Hadar Galron in Whistle, which is at the Firehall Arts Centre Nov. 14-15, as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. (photo by Nathan Yakobovitch)
“As a child I was never hugged or kissed; I think my parents did not even see me. I wrote this story to stop being an invisible child,” Israeli author Ya’akov Buchan has said about Whistle: My Mother was Mengele’s Secretary.
The play Whistle is part of this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, with performances Nov. 14 and 15 at the Firehall Arts Centre. Writer, director and actor Hadar Galron, who adapted Buchan’s story for the stage, stars in the monodrama.
“Buchan was born to two Auschwitz survivors, and began writing after he was injured in the Yom Kippur War. He’s written 18 books – four concerning the Holocaust – but he felt that people don’t read so much anymore, and that he wanted to write a play about second generation Holocaust survivors,” explained Galron in an interview with the Independent. “Dramatic writing and prose are very different techniques, and Ya’akov sent me about 30 pages of interesting and well-written content, but not dramatic enough for stage.
“The first meeting with him was out of respect – I thought I’d give him a few tips and let him take it from there,” she continued. “I remember the turning point: I said, ‘You mention twice in these pages the name Mengele. You can’t just throw in a name like that, it needs to have some dramatic payoff, or not to be mentioned at all.’ Ya’akov said nothing, just nodded. And, suddenly, I thought that maybe Mengele had tortured one of his parents. ‘Were any of your parents somehow … (how to say this?!) … connected to Mengele?’ Ya’akov looked me squarely in the eye and said, quietly, ‘My mother was Mengele’s secretary.’ That was when I knew I would take the task, and help him tell his story and the story of the second generation.”
In recent years, Galron has been working on several plays that deal with the lasting impacts of trauma. “We tend not to consider [the] second generation as traumatic,” she said, “but something as horrendous as the Holocaust leaves some people so scarred that they cannot really love anymore, even their children. Or, they love but in a different, obsessive way. The children who grow up without feeling love are traumatized, too, but their wounds are invisible.
“It’s important to understand that, whilst the trauma lasts a minute or a year or five years, post-trauma lasts a lifetime and, when considering [the] second generation, then even more than a lifetime. Long-term traumas such as [the] Holocaust are not a swing of the sword, they are more like the bite of a snake – the venom penetrates the body and mixes with the blood of the victim.”
Though she generally directs her own works, Galron said, “When I’m the actress, I need someone on the outside. At first, I thought maybe I’d direct and not act. It was Ya’akov who begged me, after seeing my stand-up cabaret Passion Killer, to act the part.”
Jaffa, Israel-born director and playwright Hana Vazana Grunwald was the first person who came to Galron’s mind to direct.
“We studied theatre together at Tel Aviv University, but that was decades ago! I had no idea where to find her,” said Galron. “We’d met a couple of times in festivals, etc., along the years. I was thinking of her on my morning walk-jog in the park by my home. In the distance, I saw a woman that reminded me of Hana and then we got closer and I saw it actually was Hana! She lives five minutes away from me, but that was the first day she decided to go out and take a power-walk before work. I don’t believe in coincidence – it’s only God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
Grunwald started out in community theatre more than 25 years ago. She is the director of the Frechot Ensemble, a collective of women creators, which she founded some 10 years ago.
“I see myself as a feminist Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jew) writer, who brings to the forefront my personal story,” she told the Independent. “But my personal story is never just my own, it’s an inherent part of my political story, my family’s story and the collective which I belong to. I feel that my world isn’t really represented in Israeli theatre. I don’t see the household I grew up in, I don’t encounter complexities and dilemmas that interest me. I realized I have the responsibility to represent myself – I have to write these texts, I have to tell these stories. My job is to search through history and prose and to bring back the voice of all those whose voice was taken away from them.”
When Galron sent her the script for Whistle, Grunwald said, “I was immediately hooked. But, after we met again, I felt that the opportunity to work together and find connections would also be reflected in the play’s dramaturgy.
“The challenge that the play Shirika [Whistle, in Hebrew] brings to our door is how to retell the story of the Holocaust and the story of the members of the second generation, who feel transparent. Two images guided me in my search for the keys to directing the play,” said Grunwald.
“The first: whistle. Tammy, the protagonist, lost her ability to whistle, she lost her ability to love and feel loved and, as she says in the play, ‘The opposite of death is not life, the opposite of death is love.’ The way this whistle is expressed on stage is through the prop of a kettle full of boiling water. The boiling and bubbling kettle and the whistler on stage metaphorically tell the story of the Holocaust, a story that never ends.
“The second image we chose is the painting. Tammy is a painter and, when we wondered what was painted on the stage, we realized that the body is the canvas, the body treasures and carries the wounds of the past, the memories – the actress jumps from limb to limb and with the help of simple means such as brushes and paints Tammy marks national history…. This is the way in which the trauma is present again on the stage.
“It seems that precisely now the spectacle of a whistle is given a relevant meaning,” Grunwald added. “We find ourselves facing a terrorist attack in which again Israeli Jews are brutally murdered and mass murdered because of their Jewishness. We again witness horror stories in this war against Hamas. We find ourselves again, 75 years after the establishment of the state of Israel, in a shocking event that reminds us of the fear of being destroyed. The harsh scenes from both sides shake the soul, sow terror and fear, and remind us that the feeling of security is a temporary illusion and we must not forget it. I work at the Hebrew-Arab theatre in Jaffa, a theatre that gives a stage to the binational discourse, it gives a stage to both narratives, and I feel that, these days, it is the first to be hurt.”
Galron also works with artists of different backgrounds and shared one of her experiences.
“Between 2016 and 2018, I was artistic director of the Shalom Festival, a small festival that was an official part of the Edinburgh Fringe fest,” she said. “We created this festival after an Israeli production, in 2014, was shouted down by the BDS [boycott, divest and sanction movement] and, in 2015, there were no Israeli productions.”
She was inspired by Sir Rudolf Bing, founding director of the Edinburgh International Festival, from which the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has its roots. Galron explained that Bing, a Jewish-Austrian opera singer, who fled Nazi Germany, “created the festival as a cultural bridge, inviting, firstly, German artists to take part! With that in mind, I told the sponsors of the Shalom Festival that we cannot make a one-sided Shalom (Peace) Festival and that, as the artistic director, I would like to bring artists from all of Israel, including Israeli Arabs – both Muslim and Christian – and also some Palestinian artists. At first, there was big objection but, eventually, I convinced them that these are Palestinians who believe in peace, in dialogue. Until today, even in these times, I am in contact with my Palestinian friends.
“I believe art is a bridge,” she said. “I believe art and culture and theatre have the power to heal – to give us insight and create empathy. From my very first performance as a stand-up artist – my show was on the status of women in the Jewish law – I made a decision to make my art meaningful, to merge life and stage.”
Since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel, Galron has been posting related videos and other items on Facebook, including “Creativity in place of survival” writing challenges. She got the idea from a course she took during COVID with Dr. Joe Dispenza. “In one of the online digital courses, he speaks of how our brain can be either in ‘survival’ or in ‘creativity’ mode,” said Galron. “The moment I heard this, I understood many things about myself and how creativity has always been for me a way of surviving. Now I know that, when we begin to be creative, we actually begin to pull ourselves out of ‘survival’ [mode] even if we are being creative whilst we try to survive. A bit like Baron Munchausen explains that he pulls himself by his hair out of the pit.”
About how she is doing since the attacks, Galron said, “I didn’t have a real answer to that question until yesterday, because everything is so chaotic. But I was speaking to a university student of mine who answered, ‘I’m committed to the good.’ I was so moved by this. She told me she adopted it from her yoga teacher. I adopted it from her. I’m committed to the good.”
For tickets to Whistle and other Chutzpah! shows, visit chutzpahfestival.com.