Interviewer: Martina Pfeiffer

It is an honour for us having Michael Lederer as an interviewee in our project "Literal Encounters". The cultural worker, actor and author has lived in Berlin since 1998. Michael was born in 1956 in Princeton, New Jersey. His maternal grandparents were German, both born in Stettin. His relatives on his father's side were Jews from Zagreb, Yugoslavia, in what is now Croatia. His father Ivo Lederer made a career as a university professor of diplomatic history at Princeton, Yale and Stanford in the United States. Michael studied theatre sciences at Binghamton University, New York. In 2009 he founded the Dubrovnik Shakespeare Festival (DSF) being its artistic director for the following years. A very warm welcome to our interview, dear Michael Lederer! I am looking forward indeed to our conversation!

After your family had moved to Palo Alto, California, in 1965, your parents divorced. You were 12 at the time. "The Michael train got off the track", that's what you said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. In 1975-77 you lived in the tipi tent of a hippie community. It was called "The Land" in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Joan Baez had founded this community for the purpose of studying non-violence. When thinking of "non-violence", immediately Mahatma Gandhi and his peaceful resistance comes to my mind. Was Gandhi's personality a source of inspiration to you in those years?
M.L.: Gandhi, yes, though more recent was the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated for his own non-violent protests only seven years earlier. Joan Baez and her husband David Harris were both leaders of a non-violent resistance movement that stood against the brutalities of the Vietnam war, and of racial segregation in the American south. As a white American male growing up in the north, I was insulated from both those struggles physically, but not in spirit. As a child growing in the sixties, I saw the violence on television every night which brought it home. The music we listened to was a collective cry for peace. Violence was something around the corner, but no further than that.

Did you also take part in protest marches against war in your youth?
M.L.: When I was 13, in Palo Alto, California, I marched with others in the October moratorium against the war. That was 1969, the year of Woodstock. My own schools were integrated, which felt so natural and we were better for it. I couldn’t understand anyone not welcoming that. We felt we were part of those struggles. One of my strongest early memories was of the day in November 1963 when my mother, tears streaming down her cheeks, told me the president had been murdered. I remember the day Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. I was aware of my own good luck, and knew so many were never handed the kind of opportunities I was given. As young as I was, the resistance movement offered a way to be involved.

On the other hand, didn't you have the feeling at that time in the hippie community of living a life in limbo and that you might lose touch with the outside world – that the "real" life might be slipping away from you?
M.L.: What “reality” do you mean? In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” an older character offers advice to the young Dustin Hoffman about his future: “Just one word – plastics.” So much in the so-called modern world felt like it was being constructed from plastic. Disposable pens, disposable lighters, disposable marriages... Thoreau’s “Walden,” E. F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful,” Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome, native American cultures, all those presented a life just as real as any mechanized petro-chemicalized military-industrialized keep-up-with-the-neighborized life being peddled 24/7 in mass media down the hill. There are trees and grasslands, starry nights and a moon both east and west, north and south, so I’d argue we were not stepping outside the world as much as into it. Three years living with no electricity, the first two in a geodesic dome then the third year in a canvas tipi, built a resilience and appreciation for natural beauty that have served me every day and night since. Building a fire for warmth instead of just pushing a button for it. Not only looking out the window at the seasons but smelling them. Entertained by one’s own thoughts, undistracted by the white noise of an overloaded world. Community on a scale where that word again meant something. Those experiences felt as real as it gets. I still spend summers in a stone house with no electricity in an olive grove in Spain. I don’t choose to live there always. But I don’t choose to live without that, either.

Was it, that you experienced a kind of reality that has been lost today in many ways?
M.L.: We were picking the reality we wanted and needed at the time. Setting back the clock to rediscover the child within, mixing the serious and the playful. Anyone reading this has chosen their reality to some degree. This career instead of that, living in one place instead of another. Every day brings forks in the road. As Robert Frost said, we were taking a fork less traveled. It was interesting, and it was fun. Bumping into Neil Young in the little market at the corners on Skyline. Jerry Garcia driving past in a little red MG – he looked like an M&M stuffed into that tiny thing. Alan Ginsberg walking his little white dog. I yelled, “I love you, Alan.” He yelled back, “I love you too, man.” Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters from La Honda, Pancho eating butter like it was cheese. While back to the non-violence, we were following Martin Luther King’s edict to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Peace and love not bad paths to follow. It was groovy.

In 1984/85 you wrote your first novel "Nothing Lasts Forever Anymore", which is set in the small fishing village of La Herradura in Southern Spain. The text is about a family stuck between tradition and modernity.  The family is faced with the decision to either stay, or to sell their farm to a real estate company. In 1999 the novel was published in Cadaqués, and in 2013 it came out in German, in Berlin. How do you feel about your text after such a long period of 40 years have gone by?
M.L.: The year I spent writing that, living in that same village, felt like a natural extension of the life I had lived up on The Land. Again, back to nature. A goatherd would bring his goats past the house every morning and evening. From my balcony, I’d watch the fishermen sitting on the beach mending their nets. I was a runner then, and every day I’d run along the old goat trail the Moors had carved into the cliffs above the sea. There were the ruins of an old stone building on one cliff, and I wondered why anyone would ever leave such a beautiful place. It is where I set my story. Because from there, looking out you could see cranes and bulldozers in the distance putting in condos and hotels that were sweeping away the old ways of life that would not endure much longer. I was sad about that, and so I decided to try to capture those changes. That tsunami of change has always been there, of course. Cars replacing horses, electric lights replacing firelight. Now our phones replacing human contact as machines become our friends. I think that story becomes more relevant every day.

There´s another important year, as I found in your C.V. In 1998, you co-founded the "Safe Haven Museum" in Oswego, New York. The museum's mission is to trace the flight history of a group of 982 Jewish people who searched refuge in America during World War II, including your aunt Mira, your grandparents Otto and Ruza, and your father, Ivo Lederer. In 2023, your play "Casual Baggage" was performed at the English Theatre Berlin. The American Embassy in Berlin has included it in its literature program. The theme ties in with your family's history of fleeing. Could you tell us something about this flight?
M.L.: My father, his parents and sister and the other refugees aboard that one ship were the only Jewish refugees brought to the U.S. during the war. They were then interned behind barbed wire on an old military camp in upstate New York until after the war ended, because the truth was the country did not want Jewish refugees coming in. That was a token gesture for publicity’s sake, and my family was just incredibly lucky to be included in it. They were not admitted as immigrants, but literally wearing labels around their necks identifying them as “U.S. Military Casual Baggage.” After the war, President Truman allowed the 982 to stay. Fast forward, I was born in 1956 with an American passport tucked into my little diaper.

When did you actually start writing your play?
M.L.: The play began in 2019 when I was commissioned by a Tony award-winning Broadway producer, Latitude Link, to write it. But then Covid struck, theatres were shuttered closed and that producer backed away from the project. Writing it was such a personal thing. I couldn’t get past the fact that because of my own good luck, it was almost impossible to grasp the despair and later relief my own family had experienced, let alone the grief of so many who had not been as lucky.  I visited Auschwitz trying to get my head around it. But even there, every step through that hellscape, I knew I was there by choice. A hot meal and a fast trip back to the hotel were just waiting for me. So, my play evolved to be about how hard it is for a next generation to understand the fear and hate we have heard about from parents and grandparents but not experienced ourselves. The same thing reading of other people’s struggles in the news, because the family of Man-Woman, right? “Wankind,” as I call us. My hope is that being aware of that chasm helps to narrow it. The museum in Oswego, which stands on the site of the old army camp where the refugees were held, is an excellent place to seek that understanding. Only 982. Incredible.