In The Things They Carried , his classic collection of interconnected short stories about soldiers in Vietnam, Tim O'Brien captured the trauma of war and displacement in tales driven by both vivid but intangible memories and tangible objects, whether in the form of rituals, letters, or objects.
The plays, films, and exhibit discussed below all deal with a similar theme, variously suggesting what the survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides, as well as the many Jews who emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, "carried with them." Here is a closer look:
The Apple Does Not Fall Far from the Tree: Journeys of a Russian-Jewish Family at Piven Theatre:
In 1976, at the age of 30, Bena Shklyanoy, along with her husband, their two daughters (ages eight and 18 months), and her mother-in-law, packed up their apartment in Kiev, and like many Jews in the Soviet Union at that time, grabbed hold of the opportunity to leave the country. With the assistance of two Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago agencies-Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and Jewish Child and Family Services-they were resettled in Chicago.
"We didn't know a soul, and just followed blindly," said Shklyanoy, whose parents joined the family a year later, and became the focus of a media event at O'Hare Airport as the 1,000th Soviet immigrant to land there.
"We were taken to an apartment at the corner of Ashland and Morse (in Rogers Park), the first of several places we lived. Both my husband and I had university educations: He was a structural engineer, and I, who came from a Yiddish-speaking family, had studied Russian language and literature, and knew some German. And while we'd both studied English on our own, his was better than mine, and within a few months he was hired as a draftsman. I did some translation and tutoring in Russian, and eventually was sent to Truman College by the Jewish Vocational Service to teach English as a Second Language to Russian immigrants. But we needed two good incomes, so I went into computer programming and got an MBA."
Shklyanoy, now 73 (and a longtime resident of Skokie) worked for 30 years, but as soon as she retired she began focusing her attention on a new project-writing a memoir, initially designed primarily for her children and grandchildren, about what life was like in the Soviet Union at a he time they left. She spent 11 years tracing her family tree over the course of many decades of turmoil, including the annihilation of shtetls, the Bolshevik Revolution, two world wars, the Holocaust, the Soviet era and its anti-Semitic undertow, and the vast migration of Soviet Jews to the U.S. and Israel.
The material was subsequently turned into a play, And Then What? , by director Kevin Olson, whose Rhode Island-based company, FirstHand Theatrical, adapts primary source material for the stage. It won acclaim at its premiere in Providence last year, and now Olson is staging the Chicago production of that initial piece at Evanston's Piven Theatre, along with a follow-up play, How Many Bushels Am I Worth ?, that homes in on the Shklyanoys' life-altering decision to migrate, and the difficult period of adjustment that came with it.
In addition, Shklyanoy's granddaughter, Abigail Matz, has made a short documentary film, Cultural Inheritance: Children and Grandchildren of Soviet Jewish Immigrants to be screened after all performances. This film connects the vision of the Soviet Jewish immigrants to the cultural identity and impact on their young children and grandchildren today. The original film Cultural Inheritance: Stories of Children and Grandchildren of Soviet Jewish Immigrants is a JUF Russian Jewish Division's Tikkun Fellowship project by Abigail Matz, funded by Genesis Philanthropy Group .
The two plays and film, under the umbrella title of The Apple Does Not Fall Far from the Tree , will run Aug. 16-26 (with both plays performed on Aug. 19 and 22) at Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston. For tickets, visit firsthandtheatrical.org .
"Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory." at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center:
Now on view at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, "Stories of Survival" -supported by a JUF Breakthrough Fund grant-includes 60 never-before-displayed personal items brought to America by survivors of the Holocaust, as well as other genocides in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Syria. Each object is showcased alongside an oversized photograph by documentarian Jim Lommasson, along with handwritten responses by survivors or their family members.
Among the many activities to take place in conjunction with this exhibit will be a Family Heirloom event on Aug. 12 from 1:30 p.m.-3 p.m. Visitors are invited to bring an heirloom object or a printed photograph of an object, and to join master storyteller Susan Stone and facilitator Amanda Friedeman who will help them create a work of art that tells a story.
The first Chicago screening of Serena Dyament's feature-length, cross-generational documentary, Nana , which retraces the Auschwitz survival story of the filmmaker's grandmother, is scheduled for Oct. 28, from 2 p.m.-4 p.m., with the filmmaker on hand for a discussion. And with a date still to be determined (in November or December), Glencoe-based Writers Theatre will present the live performance of an original play that weaves together survivor testimonies, historical elements, and the stories of some of the objects in the exhibition.
"Stories of Survival" will run through Jan. 13, 2019 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie. Call (847) 967-4800 or visit www.ilholocaustmuseum.org .
A Shayna Maidel at TimeLine Theatre:
Barbara Lebow's play, A Shayna Maidel (Yiddish for "A Pretty Girl"), was written in 1984, and has been performed often in the decades since. It will now receive a production by TimeLine Theatre, under the direction of Vanessa Stalling.
Set in New York in 1946, the play tells the story of a Jewish family from Poland that was split apart many years earlier and is only partially reunited in the wake of the Holocaust.
The back story: Some years before the Nazis first came to power, Mordechai Weiss and the younger of his two daughters, Rose (played by Bri Sudia), emigrated to the United States, leaving behind Mordechai's wife (played by Hannah Dworkin) and the couple's older daughter, Lusia (Emily Berman), who was suffering from scarlet fever. By the time these two tried to flee Poland some years later they were trapped, and while Lusia survived time in a concentration camp, her mother and best friend, Hanna, perished, with the fate of Lusia's husband, Duvid, still unknown.
All this is revealed when Lusia finally arrives in New York and encounters her wholly Americanized sister who was just four when she came to the U.S., and whose life has been so radically different. The complex relationship between the one sister who grew up in safety, and the other who went through a nightmare, is at the core of this play about family and memory.
A Shayna Maidel will run Aug. 30 - Nov. 4 at TimeLine, 615 W. Wellington Ave. For tickets call (773) 281-8463 or visit timelinetheatre.com.
Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for WTTW-TV's website and contributes to the Chicago Tonight program.