Rivka Bekerman-Greenberg in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Edinburgh Festival 2013. Numerous productions are staged every hour of the day during the three weeks of this phenomenal festival. It was a sheer chance that I saw Breaking the Silence, a harrowing play, written by Rivka Bekerman-Greenberg, a psychoanalyst and a playwright.

RJ: Where was this play first performed?

RBG: It was first performed in Greenwich Village in New York at the Small Cherry Lane Theatre.

RJ: How was it received?

RBG: It was received very well. We’ve had quite a few good reviews and our audiences have been very moved by it.

RJ: Before we talk about the play, can you tell me a little bit about yourself; are you a playwright?

RBG: I’ve become a playwright but professionally I’m actually a psychoanalyst so at this point I’m wearing both hats and actually, one feeds the other.

RJ: Where are you from originally?

RBG: I grew up in Israel but I was born in Italy after the war to two survivors of the Łódź Ghetto and Auschwitz, so I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. The harrowing story of the Lodz ghetto, which out of two hundred ghettos in Poland survived the longest- remains unknown to most people, and I felt that it needs to be told.

RJ: Do you have any theatre experience in your family?

RBG: My father was a lighting and sound designer in Israel. From 1950 he worked with the YIDDISH Theatre and then later with “Zavit” an avant-garde Israeli theatre in Tel Aviv. I spent a great deal of time backstage. So I lived with theatre, and was fascinated by it.

RJ: Did you ever want to be an actress?

RBG: Yes (laughs). I craved to be an actress; I used to beg my father to be an actress! During the school vacations he used to work at a children’s theatre with Menachem Golan, who has become a big film producer in Hollywood. I would know by heart the roles of the little stars and would beg him if any of them got sick to take their place on the stage. He always adamantly refused and said that the life of an actor was not the life he wanted for me. He wanted me to go to school, get an education and become something else.

RJ: When did you write Breaking the Silence?

RBG: I actually started thinking about it 20 years ago, when I wanted to do research with third-generation Holocaust survivors because nothing was written about them. By then we already knew that trauma is transmitted, especially massive trauma such as genocide, from one generation to the next.

I wanted to do a psychological study, but suddenly I saw and heard three characters before my eyes. I thought to myself, actually, I think I could write a play. It was a little chutzpah on my part because I am a psychoanalyst, not a playwright!

The granddaughter in my play is a sensitive girl who is interested in poetry, so I was searching for children’s poetry from the Lodz ghetto. I found in Israel the step-brother of an eight-year-old child poet by the name of Abramek. We became instant friends and he handed me with trust Abramek’s book of poetry. Somehow the book survived, and had been discovered in an attic in 1945, no one knows how. The child perished in Auschwitz. The father left him in the barracks one day because he was not feeling well and when he came back, the child was gone. The father survived, remarried, and was given the book. His step-son made his life mission to get this book known and it is now translated into many languages. I was so moved that I promised him that I would use at least one poem from the book in my play.

RJ: For those who haven’t seen the play, can you tell me something more about the play?

RBG: This is a story of three generations in a family of a Holocaust survivor. It’s about silence, family secrets, and the impact it has on family relationships.

As suggested by the title, survivors tended not to talk about what they had gone through to protect their children, and so the trauma of the Holocaust was transmitted from one generation to the next. By the same token, their children avoided asking their parents too many questions because they did not want to traumatise them. Also, they wanted to live, survive, look forward to life and stay away from the harrowing experiences of their parents. This became a conspiracy of silence. However, later, when the third generation started growing up, there was a shift. Now the grandchildren want to hear these stories, commemorate these stories and keep them alive. This is particularly relevant as this is the last generation who would hear these stories directly from their grandparents’ mouth. Furthermore, now survivors are dying out, and there is a desperate need to preserve their stories.

RJ: Do you think the younger generation are more emotionally equipped to face the past?

RBG: Absolutely. For the most part, they did not grow up with first-generation trauma or with parents who had symptoms of PTSD: depression; anxiety; rage; anger. They grew up with parents who were more equipped to be parents, unlike the first generation. Many of the survivors had their children immediately after the war and many of their parenting skills were compromised by their losses and trauma. However, the grandchildren were considerably more distanced from this.

RJ: Do you think the first generation were less able to show affection?

RBG: It tended to be one of two extremes: either they had difficulty expressing their emotions or they had a flood of emotions. They were either silent or too talkative; either they had no emotions or wept in floods.

RJ: What about first-generation fathers? It is noticeable that there is no father present in your play?

RBG: In my play, the father was absent. I tried to deal with so many intergenerational issues that I didn’t want to complicate it further by bringing in Oedipal issues. I think that’s an issue for another play. There are brutal male figures in the play even if there is no father. Another intentional theme of the play is the abandonment of the father and the repetition of trauma across the three generations. Because it wasn’t talked about, the daughter repeated the same destiny as her mother

The daughter is dreaming her mother’s nightmares over and over again, even though nothing was ever talked about. This made matters worse for the daughter. The bad man who haunted the mother symbolically ended up in her daughter’s bed. I wanted to leave this profound question open. No-one could protect the daughter from these fantasies and tell her the truth. Even though the truth can be harsh, it provides boundaries. But silence is boundary-less. This theme of the dread of silence is central to my play.

RJ: Tell me something more about the SS officer who steals the mother’s first child in her daughter’s dream.

RBG: This is based on one of the very sad stories my mother told me about an experience her family went through in the Ghetto.  Her brother Yakov was a Rabbi and when the guards were hunting for babies and old people, he hid his baby and grandmother in a storage space covered in spider’s webs. They escaped that time because of the spider’s webs but eventually, the guards came and took the baby and grandmother. A central metaphor in my play is that the daughter was dreaming the experiences of her mother. In her dream she saw an SS officer coming in and taking her baby sister, even though the story was never fully told to her. The play deals with the blurry realm between dream- fantasy and reality-. In reality, the daughter is a reputable neonatologist who saves babies, but in her fantasy she seeks bad men and repeats or even seeks humiliation and abuse in a relationship with a man.

RJ: Is this connected with the guilt complex she feels?

RBG: Absolutely, it is connected to the guilt complex but goes beyond it. She feels survivor’s guilt and carries it from her mother. This is very typical: there are symptoms and burdens of guilt in second-generation survivors. Even grandchildren feel that guilt. They feel that anything they do in their lives can never come near to what their grandparents went through their accomplishments pales in comparison o their grandparents: “they were heroes; they were resilient, and who are we”.

The origin of survivors’ guilt is the feeling of hopelessness at staying alive when so many of their relatives, and so many children, perished. Life is not a gift to take for granted. So many first-generation survivors went through periods of depression and felt half-dead. Then the younger generations ask themselves: why should they deserve a good life when their parents and grandparents went through hell. This is far from simple and requires working through.

In the play, the daughter demands that her survivor grandmother promise her not to talk about the ghetto with her granddaughter. When the grandmother says to her daughter ‘You win’, she replies, ‘Who can ever win against a Rabbi’s daughter who went to Auschwitz?’ This is the predicament: how can we possibly win when we have parents who went through so much: we cannot win, we can only lose. On the other hand, there is a great life force, but this is never simple and is challenged all the time.

RJ: The granddaughter gets a Łódź tattoo on her back. Was this in some way an act of rebellion against her mother or defiance against the silence? Is she ashamed of her mother for being ashamed and not telling her the truth?

RBG: This symbol carries in it so much meaning. I dreamt this up and then learnt a year ago that grandchildren of survivorsin Israel now get tattoos of their grandparents’ numbers. This is a masochistic act: it is not healthy and it proves this transmission of trauma.

 I interviewed four granddaughters of survivors in New York and I called this video ‘I’m carrying the Holocaust in my pocket’. One of the girls in the video decided to do that, but then changed her mind and tattooed the Star of David on her arm instead,  to show that from this shameful, humiliating act comes pride over the symbol of being a Jew.

RJ: Isn’t it that the trauma is so incomprehensible that it leads to extreme actions?

RBG: Absolutely. But there was also another side, and that’s resilience. People survived despite of the all the hardship and against the odds. You hear the stories of people who survived four and a half years in the Łódź ghetto, they were constantly surrounded by dead bodies on the streets, They had to work in abominable conditions, hungry and with minimal clothing in the freezing cold.  And yet, they people maintained a human spirit despite of all the humiliation. It takes such resilience, and is also relevant to the younger generations. What we want to see: the survivors’ descendants thriving. I run some groups now with granddaughters of survivors: I call these groups ‘From Surviving to Thriving’. This is what we want to see: surviving and healing rather than regressing. We want to see healthy people coming out of this hell.

RJ: Where do you go from here, with this challenging and moving play?

RBG: I would love this play to go to Israel, and have translated it into Hebrew. Of course in Israel there is a large potential audience. I would like to see it travelling to big cities. But this is not necessarily a play just for the Jewish population: there are messages for human beings everywhere. But still, I think that Jews connect to it intuitively. And then who knows? I was told that it could be translated onto television, and I can see filming it in Łódź. If you go there you can see the cemetery, see the losses of this thriving community.

RJ: What did your parents communicate to you about their experiences at Łódź?

RBG: My father very much wanted to maintain a message of strength, pride and resilience, so he told me stories that reflected this. For example, his hobby used to be playing with electrical equipment and lighting. In the ghetto, he became an electrician to survive. He was known to be able to repair anything and this way made himself irreplaceable for the Germans so he could survive. Then when he became free he could reach his real dreams: move to Israel and use his skills to become a lighting designer in the theatre.

My mother told me stories about the children in her family:  her three year old nephew Mulek, her sister’s son, as well as her brother Yakov’s baby, who were both taken from their parents. These stories left a great impression on me.

I remember being told for the first time, aged nine, of how they came to take my grandmother. This was the major trauma of my mother’s life: how they took her mother. She went to the station to follow her and she saw her in the train. Her mother told her, ‘Go away! Go away!’ This was the last time my mother saw her mother. This story shaped my life.

Any child of a survivor will tell you that we felt an obligation to care for our parents and that there was some kind of role reversal. I felt that I had to be my mother’s mother and protect her; she was my child. We were our parents’ guardians. My mother did not ask it of me; I took it on myself. When it was my fifth birthday, my parents came tokindergarten,  as it was a tradition in Israel for parents and grandparents to visit the kindergarten on our birthdays. I remember asking why my grandparents weren’t there and my father said to me, and I will never forget these words, ‘You don’t have a grandma and grandpa. The Germans killed them.’ Just like that- bluntly. I did not ask any questions again. I remember the words in Hebrew, how he said it, in his Polish accent.