For a while, a few years now I have had the privilege of being able to visit some of the places where my ancestors came from, and where my parents grew up. As a white English woman I was perhaps late in life to identify as a second generation migrant, after all, three of my grandparents lived in England. Yet when I submitted a script of a play I’d written about my family (a very different play) in 2009 to the writers’ department of Soho Theatre, the feedback I received was to make more of my cultural background, and to connect with the diaspora of my people. This was not what I had expected, however I realised that a few lines had been misinterpreted as indicating my perceived Jewishness. It was an eye-opener that served to illuminate further to me how unusual my background was, and also to be aware of how I may be read so that I could then be more in control of that.
I had lots of research to do on the places and people I actually come from, and various pieces of the story emerged at different times. Some were already known to me. In 2008 I can’t remember why I decided to start reading the memoirs of my maternal grandfather (known as Gramp), and as well to type some of them up so that we would have a digital copy. The copy we already had was faintly typed on very thin, yellowing East German paper. We’d had it for years, since my childhood and for some reason as I approached my 31st birthday I gained an interest in the papers. Gramp was still alive and nearing his 97th. Then suddenly a few months later, out of the blue he died, and we travelled to Berlin for his funeral. It amazed me that he’d died just as I was getting interested in his story – which was long and I had only tackled a small part of it. Well, he had been very frail for years, in fact I had visited him 10 years before in 1998, sent by my Mother to be her ambassador as she was too unwell to visit him. On that occasion it took him a while to determine who I was. Hearing my voice he asked in his American accent, “Are you from London?”
His memoirs cover most of his life, from birth including what he knew of his ancestors, up until his early 70s when with long hours alone he wrote them. There were passages which did not really interest me, but then it was like striking gold when a cluster of paragraphs stood out describing childhood scenes on a farm, or being on the run from conservative agencies during the McCarthy era. It was fascinating social history and information about some of the forces that even shaped my life. Unfortunately my pursuit of the long typing needed faltered and I only recorded a few sections that year, but nevertheless I knew the material was waiting and my appetite had been whet.
Last year my partner Steve and I visited Lithuania, and spent time in the town which had been a village, where one of my great grandmothers came from. Moletai (pronounced Molyati) had been about 85% Jewish in those days, including this branch of my family at the turn of the last century. We have no family or connections there now, as my family left in 1911. The fear of pogroms was very real, and Jews who did stay were rounded up the following year by the Soviets. Some were later freed, but in years to come the situation worsened, culminating in the Nazis finishing off all Jews in the area in 1941. I had not known all this prior to visiting, however the town is blessed with a cultural centre and local history books tell the people’s story.
Rivkah Notlevich in Lithuania, 1908
There were old photographs which reminded me of the style of photograph we have of Rivkah, my great grandmother. There was also a letter printed, by a man bearing Rivkah’s same surname, albeit with one letter different. She was née Rivkah Notlevich, and he was Yudel Nutlevich; and I thought having seen all the graves inscribed with Hebrew, that there may easily have been inconsistencies in translation, also from Russian/Lithuanian. Yudel wrote shortly before he was to be shot in 1941, and entrusted the letter addressed to his family with a Christian neighbour. To say it moved me is an understatement. It described how everyone they knew had been murdered, he himself had hidden for 16 weeks in a pit before being found.
“This is my last letter, one of farewell, I am writing to you from prison, condemned to death. Barbaric murderers have condemned me, a victim who is innocent of any crime. Thousands and thousands of people have perished. The blood of those slain will not be silenced. It hurts to leave this wonderful world… you won’t know where our bodies will end up.”
Imagining him as a distant relative I suddenly felt connected with a deep lost strand of my history, and for the first time in my life felt some Jewish identity, or rather it weighed on me what that could be like. Rivkah herself was not interested in religion, instead politics drew her and she became a committed socialist from an early age, whilst in Lithuania. Judaism was not passed on by her as she married out and only had sons.
Jewish cemetery at Moletai
There were many memorials to the thousands of Jews killed and I learnt just how large an area they had been eradicated from, throughout many parts of Eastern Europe. I have always felt critical of Israel’s anti-Palestinian policy and still do, but a change occured in how I felt like approaching the subject. I was overcome with compassion as I understood to what extent Jews had lost their lives and homes in several countries, and it would have been very difficult for them to feel safe.
Rivkah’s family eventually settled in Johannesburg, South Africa which I have not been able to visit yet. It is high on my list as there are many places there I would like to go to as that’s where my Dad was born, and his Father’s family had had a presence there for almost 200 years. A missionary called Jabez set out to preach Methodism, and a mission named after him – Old Bunting, later Buntingville – was established in 1830 on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. This character was known to me by a plaque unveiling I attended as a child, in a square in Angel, London where he’d lived, as well as a severe if smiling portrait of him at my grandparents’ and later my parents’ house. A further detail was revealed when during an English A Level class his name appeared in the introduction to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights! A strict and unkind priest was based on him.
As if to redeem the family from this authoritarian presence, some generations later when the family had already become more liberal, his great grandson called Sidney went a few steps further, and became a radical black rights activist and politician in South Africa during the 1920s. He succeeded in shifting the South African Communist Party’s policy and focus to being led by black South Africans (it had been all white and not keen to embrace the native population), however this was an extremely tough battle which ultimately cost him his career; life even. It is a sad story yet Allison Drew’s ‘Between Empire and Revolution‘ beautifully shines a light on all aspects of his life and tells the whole story in detail. This book had been in my possession since my Dad gifted me it when it was published, though I only read all of it last year when my trip to Lithuania ignited my interest in any information about Rivkah – who became Rebecca. The only documents about her relate to her husband, Sidney and there were a few sections that were pertinent in the book, as well as in Sidney’s ‘Letters to Rebecca‘, which also includes one letter by her. Theirs was a most extraordinary and inspiring tale, and I feel enormous pride when I think of Sidney and Rivkah.
The Roots play follows the stories of Rivkah and Sidney from my Father’s family, and of John and Mary who were my maternal grandparents. All the sources of writing were fascinating, it is just unfortunate that neither woman left writing in her own right. That is only partly because of the time they were in; with Sidney and Rivkah it is true that women at that time and place were not in such prominent positions yet. For John and Mary however in the socialist world a generation later, she had just as many if not more opportunities than him, career-wise. It was rather that he lived longer and was more alone in those years so had time to record his memories. I think he also had more reason to, since his journey was more dramatic, living in exile from the age of 37. Without his words, his descendents would not have knowledge of their ancestral past, since the cold war climate had separated us long ago from his living family in America.
Mary was an artist and fashion designer when she moved back to London, and left many embroideries, tapestries, drawings, clothes and jewellery. Reading between the lines and sometimes directly from Gramp’s memoirs, as well as what I remember of her, I identify a great deal with Mary’s vitality, creativity and strong spirit of independence. She was also a socialist feminist! It therefore seems odd perhaps that she doesn’t have her own voice in the play, unlike Rivkah whom I had penned a monologue for shortly after my visit to Lithuania. Writing the play was partly piecing together sections of text I’d written and collated over several years in fact, and rereading all the letters. There may be unfinished business, but in a way, my own voice may be closest to Mary’s which may account for the absence.
Coincidentally both families partly moved to London in 1963, to the same unique part of Highgate – Holly Lodge Estate. It is through this connection that my parents met, and I believe that the stories contained in the play may partly explain their attraction; on some level recognising shared and unusual family pasts of extreme left dimensions and political persecution. It is also true that both my parents, coming from these activist origins, did not feel drawn to continue such a path. Growing up in families where politics may have been more important than family, and where you’re on the losing side even if righteous, may sometimes be a strong antidote to choosing that oneself.
Presenting the play with my usual life drawing formula was a stretch with subject matter not remotely relating. I used some costumes but also opted for nudity quite a lot. It is my natural medium, however a few audience members rejected the approach as inappropriate. Others appreciated the art interpretation, and perhaps that my own passion for nude liberation is in some way borne of this earlier family idealism. The life drawing did also fit well with much of the text being audio based; static tableaux could be drawn whilst the audience listened.
I performed most of the show solo, and as well for a few scenes invited friends and audience members to join in whether nude or not to create group tableaux. It was very helpful to have a man posing to represent my Grandfather, whilst at other times scenes were illustrated by enactments of famous paintings from the time. We recreated ‘American Gothic‘, and I posed alongside works by Chagall and Popova.
During the first scene, about Rivka’s life in Moletai, I played a video I had made there of myself performing a menstrual ritual in one of the nearby lakes. Pouring my own blood into the water of my once Motherland was a way to connect with a place now lost to us. This practice has been part of my work for a few years, such as a time I was on the trail of a Grandmother not included in this show, when she lived in Tanzania.
Finding the voices for the male characters didn’t come straight off. I was fairly quick to pick up on Dad making an excellent Sidney, but the American voice was harder. I searched and people answered, but I wanted personal connection, feeling a little precious of my project. There were a couple of guys who nearly did it, then didn’t, and as time was running out I wasn’t sure what to do. At short notice I asked my brother, and to my very pleasant relief he came good and we discovered a previously unknown (to me) talent! Recordings were crafted and I selected music to add in the mix. Steve kindly created these with great care and fine tuning. I fell in love with those recordings! Like a movie soundtrack or a radio play I wanted to keep listening to. Which was lucky as I had to rehearse fast and the lines weren’t coming quick enough.
I had overstretched myself and foolishly gotten Steve booked for another gig the same evening as my first performance. So I was on my own and this was a very technical show – projector, sound and visuals to coordinate with live action cues. I was a bit stuck but luckily my friend Anastasia agreed to help. She was at first unkeen, being unfamiliar with these things, but I was desperate and the main thing was having a mate there. On the night it was a bit chaotic, but we did it and had an amazing audience. The show was part of a festival of events and an exhibition called ‘We Grow into the Forest‘, as curated and organised by my friend Judit.
For the second performance at Telegraph Hill Festival, it was a smoother flow and it was great to have the opportunity to see that version of the play grow through the duration. I think there is much I would like to add to it, from the voices already included but also more about the women, and other characters and narratives that didn’t make this cut.
Why Roots now?
Judit asked me about a year ago to make a life model based performance and workshop for this event. I had suggested myself as the model since it was unknown if there would be funding, and besides I have a few images of myself with trees, or nude in natural surroundings, which related to the theme of trees and nature that ‘We Grow into the Forest’ was about.
When we returned from Lithuania in late May last year, Mum was in hospital and died ten days later. This shook my world, our family’s world, and grief is a long unfolding. While this is still so raw, and in fact she has been the subject of much of my art over the years, it felt easier to go back further into the past this time and untangle some of the knots. I mean, on the one hand Mum has been very much on my mind and with me these last months, but on the other I am not ready to make her the subject directly again.
I have learnt a lot from this gathering of information and still there is much more to do.
Here is an audio version of the Roots play.