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a conversation with Claudia Stevens
Revelation, a conversation with Claudia StevensRevelation, a conversation with Claudia Stevens
Revelation, a conversation with Claudia StevensRevelation, a conversation with Claudia Stevens

Claudia Stevens, a performance artist, playwright, and musician, has created a repertoire of fifteen interdisciplinary theatrical pieces, four of which explore art, ethics, and identity in Holocaust-related settings. She was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

When did you first learn the truth about your parents’ background?

I was a 19-year-old Vassar undergraduate student. It took me completely by surprise: I didn’t even know my parents were Jewish!

My sister found out first. While working as a student nurse in San Francisco, she noticed that one of her elderly patients had a speech pattern that sounded like my mother’s stepmother, “Granny,” who’d lived with us on our farm in Northern California when we were small children. (Our parents, who had lived in England, had British accents.) “You sound just like my grandmother,” my sister told her. “Well, who is your grandmother?” she inquired. When my sister told her Granny’s name, the woman said, “Oh yes, I know her! She lives in a nursing home for elderly Jews.” My sister visited Granny and put two and two together. Then one day when I was visiting my sister in Palo Alto, she told me me, quite casually, that we were Jews.

The next day I went to see Granny. She was very reluctant to tell me anything; later I learned that she had promised my parents not to disclose the secret. But it was obvious to me that she was indeed Jewish. And, given that my parents had arrived in the U.S. after the war, thinking about their appearance, attitudes, and mannerisms, I realized that they were not British, but Jews from Central Europe who must have been caught up in the Holocaust. Suddenly I saw our home atmosphere of secrecy and anxiety in a new light.

How did it feel to learn that you are Jewish?

I felt a kind of elation that is hard to describe. A lot of things that had not made any sense at all as to the kind of person I was—the strangeness that I felt—suddenly fell into place for me, psychically and spiritually. I knew it would take time for this news to sink in. Already it was raising questions about myself: Because of their experience, was I now a special person who could no longer follow the path that most people would take in life? Having been one person before and feeling like another person now, have I been the same person all along?

Did your parents know that you had discovered their secret?

A few days after learning from Granny that I had come to the nursing home asking questions, my father visited me in Santa Barbara and confirmed the truth of what I’d already surmised. As we sat by the sea under a beach umbrella looking at family pictures and letters he’d brought, he told me the things he felt he could convey in a single afternoon. He focused on his escape from Europe in 1939 aboard the Katina, a freighter bearing young Czech Jews illegally from the Black Sea to British Palestine. After months of meandering at sea under terrible conditions, repeated unsuccessful attempts to smuggle passengers ashore amid hostile actions by British patrols, virtual starvation, an epidemic of meningitis, and the Katina’s rescue of another refugee ship, the Chepo, most of the Katina and Chepo refugees eventually landed safely in Palestine.

In 1940 my father’s mother had attempted to follow him from occupied Czechoslovakia aboard another “illegal” ship, the Milos. But British patrols seized the Milos near Haifa and transferred many of its Jewish passengers to the ocean liner Patria, to be deported to a prison island. Then the Hagannah, a Jewish underground group, sank the Patria in an attempt to disable it and prevent the deportation. His mother drowned. My father felt personally responsible for her death, although he bore no actual blame. He could barely speak as he told me how his mother had jumped overboard in an attempt to swim to the “Promised Land.”

At last, my father’s terrible burden of secrecy was lifted. He was able to see the past in new ways, reexamining his own trauma and his motivations for keeping silent. The process of filling in the gaps continued until his death in 2006. In 1999 he contributed to the development of my play, In the Puppeteer’s Wake, that unfolds his and his mother’s interlocking stories of escape by sea. As the years passed, the reasons for the deception continued to evolve, ranging from a desire to protect my sister and me from the possibility of enduring any such experiences in the future (which probably comes closest to his actual motivation) to an idealistic, possibly naive, idea that if I could not be identified as a Jew I might be able to exert influence in saving Jews if this became necessary in America one day.

Did you speak with your mother about her past as well?

Yes. She and I continue to speak about her disillusionment with Austria, her country of origin; the cruelties, injustices, and terrors endured during the Nazi period; her inability to pursue her desired career as an actress; the Nazis’ confiscation of her father’s store, converting it to their district headquarters even while her family lived in rooms above; the humiliating acts she and others were forced to perform in the streets to public ridicule; the scattering and eventual destruction of her family; and her father’s death while attempting to reach Shanghai.

How did you come to create An Evening with Madame F, a musical theater piece on the Holocaust?

In the late 1980s, I started to move away from my career as a concert pianist. I was attracted by the “total performance” trend in contemporary music and hoped to integrate speaking, singing, movement, dramatic acting, and ultimately playwriting and composition with my solo performance as pianist and singer. In looking for appropriate dramatic material, I thought of creating a piece in which somebody was actually forced to sing and play at the same time. Then I remembered seeing a segment on 60 Minutes with Auschwitz survivor Fania Fenelon, author of the bestseller Playing for Time, who described how she, without any advance notice or time for practice, was forced to come out of the barrack to perform the aria “Un bel di” from Madame Butterfly for the chief of camp, Maria Mandel, while accompanying herself on piano. That was her audition! I thought, my God, that’s the nightmare that every performer has: you haven’t had a chance to practice, you don’t even know the piece but you have to perform it, and if it doesn’t go well you’re “dead.” The experience of performance under such extreme circumstances fascinated me, and I thought I could depict it in a unique way, through the performance mode itself, bringing to it both musical and theatrical skills, along with my Jewish sensibilities.

What was the most difficult aspect of creating Madame F?

Among other concerns, I felt I was betraying my parents’ wishes by “going there.” My father would say to me repeatedly: “This is not your story.” He wanted me to steer clear of identification with the “victim,” with immigrant struggles and unhappy memories, and to stay positive. I did not “go there” lightly; it took me nearly twenty years after the revelation to embark on Madame F, to feel mature enough—and connected to the Holocaust on a sufficiently deep level—to approach this material.

Madame F raises ethical questions.

Yes. The Madame F character is confronted by an imaginary audience member asking how she feels about having played music for “the amusement of murdering butchers” to gain the privileges that kept her alive. She concedes, “I played and sang and arranged scores, even beat on the drum for the Nazi killers. Every day I live with this truth.” She feels little if any guilt over having survived by using her art under those conditions; rather, my character is uneasy with herself because she is profiting from a bestselling memoir. But she cannot accept the alternative of remaining silent. At the end, when she relives her rescue at the Bergen-Belsen camp, she spontaneously begins to sing, and her singing builds in power as she realizes, as did many emaciated camp inmates, that she still has a voice. Their utterance of something—whether they sang, stated their name, recited a prayer, or merely cried out—is a self-defining existential act: “I express, therefore I am.” It is an embodiment, in the deepest sense, of what it means to be human. So ultimately it needs no justification. I believe it also answers the questions of complicity and profiting raised in the play.

You’ve said that belief in music and art ended for people such as Fenelon.

I cannot speak for her or any other individual who endured that experience. I am fairly sure that faith in musical culture did cease for many in Auschwitz, although it could be rekindled afterward. Some would like us to think that artists and musicians in the camps somehow emerged from the horror revitalized, triumphing in the end; but I think such a notion of “redemption through art” is an awful cliché, sentimentalizing art and potentially trivializing the experience.

There’s one moment in the show when Madame F is singing “Ani Ma’amin,” a Jewish affirmation of faith sung by some concentration camp inmates. She is trying to hold onto one note for dear life while her hands are moving mechanically and grotesquely in counterpoint to her voice, playing an increasingly jarring rendition of a piano piece by Schumann…until the dissonant piano music finally overwhelms her voice. This for me is the most important moment in the piece because it is saying that escape through faith—in beautiful music—is no longer sustainable for this woman at this point in her concentration camp experience. Music, which had represented rescue from the barrack, escape through beauty, a form of religion even, is no longer possible in the universe of Auschwitz. In the end even the piano breaks down. There’s only the sound of the drum and the noise of war and death.

Your piece A Table Before Me told elements of your mother’s story.

Yes. In 1997 my mother received a big sheaf of documents from an Austrian insurance company. She’d been writing to them over decades, inquiring about her father’s unredeemed insurance policy. By finally sending her the documents, the Austrian insurance company was saying: We are hereby documenting everything concerning your father’s ownership of this policy, which proves that we don’t owe you a dime because it was signed over to the Germans; and furthermore, the statute of limitations has run out on receiving German restitution. The documents were unbelievable.

What story did they tell?

They revealed the extent to which German brutality and injustice were documented without any sense of shame. They would write one letter after another to my grandfather, cheerfully announcing what was about to happen to him, what was going to be taken from him next, with what decree he was going to have to comply, what new tax he would have to pay. Not only that: He was told that he could appeal the decision, but his appeal would be useless and that he would have to pay all of the associated legal fees. Then the letters became increasingly threatening: If you don’t pay this new tax, you will be imprisoned. If anybody recognizes you in the street, you will be taken away. Of course he was paying, desperately paying.

There’s a very pathetic moment when my grandfather writes, “You have taken even my underwear, you have taken my electrical inhaler”—he had emphysema, and they had confiscated his breathing apparatus. He humbly requested that the insurance policy be used as payment for the next whatever-the-tax. This is the insurance company’s proof that he willingly gave up his policy to the Germans!

In this play, in which you portray all the characters, a goofy Freudian shrink in a white jacket taunts you for outing your mom, who had concealed her Jewish identity after coming to America.

That’s right. The analyst asks snidely, “Happy now?”

Claudia:“The object is not to feel happiness. It is revelation, catharsis.”

Analyst:“And are you relieved? Did you get it all off your chest? Tell us, Claudia. How do you feel having exposed your mother for the past hour? She wanted only silence and anonymity. Of which you have deprived her.”

Claudia:“How so? I’ve even changed her name.”

Analyst:“A betrayal nevertheless. And to what end? What deep purpose? (pause) No facile reply? No ready rejoinder? And where are you in all of this, Claudia, I see you least of all. Care to comment?”

Then, after a long silence, Claudia turns to the audience and says: “I am Claudia Stevens. I act. I am also the granddaughter of Edmund Israel Sinai, Jew, tailor. Of the weak lungs and the many assets. Who rode the rails. Who coughed his life out on some freezing railway platform. And the daughter of his daughter, a gifted woman now in her eighties. Who paints in oils now, small still lifes. Who got one really good role. I sing her that role. I sing her…her moment in theater. I sing her…singing.…”

Did your mother ever see this play?

She saw the video.

And how did she react?

I think she was hurt at first, and on one occasion accused me of betraying her. But she was also very impressed with the play, and eager to correct minor inaccuracies in the script. She also was somewhat wistful, pointing out that the acting career to which she had aspired was being realized through her daughter.

Why did you choose to reveal the secrets your parents had kept hidden?

I do not believe that one can totally conceal Jewish identity or an experience as profound as being persecuted for being a Jew. These things are transmitted somehow from a loving parent to a child, whether through language or in other more subtle ways: a look, a pregnant moment of silence, a way of listening to the news, singing or moving. Nor do I believe that my parents ever truly wanted to “bury their pasts.” That would be like burying the self, denying the heart and soul. On some deep level they both wished to tell, and were signaling this wish in many ways. By my going through the experience of suppression and revelation with them, our bond became stronger, and I am now able to give voice to feelings and insights they have been unable to express. I believe on some level that they were, and are, glad I have done so.

In that summer of 1969, the revelation of my parents’ secret past made me realize that I would not have an ordinary life. I believe, with hindsight, it offered me the possibility to do and be more than I may have once thought possible. In my teens I assumed that my life would unfold according to established forms and norms: With my gift for music I would follow a typical academic path of teaching, scholarship, and the occasional recital. Then, suddenly, the forms and norms no longer applied, for my own life was not what it had appeared to be. I acquired a new, rather ironic, perception of reality: The theater came to represent what was “real,” while actual day-to-day life became absurd, illusory, or false. Time has tempered all this, but the adventure of interrelating art and life goes on. I’ve been reinventing myself every year or two, and then taking yet another leap.

They say that children of survivors are a very ambitious lot.

Yes, I’ve heard that, and I think you, as a son of survivors, probably feel and experience that too.

Yes. Life has an added sense of preciousness when you realize how quickly your entire world can slip away. And you appreciate that your life has been given to you to make a difference.

That’s right. When I discovered my parents’ true identities, one of the first thoughts I had was, My God, it’s really quite amazing that I even exist at all!


Union for Reform Judaism.