Notes from the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust

Here in Skokie, Illinois, just outside Chicago, with most of the extended family as we participate in this 22nd annual conference, and today, as one of a number of panel presentations. Our topic: “A Multigenerational Family Discusses the Lessons and Legacies They Received. The panel is a complement to the book my mother, Dr. Chaya H Roth, wrote last year, “The Fate of Holocaust Memories: Transmission and Family Dialogues.”

My mom will be in Washington DC next week for a book talk in conjunction with the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery exhibit by Miriam Morsel Nathan, entitled “Memory of a Time I Did Not Know” (wonderful title, isn’t it?) in which she’ll present from her book, and her son will present a few scenes from family plays. More about the event can be found here.

Today, ten of us spoke on the panel. I’m told that all the talks might soon be published in a newsletter. Until then, here’s the beginning, my talk on Why am I compelled to dramatize my parents’ past?

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Yesterday’s extraordinary film screening in this room, “A Prisoner of Her Past” based on Howard Reich’s “The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich” was a harrowing and moving portrait of a survivor family where the past was never talked about. Not until the author was 50 did he begin to learn about his mother’s war-time travails. As you’ve just heard from my mother, it was quite different in our house. We learned early and we learned often where we came from; what my mother and father endured as children leading up to and during WWII.

A conference like this reminds me that we are part of a very unique family. Not just because we grew up the children of refugees of the Holocaust. But because these refugees who spawned us were uniquely committed to telling their tale to their children. But they have also committed their professional lives to facilitating the telling of other people’s stories; my father as a prodigious recorder of oral histories as part of his work as President of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, and my mother as a therapist, and founding member of numerous Holocaust Education organizations and survivor support groups. They have dedicated a piece of their lives to helping others share their stories with the world.

But for me, my parents were the first and most influential story tellers in our lives. They shared tales that simultaneously enlarged and belittled our collective sense of self. My mother’s tale of triumphant crossing, from Berlin to Belgium, from the Alps into Italy, from St, Paul de Vence, into Valdieri, enduring the long bitter winter in 1943, graduating with Angel wings from the Vatican City convent in 1944; these were the signposts by which to hang a formative, pre-adolescent identity; wherein Survival was the equivalent of Thrilling Escape. As opposed to the Survivor whose tattooed number etched into forearm bespoke a scarred digitizing of industrialized inhumanity—a constant reminder of institutionalized evil — We understood that there were different kinds of survivors – protean and resilient, able to shed stigmatization (by never capitulating or consenting to wear the yellow star in the first place) — we were descendants of the quick-change kids—who changed from refugee tatters to sprinting gear in the lickity split transition of a few short years in Palestine; returning to Belgium as a new day dawned in Europe and eventually the US. My mother’s story was myth that invited retelling–an Amen chorus–which would eventually, inevitably, beget a revision; a demystification; a correction, from children wielding pencils, typewriters, or much later, lap-tops.

For me, the process of revising the tall tales that so disfigured the real experience of War could most easily be achieved by becoming a dramatist who got to simultaneously appreciate and critique the grandiosity of the maternal myth spinning, paying just as much attention to the emotional fall-out that came from wrestling that mythical beast to the ground and focusing on the painful reality of war that had always been there in the telling but that we, the listeners, or I the denier of damage, failed to fully register or integrate into the fabric of the tale.

If it’s true that from my mother we received a sense of purpose, exceptionalism, street smarts, exultation, generosity of spirit, and joy, then from my father we received a sense of vulnerability; of lost love; or tastes that must be savored; of pleasures that must be planted and sowed; a belief in the goodness of the earth, even as the people practice an injustice that must be met and disarmed, litigated, exposed and redressed. My father cultivated within us a sense of the common, the universal, the shared humanity; the elegiac.

This dynamic fusion of mother and father made each of us (quite literally). We’ve each synthesized these differences in different ways. For me, the format of Drama has been perfectly suited to embody the polarities of my parents, marrying the twin fields of behavior and jurisprudence; of emotional analysis and conflict resolution.

There’s a lot of Honoring The Parental Legacy in my work as playwright and producer. It’s my way of expressing appreciation, and rebelling at the same time. It’s my way of reliving and refuting the versions of history that I thought I had overheard, if only I’d been listening correctly. Of course, there IS no correct way to listen or imbibe or absorb the stories that surround you; there is only the personal and characteristic way one absorbs as an individual—the customized in-take filter that helps to define one’s individuality. We are what we think we’ve heard. And we become what we revise.

“There is always something thrilling about the broad canvas of a European story, isn’t there?”

My favorite Lanford Wilson line ever, from this Pulitzer Prize winning TALLEY’S FOLLY. (share the build up to that punch line; the coy and evasive and entertaining and deflecting way that Matt Friedman has to coax a horror story out of himself, in sharing his past (however reluctantly and urgently at the same time to his paramour in waiting, Sally Talley…)

What better way to make the torn psyche – the pulled conscience — the raging ambivalence of a person stamped by the past but surrounded by the present — an appreciated state of being than in the theater? We need look no further than Hamlet to find that state of being which allows for the mortally conflicted to be regarded as the most entertaining and its impact the most affecting and efficacious manner of expression.

How to both revere and dis-empower the past?

By abstracting it – or better, by ADAPTING it, so that it empowers you! The truth may set you free – and so often it does.
But the Tale is what activates the journey. The story sets you in motion.
The formative narrative propels us into action, as it moves us into political and social responsibility.
What we make of the narratives that are handed down to us matters just as much as the letter of the narrative itself.
As the psychologists on this panel know all too well, it’s not the content of the dream that’s most important, but how we interpret it.
Does that hold true for the history of the Holocaust as well?

It’s certainly the credo of the dramatist. Would that these dramatic adaptations of real-life history have an impact in real life!

Well, maybe they do. Sometimes, a really powerful play can (impact real life). And then you’ve captured not only history, but the present and the future, through an act of creative reverence for your parents past.