanied by the Commandant and the Jewish ‘mayor’ of this town, Gershom Gottfried, the Representative toured the camp. He saw scenes of everyday life: an arguing couple; children playing. Yet despite the unexceptionality of the things he saw, the Representative became increasingly uneasy. He recalls that the entire experience felt unreal and stilted: the Jews seemed awkward; the Commandant overly welcoming.

As act 1 reaches its conclusion the Representative explains how the tour culminated on a ramp outside a hangar. He was told that the ramp was called the ‘way to heaven’ because, apparently, it led to the infirmary. He considered opening the hangar door to verify this. Instead, unsettled by his growing sense of unease, and intimidated by the joint presence of the Nazi Commandant and the Jewish guide, the Representative turned his back on the hangar door. The next day he wrote a favourable report in which he complimented the hygienic standards and general running of the camp.

Years later the Representative admits that he was tricked by a performance of normality that was far removed from the reality of the inhumane conditions in the camp. The ‘way to heaven’ led not to an infirmary but to death: Jews were herded off the trains and into gas chambers in the hangar. Yet even with this knowledge the Representative insists that he merely recorded what he saw. He claims he was a victim of the power of performance.

The Red Cross Representative’s monologue is followed by four acts which slowly reveal how the deception was created. In act 2 the audience witness some of the rehearsals of the performance that ended up deceiving the Representative. Boys practise arguing over a spinning top; a young man and woman rehearse their lovers’ tiff; a little girl plays with her doll as she shivers in a stream. In act 3 the Nazi Commandant of the camp appears on stage. He directly addresses the audience and displays the affability and erudition that the Red Cross Representative remembered. He waxes lyrical on his views on Europe and the ‘Jewish problem’ and invites us – who have become Representatives – to inspect the concentration camp, just as the original Red Cross visitor did.

Act 4 is a collection of short scenes between the Nazi Commandant and the Jewish character Gershom Gottfried. These scenes reveal how the charade that fooled the Representative was created. Gershom Gottfried is cast in the role of the mayor of the Jewish town to be constructed. He is also forced to work together with the Commandant to cast other Jewish inmates as actors and to help write a script for the performance. At the end of act 4 we learn that the performance has successfully deceived the Representative. In the final scene of act 4, now that the charade is no longer required, the Commandant deconstructs the process of making theatre. For him, performance is meaningless. After its conclusion everyday life continues. However life will not continue for the Jewish characters. The end of the performance ensures their death; their presence as actors in the charade is no longer required.

In act 5 the audience are given a brief glimpse of the reality of life for the Jewish inmates who participated in the performance. Only Gottfried speaks. He encourages the people cast as the boys with the spinning top and the young lovers to learn their lines. At the end of this act we learn that the little girl cast in the role of the happy child playing in the stream is Gottfried’s daughter, Raquel. Gottfried invites Raquel to sing ‘a song to finish’. This song, sung by a child soon to die in the ‘way to heaven’, ends the play.


The experience of the Red Cross Representative in Himmelweg (Camino del cielo) is reminiscent of that of the Swiss Red Cross Representative, Maurice Rossel. Rossel visited the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia in 1944. This camp had been converted into a model village before Rossel’s visit. The deception was so effective that the Nazis made a propaganda film about Theresienstadt. Rossel wrote a favourable report about his tour. In 1997 the French film-maker Claude Lanzmann released the documentary Un vivant qui passe (A Visitor From the Living). This documentary features an extended interview conducted by Lanzmann with Maurice Rossel in 1979.

In act 1, subtitled 'The Clockmaker of Nuremberg', the Red Cross Representative recalls how he was shown the station clock in the camp. Gottfried tells the Representative that the clock was made from parts manufactured in the Spanish city of Toledo in 1492. This location and date have significance in Spanish history. Toledo was a major centre of translation in Europe during the twelfth and thirteen centuries and was renowned for its religious and cultural tolerance. The date of the clock, 1492, is also the year in which King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella passed the Alhambra Decree, or Edict of Expulsion, which expelled from Spain all Jews who would not convert to Catholicism.

Critical response

In general, responses to productions of the plays have been positive. Critics have shown a preference for understated portrayals of the Nazi Commandant that emphasise the fact that he is a human being rather than a monster.

Himmelweg (Camino del cielo) was awarded the Enrique Llovet Theatre Prize in 2003.

Further information

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2002. ‘Himmelweg’. In Historias de las fotografías, eds. Rafael Doctor Roncero and Sara Rosenberg, pp. 121-131. Madrid, Caja Madrid

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2004. Himmelweg. Malaga, Diputación de Málaga

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2004. ‘Himmelweg (Camino del cielo)’, Primer acto, 305, 29-56

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2004. ‘Himmelweg’, Abril (October), 9-45

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2008. Camino del cielo (Himmelweg). Buenos Aires, Losada

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2011. Himmelweg, ed. Manuel Aznar Soler. Ciudad Real, Ñaque

Useful readings and websites
  • Video of director Tanya Goldberg discussing the 2010 production of Way to Heaven, Sydney, Australia, is available here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eacIpUZfwoM [accessed March 2010] (Online Publication) (Moving images)

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 6 October 2010.

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