JEREMIE BRACKA: NIUSIA explores a childhood accompanied by “a big fat elephant in striped pyjamas”.
Once, as a small child, I casually asked my Polish mother why she kept more than a dozen tubs of margarine in the fridge. She looked at me surprised, as if it were abundantly obvious why our pantries burst with super-sized produce, as though every Australian family invested in Nuttelex, and stockpiled for the looming table-spread famine. “Darlink!” she exclaimed, “Don’t you know? Where there’s butter, there’s bread!”
For as long as I can remember, my family’s arduous past hovered over us like thick slices of carrot on gefilte fish. It pricked my childhood like toothpicks in herring. This must be why Beth Patterson’s one-woman show NIUSIA was such a profoundly validating experience. It is a veritable looking glass for anyone processing inter-generational trauma.
For more than an hour, Patterson weaves childhood memories, Holocaust anecdotes, and interviews with her own psychologist mother (through a voice over) to reconcile past with present, history with personal identity.
“What does remembrance look like when all I remember is the space where questions should go?”
The space is modest, at the back of a Carlton pub. A table, a couple of chairs and a mannequin torso, a nod to her family’s shmatte business. Patterson is animated, throwing books around for dramatic effect.
She attended an Anglican school in Toorak. Her connection to Judaism is functional, she jokes. “I used Jewishness to get out of Church Mass like other girls used periods to get out of gym class.”
But she is well-versed in Lily Brett, Arnold Zable and Hannah Arendt and seems fluent in self-effacement and post-Holocaust ambivalence about Jewish identity.
Throughout the work, Patterson asks: “What does remembrance look like when all I remember is the space where questions should go?” Secrets, no-go zones, and the big fat elephant wearing striped pyjamas are in the room. They drape the stage, like the doily tablecloth covering the table behind her.
At aged seven, Patterson hears about Auschwitz and wonders why people would go to a camp to concentrate. She says she is ready to learn her stories, but she discovers only questions that she didn’t know existed and wasn’t allowed to ask. Any information is precious. Patterson delights in discovering the historical record of the ship her grandmother arrived on. “It is important to hold onto a scarce legacy.”
At the heart of the piece is her nana, Niusia, the heroic matriarch who survived Auschwitz. Her pre-war medical training enabled her to work at the camp’s hospital. She smuggled life-saving medications in her cavities to save people from dying. When caught one day, she is stripped naked and whipped.
Niusia had the dubious privilege of working under Dr Josef Mengele (notorious for his barbaric experiments on Jewish twins). In what can only be described as poetic justice, Niusia gave birth to identical twins two years after the war. Patterson delivers these tales to us warm from the oven of her heart.
Niusia is portrayed as an iconic businesswoman of her era, running dress shops across Melbourne, factories and a milk bar. She plays hardball with the landlord. She secures residency for two Polish Olympic wrestlers who stayed in her boarding house. The lady is an avalanche. Yet for Patterson, who only knew an elderly woman, her nanna was also a “bitch” flying into “dark rages”.
The show is mature enough to paint an honest portrait. It is not easy reconciling formidable survival with Jewish narcissism. “Six million died for you and you wear jeans with holes!” I know these women – these are my aunties with smiles like fists. “See that man over there, he is very smart, but what a shame about his face! Poor thing, he takes just after his mother!” Alongside caustic barbs sit fierce love and existential triumph. Niusia was first in line for German compensation. She took the money and spent it on extravagances: the best hair salons on Collins Street, platinum rings studded with diamonds and Italian high heels. Patterson extracts humour from hardship, parody from pain.
The show is theatrically sound, but it could be developed by ditching some shmultz and shtik. At one point, Patterson coaxes the audience to “Oy Vey” by “shrugging from the solar plexus.” The soundtrack includes the Schindler’s List theme song and at times, she is inaudible.
Moments before the end, we hear her sing Blue Moon, which connects to her nanna and another era. It is a poignant moment, prompting me to visit my own mother after the show. “Why didn’t you tell us more the past?” I asked her. “What’s there to say?” Mamma retorted, as she thickly buttered another slice of rye bread, and instructed me to eat from the bulging fridge.
NIUSIA is playing at The Motley Bauhaus Black Box as part of the Melbourne Fringe until October 8. Tickets here
Top photos: Beth Patterson in Niusia (Natalie Edge)