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Another Side of the Story
A local literary production centers the voices of women during the Holocaust.
“The stories of women are just different than the stories of men.”
A new production by a local theater company brings the stories of female Holocaust survivors and victims to the stage.
Tales of the Alchemysts Theatre came together in 2016, though its members had been working and performing together for years. I met Shellie Shulkin, executive/managing director and actor, and Laura Ferri, artistic director/adapter, through Book-It Repertory Theatre, where they worked with the Washington State Jewish Historical Society and later, me, to produce staged productions of local Jewish history. Coming out of a pandemic hiatus, the company is now performing a piece they created to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in 2020. The Ruins of Memory stitches together the written and oral works of women Holocaust survivors and victims, including some who immigrated to Seattle. The show will run through November 20 (and hopefully longer).
How did this performance come to be?
Shellie Shulkin: It was sort of just a thought in my mind, and then Laura picked up on it and really developed it into a lovely piece and idea and vision. I had a vision of different authors. We had put off doing anything about the Holocaust. And we really hadn’t focused anything on women specifically. It was more popular writers, writers that people knew. I came across this writer Ida Fink, and I was really taken by some of the stories in this one particular book, Scrap of Time. It was very different than how Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi were writing. I don’t think the word Nazi was ever used. She wrote about the Holocaust in a whisper that was so strangling at the same time. I was seeing everything. The pictures were so clear without being hit over the head with it. Could we really have had a whole evening of Ida Fink, or would that be too much?
She wrote about the Holocaust in a whisper that was so strangling at the same time.
Laura Ferri: From my perspective, I was the one who said, I want women, because we had been doing a lot of male stories. Although I love the Ida Fink stories, I felt we needed oral histories from across the spectrum. I wanted to show the progression of the Holocaust through as much of Europe as possible. Ida Fink comes from Poland. Her stories are rooted in Ashkenazi culture. I felt it was absolutely essential that we discuss and that we include the Sephardic community. The Sephardic community, of course, was literally almost annihilated. That is information that a lot of people don't know about.
The Sephardic material is very interesting. I met [Seattleite] Cynthia Flash, and she had contacted me and told me about the Barkey family. They of course immigrated to America after the war ended. But then I found another woman, Laura Varon. And I didn't realize when I first started reading her material that her family ended up in Seattle as well. I was also looking for material that I found particularly compelling, stories that really spoke to the female experience. As Shellie said very eloquently, the stories of women are just different than the stories of men. I think the small little intimate moments, the relationship between mothers and daughters and sisters and, and fathers and daughters, it’s the family connections. The devastation in my view is so much more moving, because in a short amount of time you become empathically attached to these characters.
I admit I’ve never given too much thought to the fact that so many authors of major Holocaust literature are male. What particular perspectives do women bring?
LF: The women’s stories talk about how they’re experiencing the war as women, they are talking about their relationships with their children. Their children are extremely important to them. They are sacrificing so that their families will survive. What is meaningful for them, what they remember years later, in some ways is very different than what men remember. I think the men kind of remember the big strokes, the big picture. The women, it's literally the closeup shot. It's the very small gestures. Ida Fink writes beautifully of remembering the colors, the smells, and the sounds. And the men are doing different things than the women. They’re not really aware of what the women were doing. And so that’s why I think their stories are so important.
I think the men kind of remember the big strokes, the big picture. The women, it's literally the closeup shot. It's the very small gestures.
Tell me about the structure of the show.
LF: I picked these different people and then I took material and tried to show the timeline, starting in Germany and then going through the Island of Rhodes, and then Poland, where the war starts in France, and Holland, and back to Poland for the ghettos. And then Hungary, which was one of the last places to be deported. And I knew that I wanted to end on the train to Auschwitz, and I wanted to end when the doors opened, but not go into the camps. The horror of the camps is so extreme, it’s so incomprehensible. And the stories of women in the camps is particularly horrific. We just couldn’t do that. We couldn't go there. But everybody ended up on that train. That train to Auschwitz included people from every single one of these other countries. The two Sephardic families [in the play] are the only families that repeat. You see them toward the beginning of the war, and you see them later on in the war. Everybody else, you just see one time and you move on. I did try to find some scenes that were humorous, where women were courageous and resilient. There are moments that are lighter than other sections.
The other aspect about this show that I think is incredibly important is there’s so much music, and the music is from different cultures. The Sephardic music is astonishing, beautiful, really gorgeous songs. Three of the Sephardic songs, the lyrics were written by Sephardic women in the death camps. They wrote poems, but they set those poems to tunes that they knew. They kind of adapted the tunes to suit the devastation of their situation.
How has the response been so far?
LF: We did this for a Holocaust conference in Tacoma [at Pacific Lutheran University]. So many of them said, we're academics. Everything is in the head and intellectual. We forgot how absolutely crucial it is to reach people through their souls. The actors connected them emotionally to the people in a way that just reading something would not, and in a way that just going to seeing a film does not. That character who is in so much pain is in that room with you and you. It's just a much more visceral sense than being detached from a film screen.
When the show was over, there was silence. They just felt like they couldn't even clap. It was just pretty overwhelming. I think what's really powerful about this is that so many of these performances are being done in rooms with fluorescent lights, and the actors are right there. You don't have the mask of the darkness. You're all there together. And the fact that these words and these actors and musicians are able to reach people in that kind of a setting, I think is a real testament to the power of the stories.
Were there times during development that it got to be too much? How did you handle it?
LF: When I would start to read something, I didn’t know where it was going to end up. And sometimes it would go so dark. I’d have to read the material in the morning as opposed to in the evening, because I just couldn't let go of the images before I went to sleep. I did so much of this back in 2019 and 2020. I did several other World War II projects in between. I wrote a piece about the American incarceration of the Japanese, and then I also had this Fulbright to go to Northern Ireland, and I did a piece about World War II in Northern Ireland. And since that time, we’ve had the war in Ukraine, so the section we do about the war is astonishing to watch, because it happened in Poland, and it's happening now. The planes are dropping bombs on them and they're racing. They can't get food and they can't get emergency supplies. And then of course the rise in anti-Semitism, and just the really vitriolic rhetoric that is going on right now. It's not that the play didn't resonate in 2019, 2020, but now it's just almost every scene. It just parallels something that's happening today and really resonates.
My actors are so emotionally invested in the show that they need time when it's over to kind of just kind of breathe and let go. There have been rehearsals that were really challenging for them because the material touches them so deeply emotionally. I can say that it has been quite an emotional journey, and particularly as a woman to read what these women went through, no matter what was going on with us, I kept saying, “Well, it's nothing compared to what these women went through.” And, you know, they’re with us. We’ve got to honor their spirit, we’ve got to honor their legacy by sharing their words.
Ruins of Memory runs through November 20 at locations around Seattle.
Cover photo by Olivia Ockey, featuring actors Meg Savlov, Kerry Jacinto, and Olivia Ockey
This week’s parasha is Vayera.
Candlelighting in Seattle is at 4:19 p.m.
Please join the WSJHS at our 2022 Annual Meeting on Wednesday, 11/16 at 7 pm on Zoom - featuring ADL’s PNW Regional Director, Miri Cypers, and the new board installation and other Annual meeting items. WSJHS Annual Meeting 2021 (givebutter.com)
Shout out Kim Schrier for obvious reasons! —Greg Scruggs