Catching Up on Our Post-Show Conversations #1: Roth Family Responding

It’s more than two weeks since the first really scintillating post-show discussion convened for ANDY AND THE SHADOWS; the long-anticipated reflections of parents Walter and Chaya Roth responding to their son’s play. What did they really think of it all? Alas, our video isn’t going to tell you. Not because Walter and Chaya weren’t candid and generous in their reflecting; on the contrary, they shared openly, even as their thoughts and reactions have continued to evolve over the days since first taking in the performance. The bummer in our documenting is that we only got our camera into recording position for the last 5 minutes of the discussion, and Walter and Chaya aren’t the ones we hear from in the Q & A with the audience. But there’s visual evidence that they were on our stage. So check out the visual, and the fairly brilliant question offered by their grand-daughter, Ms. Isabel Roth, who follows up on her more demure younger sister Sophie’s pensive reflection on the meaning of the play. Yes, the whole Roth family wound up getting involved by the end of the 50 minute conversation (but yes, we only captured the last 5 minutes).

A Conversation with The Roth Family from Theater J on Vimeo.

So you’ve heard from the 2nd and 3rd Generation in the video above. But what of the parents–authors, of course, of their own respective tellings of their own respective stories of escape and forced leave-taking from home. We know from our playbill that Dr. Chaya Roth, Clinical Psychologist, professor, child refugee/survivor/hidden child has written prodigiously about her family’s experience of the war and how that history has been transmitted to offspring and their offspring; to relatives and their progeny in her memoir “The Fate of Holocaust Memories: Transmission and Family Dialogues (Palgrave Macmillan – due out in paperback later this spring). Chaya’s response was characteristically generous and complex. Perhaps soon we’ll get it from her in our own writing. For now, trust a son’s recollection:

Chaya saw the play as a thing distinct from the history; “It was a play,” she said. “A good play.” She appreciated the pathos, the humor, the family interaction. And the history drawn from stories she told her children, she recognized that history. It was a different history than the one she lived. But then her own memories, she added, involve elements of invented synapses — connecting pieces where she’s inferred an event or an incident to fill in the gaps of her memory. And in some cases she noted, “what the play makes up is better than what I made up!” She was referring to the scene in the Central Police Station. What she said to the police about the step-father who accompanied her in the round-up of the Jews of Nice; a round-up that her mother and older sister avoided. Chaya’s version of the story is less dramatic. And has less remembered dialogue. And missing components to it as well. “It’s a better story the way it’s told here.”

She shared certain observations about the characters that caused her to reflect on how she raised her children. “The mother in the play inflicts a burden on her children; the burden of absorbing and living with this legacy. And I imposed a burden on my children. Wally and I committed to telling our children, each in our different way, about where we came from and what to happened to our families. Perhaps we told too much. Because the burden is heavy; it’s cumbersome. And our story telling evolved, as we evolved.”

Upon returning to Chicago, Chaya’s had continued complicated thoughts. I’ll let her share those. Thoughts we’ve continued to process.

Walter thought the play, as a play, succeeded because it was funny and that humor was important in offsetting the tragedy of which there was plenty. Wally responded to the angel wings. He saw in our rendering of the mother as a young girl in an Italian convent a mirror image of what he remembered of his mother, after she passed away, and how she would reappear in his window, when he was still a young boy in Germany. “It was eerie.” Walter Roth’s latest book on history is his post personal book to date. Still a practicing attorney (of counsel) at the age of 84, president emeritus of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, and author of three books including “An Accidental Anarchist (The Lazurs Averbuch story);
“Avengers and Defenders: Glimpses of Chicago’s Jewish Past,” and “Looking Backward: True Stories of Chicago’s Jewish Past,” Walter has most recently written a memoir retrieving memories of life as a Jew in small town Germany during the course of visits to his birthplace, in his latest book “Escape and Return: Trips to and Memories from Roth, Germany.” Walter shared stories from his book with the audience, building off the foundation that the character of Nate establishes at the end of the play when he says to his son Andy, “I want to write about Jews who grew up in small towns.
As farmers; as bakers; as laborers. In Germany. The way they lived their lives.”

The moderator of the discussion was our production dramaturg; actor, published author, and resident artist on staff with us this season, Peter Birkenhead. Here are a few of Peter’s notes jotted down in preparation for the discussion:

In introducing Walter: moved to Hyde Park with family in the summer of 1938 after they escaped Nazi Germany. Graduated cum laude and editor of the law review from the University of Chicago Law School in 1952. Spent a year on a kibbutz. Upon return to Chicago became an attorney. Married Chaya in Antwerp, Belgium in 1954. President of the Midwest Region of the American Jewish Congress. Wrote extensively on civil rights and Zionism. Also active in the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, eventually becoming president. Walter’s prior books include: An Accidental Anarchist, Looking Backward: True Stories from Chicago’s Jewish Past and Avengers, and Defenders: Glimpses of Chicago’s Jewish Past.

In introducingChaya: Escaped when she was eight years old. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago. Book The Fate of Holocaust Memories: Transmission and Family Dialogues addresses the process of memory creation, in both biological and psychological terms. Examines transgenerational effects of the Holocaust. Makes use of diary entries family recordings from 1982.

Holocaust and “deep memory” vs. “common memory.”
Common memory- the imposition of coherence and narrative tropes, a natural movement towards redemption and resolution.
Deep memory- beyond articulation and therefore beyond human contsruct of “meaning.” Accessible only through poetry and abstraction.

How do we construct a “self?” From memory. How do we construct memory? Through story. How do we make room for the kind of memory that won’t play by the rules of narrative? How can we ask who we are if historical trauma renders the answer inaccessible? Is there a necessary/unavoidable hubris for the questioner Moses at the burning bush? The two sided question: who does Moses think he is? Who does Ari Roth think he is?

Chaya’s experience with neuroscience and memory. How does she make room for both “facts” and poetics? What are her thoughts on how memories are transmitted from parent to child, both in the “telling” and the “living” of them. Does she remember telling different versions of her story to Ari, vs., say, Miriam? does she recognize herself in the play? Can she pull apart the many layers of emotional/intellectual response she must have? Is any of that sharable? Ask abut fear of remembering vs. fear of forgetting.

Walter’s experience with oral history of a place. How does he reconcile differing takes on the same events? How did he reattach himself to a new place? Does he recognize the Chicago of the play? How does he feel about the necessary act of fictionalizing in order to tell essential truths? Does he see anything of the people of Roth in Ari? If so, what?

We’ll continue to update this posting as we hear more from the panelists in writing.


One thought on “Catching Up on Our Post-Show Conversations #1: Roth Family Responding

  1. I saw ANDY AND THE SHADOWS twice. But, without taking anything away from the play, the most telling moment that I believe captured the essence of the play wasn’t one that occurred on stage, but in the audience, a moment that I wish the playwright had been able to witness. It was Ari Roth ever so gently helping his father down the steps of the Goldman Theater. It was a loving, deeply caring gesture filled with pathos, but also accompanied by a wistful, faintly ironic smile. The child becoming the parent, but not any parent, a parent made ever more precious for having been saved from a fire that engulfed his family. It was a gesture that brought back memories of the special responsibility I felt for my mother who had survived concentration camps and suffered the loss of a husband and two daughters. Was it a burden? Did it a cast a shadow? Of course. But that made laughter all the more precious. And my mother and I, just like I suspect Ari and his parents, shared many laughs, laughs that can only be understood by those “who had been there.” ANDY AND THE SHADOWS would have put a knowing smile on my mother’s face as I think it did on Ari’s.

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