The Aftermath of War: Second Generation Performance Art

Dr. Susan Jacobowitz
Queensborough Community College
The City University of New York

A rock drops into the center of a pond. Ripples spread. Make that a flaming comet crashing into a boiling tar pit. A tidal wave ensues. Consider the Holocaust as that first event. Call the pit “Europe.” (“In the Beginning Was Auschwitz” B7)

– Melvyn Julies Bukiet

Performance art is a particular subset of second generation creative work that is still emerging from the tidal wave. It combines or fuses the project of depicting and understanding the Holocaust experience with bringing second generation experience into perspective. Like other second generation work, it involves research, imagination, re-creation and often an actual pilgrimage back to sites of memory or significance in Europe. For performance artists such as Deb Filler, Naava Piatka and Lisa Kron, it means depicting or actually embodying the parent whose story is being told. The work can be revealing and confrontational. Since Kron and Filler are comediennes, their pieces are often quite humorous as well. These are works that utilize multiple media: text, song, photography, comedy, performance. There is a strong experiential component for both the creator and the audience. These one-person plays and shows advance our understanding of the consequences and complexities of genocide.

Sonia Pilcer, whose The Holocaust Kid has been adapted into a one-woman show, writes of her parents, “I was their first seed of life after so much death. A living monument to their survival, a shrine to their murdered mothers. But I am not a Holocaust survivor. All that I survived was my childhood and my parents’ fierce, anxious love” (4). Melvyn Jules Bukiet uses his father’s concentration camp tattoo as identification for his bank account and as his signature—he inscribes a copy of his book for Helmut Kohl using the number 108016. Bukiet writes:

It would be disingenuous for me to claim that those six digits were the first I knew. Presumably I could count, but the artless aniline blue of 108016 tattooed on my father’s forearm was an abiding sign of the past in our present. It was his alone and then, as much as such a thing can ever be, it became mine, and now it’s yours; we can share (B10).

Second generation performance art participates in this project of sharing.

Deb Filler’s Punch Me in the Stomach, available on DVD, is adapted from her 36 character off-Broadway play. She describes growing up in New Zealand—being the only Jewish child at her school, being sent to a Zionist summer camp that was more like prison camp—and her eventual return to sites of memory with her father, a Polish survivor. Filler is an amazing mimic, recreating with seeming perfection the various attitudes, personalities, characters and accents of friends, neighbors, her German mother and her mother’s relatives and the poignant Polish Yiddish accent of her father.
Those who are second generation often describe the experience of coming to have some sense that a parent is different. Filler never wanted to explain to her friends the significance of her father’s tattoo—she let them believe it was a telephone number. A bleak world view is passed on. This is something Deb Filler comments on in an interview, saying that she regrets that she was raised to be fearful of the world, that she would have liked to have had the chance to see the world in another way. She expresses anger about not having had the chance to live as a “normal” kid. He teaches her younger sister how to use a knife so that she will learn ways to kill Hitler, in case he isn’t really dead and shows up “at the local dairy.” She describes her father as her hero, yet she also feels deprived by his sadness. “My parents were so busy surviving,” she describes, “that they didn’t have time to stop and feel. I couldn’t be who I was—I was living up to expectations, trying to be the smartest, the funniest … the best.” Early on in Punch Me in the Stomach she describes, “I was a survivor baby. I had to be strong. I had to be happy.”

At one point in her play, Filler makes gentle fun of those who are second generation, depicting two women making arrangements to meet at the airport. One woman is to pick up the other woman—she lives only ten minutes from the airport—but they discuss in detail every possible contingency, obviously conditioned to always hope for the best but expect the worst. The logistics of a routine run to the airport to pick up a friend are parsed endlessly, as if the mission is doomed to failure. There is very little protection for those who are second generation from the harsh realities of the past.
In Punch Me in the Stomach, Filler presents herself as the DVD version opens as an old-fashioned entertainer—in white face, sporting heavy black eyeliner, deep red lipstick, hair covered in a black wrap—in the cosy intimacy of what looks like a backstage dressing room. She places herself firmly within the pantheon of famous Jewish performers and the Jewish entertaining tradition by telling a classic Jewish joke, complete with an authentic Yiddish accent that masks her own New Zealand accent. She is a chameleon, a shape-shifter. After the joke, she is her performer self, standing before an imaginary audience in a plain black three-piece suit, telling both her story and her father’s story.

Filler and her father grew closer during what she describes as “a whirlwind tour of Central European death camps.” It is clear how important this project is to Filler’s father. She embodies him as a grey-haired older man in a suit, admonishing her to get on with telling the audience about Poland. Filler’s performance involves a kind of alchemy.” And stand up straight. If you slouched in the camps, they’d shoot you.” His urgency is communicated, and a sense of what it is like to grow up the daughter of a survivor comes through. Later, during their trip to Poland, she tells her father that when she lived in New York, she once participated in a second generation group for children of survivors. Her father is surprised to hear that there are such groups, and surprised to hear that children of survivors give voice to some particular problems and difficulties. He suggests that maybe they are making up the problems to get attention. “Did you have problems?” he asks his daughter. After a slight pause, she does the generous thing. “No,” she lies, in response to her father’s question. He nods. “You wanted a bike, we gave you a bike. I never had a bike.”

In Europe Filler acknowledges that, as affected as she has been by the Holocaust, she is not a Holocaust survivor. “I wanted to tell him it was my Holocaust, too,” she recalls, as they drive through the landscape of Poland. But she comes to realize that what she feels can’t compare to what he actually experienced and what he remembers. Where she sees a field, he remembers an execution. The marketplace looks like the marketplace to her – he describes a round-up. She finds it difficult to walk into a concentration camp, while her father runs ahead, looking for confirmation of what he remembers. “All my life I’d been afraid of this place,” Filler recounts. In traveling to Europe with her father, she confronts her fears. She wants to cry at one of the camps but stops herself because she realizes they still have three more camps to go. “I felt I’d known this place my whole life,” she recalls.

Sonia Pilcer writes in her essay “2G,” “The Holocaust is our scar, distinguishing us like stigmata. It gives our lives gravity and we cling to it. We would be ordinary without it. Secretly, we believe that nothing we can ever do will be as important as our parents’ suffering” (3). In her interview, Deb Filler describes creating the show partially because she feels that children of survivors “don’t have a voice.” “Our stories aren’t significant enough,” she comments. She often felt bypassed, as if she had to put a lot of herself aside because of what happened to her parents. Punch Me in the Stomach restores her voice.

In Naava Piatka’s Better Don’t Talk! – A Daughter Uncovers Her Mother’s Hidden Past, Piatka creates in the wake of her mother’s death. Piatka sent me a copy of her unpublished manuscript in 2002. In the accompanying letter, she described: “It’s the journey home through the past.” Piatka has performed her one-woman musical play all over the world.

Piatka’s piece resonates with her mother’s loss. While Piatka was pregnant with her first child and expecting her mother for the birth, her mother didn’t let her know that she was dying. Her mother was performing in a state theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof. Piatka describes: “Not even her audiences knew, not even her fellow actors knew, and when the doctors finally took her to the hospital, just two weeks after the show ended, and they told the end was soon, she specifically said to my father and my sister …`Don’t tell Naava'” (2). She continues:

Truth is, I should have expected silence. Bad things were always kept secret in our house. Shh! No mention of the past. What did they think? They could keep the pain of six million souls a secret from the world, from me, their firstborn? I could feel it even as a child. Shadows lurking on the walls. Ghosts breathing in the night. Around me, under me, in me … mommeeee, I’m scared, mommee. Shhh! The past like a dreaded disease to be shunned, shh! To be shut up, shhh … (3)

Her mother puts her off even when she’s in college: “When you’re older, Naava. I’ll tell you when you’re older.” (3) Her mother is a bridge champion. “I can tell you who played what to whom after each game, but when it comes time to tell my own daughter about the past, so help my [sic] God, I don’t have the words.” (5) Eventually the opportunity is gone. There are those who are second generation who don’t know their parents’ real names or where they were born.

Piatka’s mother was a child performer in the Vilna Ghetto, often performing songs composed by her brother, the noted poet and songwriter Layb Rosenthal, who was killed one day before liberation. Piatka, building on this family tradition, includes original songs in her musical play. In “How Could I?” she attempts to give voice to what her mother might have been thinking and feeling:

How could I utter such things too ugly to believe?
The dreaded sights they made us witness,
The nights that never leave?
How to explain the neverending train of memories
Of loved ones that they took away…
Must I relive the cries, the silence and the fear?
Why tell the story that no-one [sic] wants to hear?
How to recount the drops of precious blood they spilled?
The dead without a grave, the hole that’s never filled?
How to explain the neverending pain of
Sounds that stain your ears forever,
Years they took away, no words to say…
Must I relive the past, the sorrow and the tears
And tell the story a daughter wants to hear. (6)

After her mother dies, Piatka laments, “Not even a chance to say goodbye. One month later, I gave birth to my first child, a baby girl, whom I named after my mother, just as I was named for my mother’s father and my father’s mother — in memorium, forever in memorium.” (6)

The past – and her mother’s determination to keep it private – interfered with her ability to be available to Piatka when she was a young child. Piatka remembers going to her mother for comfort:

Eventually I open a door (open suitcase) and there she is, sitting on the floor in the dark, with this suitcase open in front of her, photographs spread around her. I’m so happy to find her, I run up to her. “Mommy, Mommy!” She slaps my hand, pushes me away, “NO, don’t touch!” (8)

Piatka finds an article that tells the story of her mother being forced into the sea by the Nazis as they tried to drown large columns of exhausted women. Her mother was saved by the arrival of the Red Army. Piatka laments, “I never knew. My own mother…” (12) She realizes that she both didn’t know this story and didn’t know her own mother.

Like Deb Filler recalling her father’s tattoo and not wanting to explain it to her friends, Piatka writes a song for her mother, “I Was a Child,” where she confesses painful feelings that make her feel guilty:

Growing up, I had this awful shame,
Thought my parents were the ones to blame
I was so embarrassed when they called my name out loud
Across the street, so I ignored them,
Kept my head down, kept on walking,
Wished that they would stop their talking,
Broken English, whispers in a foreign tongue,
I was so young…Oh mom, I’m so sorry for everything…
I have a child, she needs to know what I did not know then.
Something to show before I go, the past is present then.
There is someone who’s going to follow after me…
Now I am older, I hear much more
I hear the words I never heard – (12-13)

Piatka embodies her mother, Chaya, who says: “Layb was right. ‘Why remember heartache, why talk about your sorrow. Better don’t talk!’ I sang. I survived. That’s it.” (13)

Eventually Piatka comes into possession of the suitcase full of her mother’s memorabilia that her mother hadn’t wanted her to see. In her performance piece, she recounts: “When I opened that suitcase for the first time, the ghosts that had been shut up inside for all those years came flying out into the atmosphere…released…the grandparents I never had and always wanted, the uncle I never knew, the mother I wished I had known, I felt their presence in the air…” (14). The Holocaust put up a barrier between mother and daughter that was impossible to breach while the mother was alive. Chaya sings a song, “Suitcase in Hand,” about how she leaves with one suitcase full of “fragments from a past no-one will ever understand.” Also, “That was once home…that was once me…So begins the journey…I’ll throw away the key” (17).

Piatka ends Better Don’t Talk! with her uncle Layb’s song “Mir Laybn Eybek,” which Chaya used to sing in the ghetto, reportedly making even the German soldiers who heard it cry:


It echoes Deb Filler’s reaction, recounted in her interview, to her trip back to Europe to confront the past. Filler and her father light candles and say Kaddish in the forest where her father’s parents were killed, along with many others. Filler comes to feel that the Holocaust is over. “Karmically speaking,” she says, “we won. A rich Jewish history and culture continues. We exist.”

Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride is an exploration of her father’s past and her own Jewish identity. Because Kron’s father left Germany as a fifteen-year-old child, he does have photographs, something Filler reflects upon never having seen. The photographs are utilized as part of the background as Kron performs her piece. In her one-woman show, Kron begins:

These are my grandparents. My father’s parents. This, as you can see, is their wedding picture. I never knew them, actually. My father left his hometown in Germany in 1937, by himself, when he was fifteen years old, as a part of a program to get Jewish children out of Germany. I’m making a videotape about my father – about his experiences – well, actually about this trip we took together to his hometown in Germany and then to Auschwitz.” (5)

Like Filler’s trip, which brings her closer to her father, Kron’s trip makes a big impact. “It was so much more than either of us had imagined,” she describes (7). She contrasts her family with the family of her partner, Peg, after they spend time with Peg’s relatives at a family reunion: “They were all healthy and Irish and good looking. They all played sports all day. And at one point in the afternoon, after another one of the in-laws asked me, ‘Does your family have parties like this?’ I said, ‘No, no. My family’s all either dead or crippled'” (9).

The pain of her father’s experience comes through when Kron recounts her father’s response when asked if it had been difficult to accept that his parents were dead. He replies:

“No, I don’t think it was hard to accept because I don’t think I did accept it. I knew but I think somewhere I thought maybe they were still alive. I don’t think I accepted it until a few years ago, in Lansing. It was the winter and it was so cold and I was shivering. In my coat. And I realized this would only happen to them once. They were old and they stood outside, lined up in the cold and they were of no use to anyone and they were killed” (11).

Kron travels to Germany and to Poland with her father where they confront a typical second generation dilemma: do you pay to get into a concentration camp? Kron describes: “A horrible moment in the parking lot. We think they’re going to make us pay to go in. No way, no way, no way. In the car we don’t say anything to each other but it’s clear to all of us that we can’t pay for an admission fee for Auschwitz. Oh. They’re only charging us for parking. Well. Okay.” (12)

The tight bonds in a survivor family can feel overwhelming. Kron describes an amusement park outing, a tradition: “The day has just begun and already I’m feeling trapped, trapped, trapped with my family.” (16) Nevertheless, she plans the trip to Europe with her father. The first stop is the travel agency, where the travel agent responds: “Eastern Europe? Oh, cripes, that’s depressing” (20). Yet about visiting Auschwitz, Kron describes:

Dad and I, we’ve been waiting for this out whole lives. We don’t know how to feel. Tomorrow we’ll be at the place where his parents’ bodies lie. No, they were burned. Will we step on their ashes? Will we see a wooden palate where they slept? Will we kick a stone they also kicked? Will they be hovering about the place, watching us? Are they waiting for their boy? Have they waited all this time for their little boy to come and say good-bye to them? (22-23)

Kron reflects on whether or not she is obsessed with the trip, with the past, with her second generation identity. She describes, “I lost a friend over it. She told me she was sick of hearing about it. She’s an asshole, but I did sound like a broken record, I’m sure. But what will I do, I thought, if my father cries? I’ve never seen him cry. What if he falls to the ground and sobs and curses the heavens? On the one hand I think I have these maternal feelings toward him and on the other hand I couldn’t handle it if I really have to hold him like I were his mother.” (23) The trip is very meaningful for Kron. She reflects, “I can feel…I can feel the bottom. It’s clear to me now that everything in my life before this has been a shadow. This is the only reality: what happened to my father and his parents fifty years ago.” (26)

Kron is from a secular family, but her brother meets an Orthodox Jewish woman from New York through the internet and gets engaged. Kron and her girlfriend are asked to be bridesmaids. Kron wants to write a funny song for the reception instead – Peg is horrified. “What kind of funny song?” she said: “David, we thought you were a neuter/until you met a girl on the computer?” (14). Kron is sardonic and detached when it comes to Jewish ritual yet she finds herself moved once she’s actually witnessing her brother’s Jewish wedding ceremony. After her trip with her father, she finds the Jewish ritual affecting:

It had never dawned on me in a million years that I would feel anything other than a big, judgey reaction to the whole thing. But, when I saw my father standing there all I could see was the soul in this little old man who’d lost his mother and his father and his country and his culture and it’s all gone forever and this was the closest he was ever going to come to it again and it didn’t feel like enough and it felt like too much for me, and so I cried and then I made everyone sitting around me take an oath that they hadn’t seen me doing it because I can’t be going around crying at weddings (37).

In Germany, Kron sees her father in a new way. The boy that he once was merges with the man she has known as an adult. She relates, “He’s lived in Michigan for forty years. He eats in front of the TV. He takes a cardiac fitness class at the community college. His life in Lansing is like a translucent overlay that doesn’t quite match up. The edges are blurred. Then we go to Germany and my father was home. Friends picked us up and it felt as if they cared for us like we were little babies. They fed us and they gave us feather beds to sleep in and they drove us wherever we needed to go, and my father was home. He’s in focus here, I thought. He’s in context” (38). Kron fantasizes that she could somehow reunite her father with his parents.

Kron ends her performance piece by coming back to the present. “When I was in college,” she offers, “I was taught that if you are standing near a piece of furniture on stage you should put your hand on it because that will make you look bigger.” She crosses to the chair onstage and puts her hand on it. “See? See how that works?” Her hand drops and then she slowly replaces it. “I’m putting my hand on my father’s life,” she says, as the lights fade to black. Her father’s life may be the prop that makes her own life seem somehow bigger, more full. They work in tandem – she uses her life, her abilities, to bring his life into focus as well. In second generation performance art, the stories of both parents and children are communicated. Describing “Punch Me in the Stomach,” Deb Filler offers, “This is my own form of survival.”

In her book of essays Regarding the Suffering of Others, Susan Sontag asks the question, “What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?” (40). Second generation art depicts suffering at the same time that it protests it. For many people, an understanding of the Holocaust ends with some of the iconic photographs Sontag describes, like the picture of the little boy with his hands raised being herded at gunpoint out of the Warsaw Ghetto. What came after? How many people have some sense of what survivors faced after liberation? Like Deb Filler’s parents, who ended up in New Zealand, where Naava Piatka’s mother ends up is almost arbitrary. After the war, survivors went where they could. Her mother ends up in South Africa, recruited by someone looking for Yiddish actors to go back and play Yiddish theater. She’s told there are “no troubles for the Jews” in South Africa (5). Her children are born into a world she probably never even could have imagined.

Second generation performance art utilizes the unique perspective of sons and daughters of survivors, born both far from and close to an experience of war. It provides a kind of continuity, particularly in light of the fact that survivors are passing away. What does it mean that we try to understand, and to preserve memory? Sontag writes, “Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead” (115). Here, remembering is also a gift made to the living. The burden our parents have carried is passed on to us. The intimate sufferings and struggles of families are laid bare in an attempt to sensitize readers and viewers to some of the more incomprehensible legacies of war.

Western Jewish Studies Association/Midwest Jewish Studies Association (WJSA/MJSA)
University of Denver, April 25-27, 2009

Bukiet, Melvyn Jules. “In the Beginning Was Auschwitz.” The Chronicle Review, Section 2 of The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. XLVIII, No. 26, (March 8, 2002): B7-10.

Filler, Deb. “Punch Me in the Stomach” Directed by Francine Zuckerman. Based on the original play by Alison Summers and Deb Filler.

Kron, Lisa. “2.5 Minute Ride/101 Humiliating Stories” Kron, Lisa. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2001.

Piatka, Naava. “Better Don’t Talk! – A Daughter Discovers Her Mother’s Hidden Past” Ms., gift of author, eighteen pages. Copyright 1998.

Pilcer, Sonia. “2G”

Solomon, Deborah. “The Peacemaker: Questions for Ari Folman.” New York Times Sunday Magazine. January 11, 2009.

Sontag, Susan. “Regarding the Pain of Others” New York: Picador, 2003.

Spiegelman, Art. “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Weschler, Lawrence. “Art’s Father, Vladek’s Son” In Shapinsky’s Karma, Boggs’s Bills, and Other True-Life Tales. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.

Extra material:
Naava Piatka passed away at the age of 57 in 2008? “My cast of family ghosts has accompanied me from South Africa, Australia, London to Germany and most recently to Lithuania where I was invited to perform on the very same stage my mother performed on during Nazi occupation,” Piatka explains. “In New York, my nineteen year old daughter Jackie, the same age as
my mother when she survived the Vilna Ghetto, accompanies me on piano, playing the songs my lyricist uncle wrote in 1942. It’s a story that gets people
‘farklempt’. While getting a glimpse of a once vibrant culture, audiences have been falling in love with my adorable, quintessential Jewish mother, who of
course, gets the last word, and the last laugh even after her final curtain!”

In the short anecdote that begins Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Artie, age 10, cries when he falls down roller skating and is abandoned by his “friends.” His father Vladek responds, “Friends? Your friends? … If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, THEN you could see what it is, friends!” (5).

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