Being a survivor examined through the arts
Filmmaker Gordon Quinn (from left), playwright David Kersnar and Holocaust survivor Janine Oberrotman form an eclectic panel at an Illinois Holocaust Museum event examining how survivors are portrayed in the arts. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 2, 2011 1:35AM
The three women never met each other nor would that even be possible.
One is fictional, the subject of a well-received play by the award-winning Lookingglass Theatre; the second appears in a moving and painful documentary about a son’s search for his mother’s past; and the third emerges as an eloquent Holocaust survivor coming from a history most of us could never imagine.
But during the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s recent examination of the survivor experience as seen through the arts, the bonds they share immediately surfaced.
“Is art greater than life?” asked Holocaust survivor Janine Oberrotman who certainly feels a connection with the fictional Lilka Kadison in Lookingglass’ “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison” and the real Sonia Reich in the documentary, “Prisoner of Her Past.”
The museum’s recent program, “Their Stories: Reflections of Survivor On Stage and Screen,” drew a packed house of about 300 people who viewed live scenes from the Lookingglass play, a couple of clips from the documentary and then heard the artists alongside Oberrotman reflecting on them.
“This is truly a special blend of looking at how story can and is told,” said Museum Director of Education Noreen Brand, elaborating on why scenes from the film and the play were paired. “We’re going to have a rare glimpse of how survivor stories are portrayed through the arts.”
“Prisoner of Her Past,” an hour-long documentary, follows Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich’s search for background about his mother, Sonia. He knows little about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor who fled Poland, but now rather late in life her behavior has become increasingly concerning, and she is institutionalized because she believes people are trying to harm her.
Her eventual diagnosis though isn’t Alzheimer’s or dementia but rather post-traumatic stress disorder due to the harrowing experiences she lived through well over half a century ago.
Howard Reich received a phone call at midnight one night informing him that his mother was found on the streets of Skokie. She did not want to return home because she didn’t believe it was safe there. His journey to find out more about her leads to the village where she grew up and to relatives he never met, never knew he had or hadn’t seen for decades.
Both the museum program’s highlighted film and play shone a spotlight on steely women secretive about their painful pasts, their tough and fierce dispositions coming through at every turn.
“To my mother, it was my fault that she was in this situation,” Howard Reich says in the film. “She did not understand the situation. I did not understand the situation. And the doctors did not understand the situation.”
Sonia Reich defiantly says that she is “absolutely not crazy” when she is institutionalized, noting she was born in Europe and worked and went to night school, as if this is a testament to her independence and self sufficiency. “I did the best I could.”
As a child, Howard Reich remembers he would get up to go to the bathroom and find his mother looking out the window.
“She was on guard duty,” someone tells him in the film. “She was guarding you.”
Reich’s sister remembers that their mother also slept with an ax nearby every night. She always checked locks in their home several times. This kind of behavior only escalated as she aged.
Perhaps what is most clear about the ties between the real Sonia and the made-up Lilka is that their pasts are never far removed from their everyday life — even if at times they want them to be.
“The Last Act of Lilka Kadison” has five different authors because, as writer David Kersnar said, they wanted to make sure to do it right. Lilka reflects real women — as though she emerges from life rather than the written page.
The drama tells the story of Lilka on the last day of her life even if she doesn’t know that. Seventy years after she fled Poland as a Holocaust survivor, Lilka believes ghosts are invading her home, her caregiver won’t give her back the remote and her buried secrets are slowly and subtly becoming unveiled.
The unlikely recipient of her revelations — some of them made for the first time — is her Pakistani caregiver, who is battling his own past.
A scene staged for the Holocaust Museum program has the caregiver attempting to gather insurance information from Lilka, the latter resisting providing any personal information — sometimes in wickedly funny acid-tongued responses
The few scenes from the play on display at the museum lived up to Brand’s description of “Lilka Kadison” as “a creative, clever, emotive story filled with laughter, tears.”
In both the the film and play, music plays a key role, observed Oberrotman who has seen both of them.
The play’s caregiver is a former musician reluctantly pulled into his past by the lovely notes that play from Lilka’s record player. Music connects the unlikely duo. Howard Reich turned to music as a child to cope with some of the difficult goings-on in his family and to progress with his own life.
Oberrotman said she immediately connected with this theme.
“I was brought up in a household where music was most important,” she said. “And that’s a theme that never leaves you. It stays with you all your life.”
Her mother, who was killed in the Holocaust along with her father and other family members, was a soprano who introduced her only child to the opera, a source of joy for Oberrotman that remains today.
“But I can never listen to the operettas without crying,” she said. “Because that reminds me of my mother singing and what she loved so much.”
Like the two women of film and stage, Oberrotman came to the United States from Poland having survived the Holocaust. At one time, she remembered, the thought of living without her mother was simply unthinkable.
The play and the documentary reflect some of her own history with its “commonality of themes,’’ she said. Memories stay with all of these women just as they do with many other survivors.
While Oberrotman lives on her own and is quite self-sufficient, she still feels the impact of her haunted past. When she has plans with people, for example, she becomes unusually concerned when someone is late, and she doesn’t like to be left alone.
“I cannot separate from whomever I’m with,” she said. “So again, there’s that theme of memory, of haunting in both these stories and in real life.”
“The Last Act of Lilka Kadison” has been extended though Aug. 21 at the Lookingglass Theatre. For more information, access www.lookingglasstheatre.org. For more information about “Prisoners of Her Past,” access www.prisonerofherpast.kartemquin.com.