Is history more important than memory? Questioning meaning, Holocaust legacies, and “questions” through theatre
“How could you not remember when you found out Grandma was a Holocaust survivor?”
Marilyn: I don’t remember.
Amy: Well…[getting frustrated] okay. But like –
Amy: Well when did you know what the Holocaust was?
Marilyn: I might have blocked it out. Who knows. Ask my brother..
Amy: I’m wondering why you don’t remember –
Marilyn: I just always knew it. No, I probably – probably heard it when I was younger and just didn’t understand it.
Amy: Well…having always known it – how did that make you feel then?
Marilyn: What do you mean? I just accepted it.
Amy: But it’s not a fact like your eyes are blue – it’s –
Oy. That’s how it all started. I wanted to know my more about my grandmother who had passed away while I was in a coma at 18 years old. I had always looked to her spirit for strength, through my own dark times.
I decided I wanted to ask other relatives – people I only had seen in old wedding albums and on Facebook feeds.
At first, I was discouraged to delve into my family history. Why didn’t anyone think this was worth the pursuit?
I called my uncle. His response?
“You’re not gonna get anything. – unfortunately I reached out to all of the relatives, everybody, and I’m telling you and nobody knew any of the story –just so you know, when I was going to write my book, after a while I realized there was so little information, like accurate information, that it was gonna have to be a fiction based on historical events. None of this is non-fiction It’s very frustrating.”
The more relatives I asked in my family, the more I resonated with my uncle’s frustration.
My grandmother, a Jew in Czechoslovakia during World War Two, had been married just 5 weeks when she was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz, separated from her 8 siblings and saw her husband shot and killed. She survived the war, only to find out her husband was shot and killed. She made it to Brooklyn, NY, on a ship that marked the rest of her life with an overwhelming fear of the ocean, married a tailor, and together, they established a successful sewing corporation in the garment district. She, and others like her, never really got to talk about all they had seen, and having had endured more pain and felt more fear in those few years than most people in a lifetime, their generation raised children while trying to keep so much bottled up inside. She did her best to keep this fear and pain from her daughter, my mother, and while my mother remembers her as the most loving, sweetest mother, she also remembers feeling a real sadness and fear in her home.
Was that why my mother had “blocked it out?”
When “Nothing” Becomes Everything
According to my mother, my grandmother never spoke much about anything.
“She never talked about the atrocities. She would talk about bread, pieces of bread, people stole from people, she said there were all kinds of people in the camp – good, bad, generous, they lived off of potato peels. She said that when they first got there, they had to go in lines, and Dr. Mengele – the crazy “doctor” who did all of those experiments – he told them which line to go on. And Grandma always said that one nurse talked to Mengele, and while she was talking to Mengele, Grandma pulled her friend to the other line, and that is what saved their lives. Grandma also had an abortion. After I was born – she felt like she was too sick to have another baby, and she went to a terrible abortionist in someone’s living room – who almost killed her with a hanger – you know, that’s how they killed them in those days, and she felt guilty forever – you know, a lot of guilt about a lot of stuff…”
One question was leading me to traumas I didn’t even know I should be asking about. Was I ready for that?
The Power of Asking
I realized that one, unassuming question (combined with a bit of gentle prodding and persistency) could open up a stream of remembrances and possibly unjam Lethe’s river of forgetfulness. Perhaps every “I don’t remember” and “They didn’t tell us anything” was simply an deceptive curtain. I read books on history and memory, the generation of postmemory, dug through oral history archives and Jewish history databases, and I searched through oral history archives, called museums, libraries, and old diners in Brooklyn where I knew my grandparents had frequently dined. I went on to create twelve comprehensive oral history guides for family members I hadn’t even met. I was determined to follow the trail of (or lack thereof) memory, too see where it may lead.
One relative connected me to another, and soon, I was getting emails and Facebook Messages from people I didn’t even know I was related to. I introduced my quest with one question:
“Do you remember my Grandma?”
Mostly, the answer was, “A bit. She was sweet. Quiet. Great cook.” But the more questions I asked, the more discoveries I made…including the passionate longing my grandmother always felt for her first husband, who died in the war.
What? A first husband? Before my Grandpa?
One relative recalled, “That’s what she seem to have trouble talking about, just that she loved him a lot . But not much else…like, you knew that the Holocaust had taken a toll. You’d ask her about what it was like, in the old country, and she would make little asides and not even know it? Maybe nothing specific, but you could just tell there was something.”
Between the “I can’t remembers” and “I don’t knows,” the more I asked, the more people seemed to remember about my Grandma’s first husband – the mystery man with no name, photo, or documentation.Another relative revealed, “When they separated the two of them, they were hiding in a tobacco farm. She and her sister were playing outside. Nazis came, and they grabbed her and beat her. Her older brother ran out of the house, and said “Don’t touch my sisters, take me.” First they put him in a jail, and Grandma and Aunt Betty would sneak to the jail, where they saw him tied up in chains, and grandma always felt guilty. Her brother went to the camps and died there, but everyone else in the family survived. Everyone got separated, they were separated for months –it was a miracle they all met back in America. Sad – Hannah [my Grandma] always thought she would die and her husband would live because she always said, he was so strong. Same with her brother.”
Wait, Grandma’s brother died?
“You’ll Never Find Enough Facts”
Every “answer” led to more unresolved questions, which opened more gaps in what I thought I knew. Soon, I was prompted to ask about events, places and people I never had heard about in my entire childhood from a family I thought I knew inside out.
An aunt then warned me as I dared to tread further, “It was kind of an unstated rule when you’re with Holocaust survivors that you don’t go there. and nobody comes out and says it, but it’s true for all of us that are first generation – you just grew up knowing you didn’t go there.”
But I went there.
I went “there,” just to end up in a maze, in search of facts, dates, and places with no “finish line” in sight. Throughout this tireless pursuit, my relatives were sure to constantly remind me that I’d never find enough facts.
“It’s like the telephone game.The story changes the more people you talk to.”
“All you’ll get is memory. No history.”
But in the end, what was I looking for that was really important to me? History or memory?
What I discovered was an even greater gift than history. I found precious family anecdotes that even my own mother didn’t know. I discovered that every family member had a personal piece of history and in stringing them together, I was creating the family narrative.
I interviewed nieces, nephews, great aunts, uncles, grandparents, distant cousins, and far distant cousins from Belgium, France, Prague, Israel, and San Francisco. I went to research and history archives and uncovered photographs and old documents from my past, including the ship that my grandparents came to America on. I logged hours transcribing tape upon tape and discovered that a word can become a whole world.
Humans claim to love facts, but I think we truly, in our hearts, treasure stories and memories more. What I uncovered were greater truths than I ever could have found in a history book. These words of my family members – many of these words just telling me “I don’t know anything,” opened up an entire world for me.
A World Becomes a World…
Auschwitz. A camp I heard so much about. In books and stories in history. But what I crave it was more than history. I wanted to know what it must’ve been like for my grandmother, as she survived, but that followed, and she pieced her life back together after such life shattering Trauma.
It was my Uncle Morris, whom the rest of my family told me was more passionate about playing bridge than telling stories, that finally came to my rescue.
I interviewed my uncle for nearly a year, and for someone whom I hadn’t even met yet, we developed an indescribable closeness through our vulnerable exchanges on life, love and loss.
“We never thought of the fact of whether we would see them again or would not see them again, I just don’t think we thought that way, you know, every day was a survival day, and we lived for that day. Thank God we all joined up after the war.
It’s funny that you mention it, that I never thought to ask Hannah what it was like to be liberated from the camps. I’ve often felt that pain from all of this – the war years, that she went through as – the worst possible thing that a woman could go through.”
Through my relatives, I found a way in. I found that just by asking, their words opened up new worlds not only for me, but for them.
“Besides her lemon bars which my mouth waters every time I think of them, I remember that she always loved me and made me feel important.It was your grandma that gave me the confidence that I have always had.That’s what I enjoy remembering about her. I will continue tomorrow because right now my tears blind me. Love you, Morris.”
The Family Detective
I learned how to be strategic with my oral history interview questions. We only remember something that we have recorded or encoded at the time we experienced it. Something may trigger or job our recollection. One vivid memory might take us back to a whole series of events. A photograph can trigger a memory response or arousal. One the event is recalled, it is ordered and shaped by the narrator. Memories are not just stored, they are newly constructed, combining information to support the immediate situation.
I started a weekly dialogue with Morris and could never have anticipated what I’d learn.
“I can’t even imagine how life would be different without the war, and all of those millions who perished and were tortured.
It’s always been a puzzlement to me, for my survival, because I was such a sick child, knowing that many of my friends did not survive after the war, or my oldest brother. Unfortunately, everyone is gone right now, except myself.
My view of heaven is being together with family from the past who have passed away, and still getting the care and love that I felt from each one of them. when I look at an old picture of my family, I just remember especially how…special they made me feel. They were so wonderful to me. and I don’t know if I ever told them and I am sorry I didn’t, how special they were all to me.
What would Grandma be like today?
She would have been so very proud and happy to see you Amy, that you have survived your own ordeal, as she had survived hers, and so proud of what you went through now, connecting, organizing and getting all of this information about her, and her family.
I hope all of this comes together eventually, and perhaps, wishful thinking, I’m hoping that you and my son can write a book together when this is all finished. I will try to gather whatever photos I have and make copies, and whatever I can send you, I will send you directly to your house, myself.
I guess the only time I really think of Hannah now is when I look at the pictures in the house and I see her. And it’s the same as the rest of the family – my dad, my brothers – but I guess that is why you have pictures, so you can remind yourself once in a while, of the past.
I don’t know who said this, but I think I remember someone saying that as long as we carry our loved ones in our heart they are never truly gone. You and I and the rest of us, when you were, cannot possibly imagine the excruciating pain and suffering she has – she was forced to endure in concentration camp – oh yes we have all even pictured it and know her stories, so we think we know, but we don’t.
I know you personally have survived your own very tragic and painful time in your life, and I am sure you continue with this pain to this day. But you have grown to be a survivor and heroically tell your story to all who will listen so they can also learn about human suffering. It is important for them to know. Especially people who are fortunate enough not to have walked through those gates, but even the ones need to know that they are never alone.
Cherish your gifts and talents to spread the news. It is how civilization survives. We all learn from it.
I personally do not agree with those who say, “As they come in, they come out.” How would that be possible? Some people are born very poor and get very rich, and vice versa. Life is constantly changing and giving you opportunities.
For example, my own life story is…. difficult for me to believe. From a small town in Europe, we came to the greatest country in the world, and have been blessed with many brother’s sisters, aunts, uncles, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and cousins and…. many others who are now in all fields of human endeavors, touching so many lives as they go along the way. What we learn most from your grandmas is to carry on and do the right thing, and to set a good example for other to follow. I think that is the best way to honor their legacy.
Anyway, I will try to continue later on. Thank you.”
These words opened up worlds. They opened up my heart. They opened up a family to possibilities that no one knew existed.
I put together hundreds of these transcribed words and created a solo performance piece, “FIBERS” in honor of my Grandma, who’s skillful sewing saved her life in the concentration camps.
When I performed FIBERS in public for the first time, not only was I giving voice to Uncle Morris, the story of my Grandmother, and her eight siblings, all but two who had passed on. I was giving voice to an entire era that is threatened every day to fade from history if we don’t keep asking questions.
Stories can not only give a voice to the powerless in society, but can help the individuals find their own power and move forward in their lives. In telling the story, for example, of my great uncle Morris, his family members told me he had never been happier, and was opening up for the first time. I was allowing my family members to tell their stories, and allowing them to move on after such a horrific past of surviving the Holocaust.
I have high hopes for my docudrama, FIBERS. For 90 minutes, I’m embodying 12 family members’ accounts of what they could remember. But what makes for more fascinating material, is what they couldn’t remember. Writing this play was about putting these puzzle pieces together and allowing a powerful story to be fully realized in the process.
A Detective Becomes the Family Playwright
Those that argue that oral history is not “reliable” are countered by those who believe the experiences of ordinary people, and their anecdotes are truer than written document. In order to write FIBERS, my job as a playwright was to facilitate remembering. I became fascinated with the stories that the subjects create to hold the memories together – not just the memories themselves. Without memory, there are only cold, hard facts. Theatre is about heart. So is life, and so is the family I came to know in the process.
FIBERS was inspired by the literal sewing my grandmother was forced to do in the concentration camps in order to stay alive. And by telling stories, asking questions, and no giving up our innate capacity to stay curious, we reconnect the fibers of our past, our legacy, who we are now, and the future we can create.
I’ve always known theatre has been about collaboration. But this was the greatest collaboration of my entire career.
Of course, I’m only 30.
But as I learned from interviewing my great-great-uncle Isi in Belgium, keeper of the family’s genealogy…we’ve been around for centuries.
Now THAT’S a long-term collaboration!
Amy Oestreicher is a playwright currently developing FIBERS, a play to honor her family’s survival through WWII and immigration to New York. She is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright. She works individually with her innovative creativity coaching, business, speaking, and social media courses. As creator of her one-woman musical Gutless & Grateful , the #LoveMyDetour Campaign, which was the subject of her TEDx Talk, she’s currently touring theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences. Subscribe to her newsletter for updates and free excerpts from her upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour, available December 2017. Get your free creativity e-book at amyoes.com/create and a free guide to getting a TEDx Talk at amyoes.com/discover.