May 13, 2009.
English Translation (original German follows)
Rarely has the audience in the Hinterem Schloss (Rear Castle) been as moved as by Helen Mintz. The Canadian actor, who also calls herself a storyteller, presented a one-person piece entitled “Keeping the Promise,” the story of a Holocaust survivor.
Paula, the fictional protagonist, is based on three eyewitnesses who shared their stories with Helen when they were in their seventies. Born Jewish in Poland, Paula was unable to speak about her past for decades until a chance question by her Canadian daughter Candace prompted her to talk.
At nine years of age, Paula survived the selection process that decided who would die through work and who through immediate murder. Paula’s parents and brother were murdered; Paula was imprisoned in a work camp. She survived four years of hell: work conditions that were inhumane even for adults, brutal punishments, humiliation, cold, and hunger. One older woman in the camp, Rivke, tried to give Paula courage and pledged her to survive in order to tell her story.
After liberation by the Russians, the children were moved to an orphanage. Several years later they came to Canada as part of the “War Orphans’ Project”. But the family who adopted Paula who did not understand her and insisted that she forget the past. The larger world also had no interest in her past.
Paula maintained her silence even with her daughter, Candace, in order to give her an untroubled childhood. But she came to realize that Candace had the right to know about her mother’s past. So finally Paula opened her old suitcase with the few precious items she had brought from Europe — some photographs and a couple of pieces of clothing and she began to share the story of the camp, the orphanage, her trip to Canada, and her disappointment in her new world that was so strange and unfeeling.
And so she fulfilled her promise to Rivke; Paula came to believe that people must know what other people have done to their fellow human beings so that it never happens again.
Helen Mintz uses few props — two chairs, the suitcase, and a shawl. She speaks in monologue and dialogue, changes herself from the mother into the rebellious daughter, from the child into the older woman in the camp, from the orphan into the teacher who captured the hearts of the wild youths by addressing them with the time-honoured Yiddish phrase, mayn tayere kinder/ my dear children.
After the performance, Helen resumed her normal identity and spoke with audience members about their reactions to the play. An intense discussion followed. Although many of the audience members were well informed or were even eyewitnesses to the events described in the play, the perspective put forward brought new insights.
The storyteller also works with schools to ensure that young people know about the past.
As the representative of the Stolpersteine Initiative which together with Literatur & Kunst am Torbau sponsored the event, Bernd Fischer delivered a short introduction. The audience was able to follow the English presentation and the translation by Susan Ritter helped to facilitate the discussion.
Helen Mintz spielte ihr Stück „Keeping the Promise“ über das Schicksal eines jüdischen Mädchens
Damit es nie wieder geschieht!
Heusenstamm (schu) – Selten war ein Publikum im Hinteren Schlösschen so tief bewegt wie nach dem Auftritt von Helen Mintz. Die kanadische Schauspielerin, die sich auch „Storyteller“ nennt, stellte in ihrem Einpersonenstück „Keeping the Promise“ (Das Versprechen halten) die Geschichte einer Holocaust Überlebenden dar. Die Protagonistin Paula verkörpert stellvertretend drei Zeitzeugen, die der Autorin ihre Erlebnisse berichtet hatten, als sie um die 70 Jahre alt waren. Nachdem die aus Polen gebürtige Jüdin Jahrzehnte lang nicht über ihre Vergangenheit hat sprechen können, gibt eine zufällige Frage ihrer Tochter Candace den Anstoß zum Erzählen.
Als Neunjährige war Paula in ein Konzentrationslager gekommen. Sie erlebt die Selektion in ArJ beitsfähige oder unmittelbar dem Tod Geweihte. Eltern und Bruder wurden ermordet; das Kind muss fast vier Jahre lang die Hölle aushalten: unmenschliche Arbeitsbedingungen wie für eine Erwachsene, grausame Strafen, Entwürdigung, Kälte und Hunger. Eine Frau versucht Paula Mut zu machen. Ihr muss sie versprechen, zu überleben, um später von ihren Erfahrungen zu berichten.
Nach der Befreiung durch die Russen kommen die Kinder in ein Waisenhaus, einige Jahre später im Rahmen eines Kriegswaisenprojekts nach Kanada.
Paula wird zwar von einer jüdischen Familie adoptiert, doch man zeigt kein Verständnis für sie und verlangt von ihr, die Vergangenheit zu vergessen.
Auch die übrige Umwelt will nichts davon wissen.
Selbst ihrer Tochter gegenüber schweigt Paula, um ihr eine unbelastete Kindheit zu ermöglichen. Doch nun sieht sie ein, dass Candace das Recht hat, etwas über die Vergangenheit und seine Familie zu erfahren, sie merkt, dass der Teenager sich wirklich dafür interessiert. Endlich bringt sie es über sich, den alten Koffer zu öffnen, der ihre wenigen, ihr so kostbaren Besitztümer enthält, die sie aus Europa mitgebracht hatte, Fotos,’ ein paar Kleidungsstücke. Und sie beginnt zu erzählen, vom Lager, vom Waisenhaus, von der Über; fahrt nach Kanada, von den En,ttäuschungen in einer fremden, unsensiblen Umwelt. Damit hat sie das Versprechen eingelöst, das sie ihrer Lagergenossin gegeben hat. Die Welt soll wissen, was Menschen ihren Mitmenschen angetan haben, damit so etwas nie wieder geschieht. Helen Mintz benötigt nur wenige Utensilien, zwei Stühle, den Koffer, einen Schal. Sie spricht Monologe und Dialoge, wechselt die Position, verwandelt sich von der Mutter in die aufmüpfige Tochter, vom Kind in die ältere Lagergenossin, von der Waise in den Lehrer, der mit der vertrauten jiddischen Anrede „mein teire Kinder“ die Herzen der verwilderten Jugendlichen erobert. Nach der Aufführung brauchte die Schauspielerin Zeit, sich wieder in die eigene Identität zu finden, ebenso das Publikum, die Eindrücke zu verarbeiten. Dann entspann sich ein intensives Gespräch. Die Darstellung aus einer fremden Perspektive brachte den Anwesenden neue Einsichtfm, obwohl sie über die Thematik informiert oder selbst Zeitzeugen waren.
Dass auch der Jugend das Wissen um diese Vergangenheit vermittelt wird, dafür setzt sich die Geschichtenerzählerin mit Auftritten in Schulen ein. Als Vertreter der Initiative Stolpersteine – gemeinsam mit Literatur & Kunst am Torbau Gastgeberin der Veranstaltung – hatte Bernd Fischer vor dem Spiel eine kurze Einführung gegeben.
Dank des suggestiven Spiels konnte das Auditorium der englischsprachigen Aufführung gut folgen. Doch erleichterte die Verständigung bei der Diskussion, dass sich die Hörerin Susan Ritter als Dolmetscherin anbot.
Outlook, July-August 1998
KEEPING THE PROMISE
A Story written and performed by Helen Mintz
Reviewed by Fraidie Martz
Dressed all in black, a, woman enters from the rear of the room taking measured steps and one long breath at a time. She looks at no one, sees nothing. She has the look of someone elderly – small arid fragile – although she is young, maybe 40. She Is carrying a misshapen, battered brown suitcase tied clumsily with a long frayed length of twine. She places it in the corner of the room with a mixture of relief and reluctance, as though it’s painful to carry and equally painful to part from. After a long pause, a pause she needs to gather her courage, she raises her head with effort, as though its weight too is a burden, and facing the audience while looking longingly at the suitcase, she begins: “Where I come from is in this suitcase. Everything I have of my childhood. My life with my family in my town of Rodom in Poland. My life before they were all murdered in the war. This suitcase is my most precious possession.”
These are the opening lines of a one-woman, 45-minute performance entitled Keeping the Promise written and performed by the accomplished storyteller, Helen Mintz. It was originally written to accompany the exhibition Open Hearts – Closed Doors marking the 50th anniversary of 1,123 Jewish war orphans permitted to enter Canada from 1947 to 1949 and organized by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. In actuality, Mintz’s opening words echo the words of only a rare number of the orphans, most of whom arrived in this country with precious few possessions of any kind, least of all photographs of their pre-war lives or perished families; but it served as an excellent vehicle for Paula, the character Mintz created, to tell her story. The youngsters may have arrived in Canada with few things; what they brought in great abundance were stories – stories that had few listerners.
Storytelling has been a Jewish tradition from earliest times and it remains a defining aspect of Jewish life. Drawing on her longstanding interest in the richness of Jewish narrative art, especially the dramatized Yiddish folktale in European Jewish tradition, Mintz began her work as a theatre artist by setting out to find the stories of her Ashkenazi grandmothers. Later this led her to explore Jewish women’s experience in the Holocaust – the pain and loss, also the strength and courage. In writing Keeping the Promise, Mintz knew that she had also to find the right frame that teens as well as adults could relate to. And this she has achieved with remarkable skill and insight so that no one, whether student or adult, leaves this performance unmoved without new insight and understanding.
After extensive interviews Mintz drew her material primarily from the stories of three child survivors, now in their 60s, living in Vancouver – Robbie W, Celena L. and Regina F. For Mintz, getting to know these three people and collaborating with them closely to synthesize their stories has been an exceptionally enriching experience. Using their words – their experiences and their artifacts, she created a composite character named Paula. A many-layered story of the struggle to survive the war, followed by the challenges of becoming a self-sufficient Canadian, as told by Paula, is so convincing that the audience perceives Mintz herself a Holocaust survivor. It is when Paula’s teenaged daughter Candice grumbles about not having birthday gift-bearing uncles like her friends have that Paula is provoked to think aloud about her beloved brother Chaim killed by the Nazis. “He’d be exactly the uncle Candice is after,” she says, sadly, and adds, “I never told her anything about the war. I never meant to hide it from her.” Welded to that thought is the bitter memory or the promise she had made, and not kept, that if she survived she would tell the world what she had seen.
In how many families has this very scenario been wrestled with? Who among all survivors has not undergone these same pangs of what to name it? turmoil? – of being caught between wanting and not wanting to tell their children about “it”. Of how to talk about it to one’s children? And when? In the voice of countless parents, Paula says to her daughter, “I wanted you to have a normal, happy childhood.” As Yaffa Eliach, author of Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust has written, “the story entrusted was a living witness, a memorial,” yet the need to protect one’s children from knowledge of such unspeakable evil was also weighty. Added to this unresolvable issue are the children of survivors who wish to protect their parents from having to reveal to them the nightmare of their experiences.
Paula comes to realize that she was wrong not to have talked to Candice about what she had suffered and what she had endured. The contents of the suitcase which were locked away for so many years, item by item, become the lightning rod to her memories that also have been hidden away for so long. She talks about how when she was nine years old the Nazis forced her and her family from their home: separated from her parents she was sent to a labour camp for more than three years. As painful as it is to hear what she had to endure, one feels Paula’s relief in finally being able to talk about her life in Europe. Ever since she came to Canada she has wished someone would ask her, “Where do you come from? Where were you during the war? Only then could she have felt, This is who I am.”
Mintz’s lines telling Paula’s wartime and immigrant story is in itself a history lesson. They leave the audience thinking about many questions long after it ends. Genocide and religious wars, and a rising tide of displaced persons, have become a defining feature of our times. More than half of the world’s refugees are children.
When Keeping the Promise was performed in a number of Vancouver secondary schools many students in the audience had themselves experienced danger and dislocation before emigrating to Canada. Reading their letters of appreciation to the playwright, it is clear that Paula’s story of trials and triumphs, – even with a touch of well-placed humour – had an especially powerful impact.