The Deputy begins in August, 1942, at the papal legation in Berlin. Riccardo Fontana, an idealistic Jesuit priest, pleads with the papal representative (the nuncio) of Germany to ask the pope to condemn publicly the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Europe. Kurt Gerstein, a German who joined the Schutzstaffel (SS) to gather information on the killings, and who has witnessed gassings of Jews in the Belec extermination camp, presents his graphic eyewitness account of the gassings and cremations to the nuncio. This confirms Fontana’s worst fears.
The nuncio tells Gerstein that he is not authorized to deal with German officers and directs him to leave. Father Riccardo, however, continues to listen with horror to Gerstein’s account. Gerstein says that at the Belec camp he saw 750 people crammed into each of four gas chambers, 3,000 people who were gassed in twenty-five minutes. Like Fontana, Gerstein has visited the nuncio to urge him to tell the pope to speak out against the mass murders in his capacity as Christ’s deputy on earth.
The action shifts to Berlin, where Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat in charge of the deportations to the extermination camps, is relaxing, socializing, and casually discussing the extermination of the Jews with top industrialists and government officials. Also present is the cynical Doctor, who is in charge of selections for the gas chambers and medical experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Pleased that most Europeans are indifferent to the exterminations, they express their concerns about possible negative reactions from the pope. The Nazi view that the extermination of the Jews is an idealistic and scientific necessity is expounded upon.
The final scene of the first act is set in Gerstein’s Berlin apartment, where he has hidden a Jew named Jacobson. Gerstein and Riccardo will help the Jew escape by providing him with a false passport. The camp Doctor later enters Gerstein’s apartment and expresses his cynical pride that one can exterminate Jews and still be accepted as a Christian. He is intent on challenging all categories of meaning by exterminating innocent people day after day without limit. The scene ends when Father Riccardo tells Gerstein that he will do everything in his power as a true Christian to beg the pope personally to speak out on behalf of Jews, who are being murdered all over Europe.
Act 2 reveals the spectrum of the reaction of Roman Catholic officialdom to the Holocaust. Riccardo tells his own father (who is a trusted counsel to the Holy See) about the extermination of the Jews. The elder Fontana first is incredulous, then tells his son that it would be impolite for the pope to speak out against Germany, for this would violate his policy of neutrality. Riccardo replies that the Deputy of Christ would be derelict in his duty not to take a moral stand before all Christian humanity. The father retorts that his son must be obedient to the Vatican and must respect the interests of the Church. An important cardinal then enters and reminds Riccardo that Nazi Germany is a bulwark against the anti-Christian threat of Soviet Russia. He reproaches Riccardo for his unrealistic idealism, while further suggesting that the Jews have brought their grim fate on themselves.
Act 3 deals with the brutal seizure of the baptized Jews of Rome by the SS. When Father Riccardo expresses his outrage that the Jews are being seized under the very windows of the Vatican, the cardinal replies that the churches and monasteries around Rome have hidden large numbers of Jews. Riccardo holds to his belief that only a public statement from the pope can present a chance of saving the rest of Europe’s Jews from the gas chambers—that only the Deputy of Christ can face down Adolf Hitler, the anti-Christ. The act ends at the headquarters of the Gestapo in Rome. SS officers reveal their sadistic brutality as they round up the Jews of Rome; they also demonstrate their contempt for Christianity.
Suspense builds as the pope finally makes his appearance in a meeting with Father Riccardo. The fourth act is the shortest of the five, for Riccardo’s confrontation with the pope is intense and to the point. The pope is a cold, remote, formal, diplomatic, politically cautious, and calculating figure. He is neutral at best, favorable to Germany at worst, and completely unwilling to take the moral public stand that Fontana urges him to take. In a final gesture of extreme protest, Father Riccardo pins the Jewish Star of David to his cassock in the name of brotherly love and in solidarity with Christ’s blood relatives. The pope is outraged by this gesture.
Act 5 is set in Auschwitz. True to his beliefs, Father Riccardo has chosen to accompany the Jewish victims in a railroad cattle car to Auschwitz. He meets the Doctor, who calls himself the “lord of life and death.” The Doctor expresses extreme satisfaction in conducting “the boldest experiment that mankind has ever seen.” He proclaims that “Auschwitz refutes creator, creation, and the creature” and declares that many of the leaders of the SS came from good Catholic backgrounds. Riccardo is put to work in the crematoria but does not relinquish his Christian faith. When he witnesses the Doctor sadistically driving a woman prisoner mad, Riccardo acts. In a last desperate gesture in which he affirms his faith in man and God, Riccardo tries to shoot the Doctor but is himself mortally wounded by a guard. The play ends as a German document about the pope’s failure to act is read by an unemotional announcer. The spectator is left with a feeling of utter futility as the announcer concludes that the gas chambers continued to do their work until the end of 1944, when the Russians liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz.
(The entire section is 2365 words.)