'Berlin Diary' reveals creator's family history
We all know the one person in the family — or perhaps that one particularly talkative partygoer — who wants to let you know they're tracing their genealogical roots. It's a thing that many people do in life as a way to achieve at least some level of understanding about themselves.
After all, there's just something about acquiring the knowledge of who our family is or was, and finding answers to the endless list of questions about how and why reality ended up the way it is.
Though these themes certainly crossed the mind of Oregon Book Award winner Andrea Stolowitz, she wants people to know her play "Berlin Diary" is more than just another tale of tracing ancestry. It will be presented April 13-30 at CoHo Theatre.
After coming into possession of her great-grandfather's diary from the United States Holocaust Memorial Archive, the local playwright took a two-year odyssey to satisfy long-standing curiosities about extended family, bringing light to life's shadows. She spent time in the German capital, swimming through archive after archive and good old-fashioned detective-type work, to bring the play together.
The story is told in a meta reality fashion, where the exact journey Stolowitz took to write "Berlin Diary" is the storyline of the play itself, of course with some differences; for instance, she says her character in the play is much more neurotic than she is in reality.
"The whole point was really to find out ... why I have such a small family," Stolowitz says, in an interview with the Tribune. "Where are they, can I find them, and do I want to?"
But in the beginning, that particular question wasn't so clear.
A bit directionless, though knowing she needed to pinpoint what her next play was going to be, she remembered the 200-page diary of her grandfather, a German Jew who fled a Nazi regime in 1939 and came to New York City.
Stolowitz' husband, a Reed College professor, has family in Germany, and knowing that they would likely be spending time there, she applied for grants to fund the travel, and started to pick apart the diary.
"I'm a playwright, I'll find something," she thought.
But she started to worry when she was reading — the diary didn't contain a whole lot of clarity. The entire journal is written to his grandchildren who are going to be born in the United States, including comments about what it's like to be an immigrant in New York, and other poems and letters.
"I don't know what this play is, and I thought it was going to reveal so much about my family. I thought, 'Oh my god, what do I do now?'" she says.
Stolowitz headed to the Berlin archives to find out the "official side of this story."
She hunkered down in the Center for the Study of Berlin, which has address books from the war. She pursued lead after lead, including finding a cousin interested in genealogy.
The first part of the play depicts Stolowitz going through these very challenges. Act two was what she was going to do with all the information.
"I had to kind of finish living it first. It was a very weird project because I'm a character in the play and I didn't intend any of those things necessarily," she says. "So I was sort of stuck in writing it until I did the next thing in real life that became part of the play."
The performance opened in Berlin in 2016, where she thinks audiences likely will have had a more sophisticated understanding of the Holocaust and therefore a different appreciation of the performance, though she's interested in observing the contrasts.
"It's really complicated for Americans to try to understand, because they tend to think of events (in terms of) this is a good person, this is a bad person ... when it's in fact much more complicated," Stolowitz says.
"I hope that (Americans) just take away some complexity of history. I hope they take away an application of current events to their own lives," she says, paralleling those who were displaced by the Holocaust to the current refugee crisis.
At the end of the journey, she found some understanding about why her family was dispersed in the way it was, and at the same time connected with many long-lost relatives.
The story, she says — her story — is about repair, mending lost connections, and illustrating how events can fundamentally change the course of a family's history.
"Life is pretty short (to know) who we are connected to," she says, adding that many of her plays ask, "Can we go to a place of repair?"
"Is it worth all the acrimony or is there something bigger?"
By Hand2Mouth and CoHo Productions, "Berlin Diary" is playing April 13-30 at CoHo Theatre, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $30, $20 for under 30/over 65. It stars Erin Leddy and Damon Kupper, and it's directed by Jonathan Walters. For more: www.hand2mouththeatre.org or www.cohoproductions.org.