Frontline Art: The Theatre of Resistance
Sonia is waiting. Her cheeks are rouged, her face powdered. She is neatly dressed, well presented. She is 95 years old, in aged care. It is March 2015. After the death, two years ago, of her partner, Pinche Wiener, she was transferred to the dementia ward. Although she’s not sure who she is waiting for, she is far from demented. She is the Sonia Lizaron I have known for more than three decades: unassuming, dignified and, for the most part, tranquil.
On the wall is the cover of Sonia’s record of Yiddish songs, In Freyd un Umet: ‘In Joy and Sorrow’. Her face adorns the cover. Her complexion is olive, her features fine and angular. The photo was taken in 1966. She is in her prime, radiant. Beside the cover hang two portraits of Sonia, one painted in Paris, the other in New York, and beside them, glued to the wall with blue-tac, are Sonia’s colouring-in drawings—a tree, a bird and the traced outline of her hand and wrist, encircled by an orange bangle. On a coffee table stands a vase of roses, and on the dresser, two prewar photos of Sonia’s mother, Lisa—in one she sits beside her two young children, her son Genek and daughter Sonia.
The dementia ward is located in the basement. A window opens out into a courtyard. There are plants, and there is light. A Shostakovich string quartet is playing on ABC Classic FM. Sonia closes her eyes and sways to the music. The courtyard is enclosed on each side by multiple storeys. It appears hemmed in, claustrophobic.
Sonia is not affected. She knows how to wait. She possesses infinite patience. She developed long ago the ability to dismiss thoughts that are disturbing, or, perhaps, to conceal them. There are questions she deflects, places she no longer ventures. She knows how to endure while in a state of prolonged transience. There was a time when she had no choice but to endure. She has mastered the art of the moment.
When I enter she hesitates. She searches my face for recognition. Then lights up: Arelle der narelle, she says. Aron the little fool. We converse in Yiddish. In recent years she has moved back in time through her languages from English to French, back to Russian and Polish, and finally Yiddish: mamme loschen, the mother tongue. She slips into each language as into a tailored glove. ‘How are you? I ask. ‘Hanging in there,’ she replies. It is her ritual response. She sings: Vos geven, is geven, un nishto.
‘What was, once was, and is no more’—but it remains extraordinary. Sonia lived an epic life, but did not often speak about it, save the recurring stories and anecdotes she told me over the years, and her comments on an album of photos. I have drawn on many sources to do her life justice. Eli Wiesel has said, there are stories meant to be told, and not to tell them would be to betray them. This is one such story.
Sonia Lizaron was born Sonia Boczkowska in Lodz on 1 May 1919. Her father, Aron Boczkowski, was an accountant in a textile factory. Both her father and her mother Liza were active members of the Jewish Labour Bund. Prewar Lodz was a vibrant centre of Yiddish culture. Sonia imbibed the Bund ideals of Yiddishkayt, a secular humanism driven by a yearning for social justice. At its heart was Yiddish—an earthy language of the people.
Sonia attended a Yiddish primary and high school. In her youth she trained with theatre director and poet Moyshe Broderson, the founder of the Kleynkunst theatre Ararat, an acronym for the Artistic Revolutionary Revue-Theatre. Kleynkunst, literally ‘small art’, is the art of Yiddish cabaret, and Broderson was one of its leading exponents. A man about town, with long black hair and Pushkin-style sideburns, Broderson wore a black shirt, affecting the demeanor of a Russian worker. He wore amber and coral necklaces, and rings on each finger. In the prewar years he was at the heart of Yiddish culture in Lodz, a vibrant centre of Yiddish literature and theatre in Poland.
Sonia’s mother died of cancer before the war. After the Nazis occupied Lodz, Sonia was deported with her father, Aron, and brother, Genek, to the Bedzin ghetto, in Upper Silesia, territory annexed by the Germans. In Bedzin, Aron and Genek were herded with fellow inmates into a train bound for Auschwitz.
Sonia told me this extraordinary tale: Although not selected for deportation, she hurried to the station to join her brother and father. She could not bear the thought of separating from them, despite the objections of Alfred Rossner, the German factory manager in whose textile workshop Sonia worked and received protection. Rossner came to the station, located her, knocked her out, and took her back to the workshop. Aron and Genek perished. Sonia was one of many Jews whom Rossner saved from deportation. He was executed by the Gestapo in 1943. Sonia spoke often of his goodness.
Sonia did not waste her reprieve. In the Bedzin ghetto she met Sami Feder, and joined his ghetto theatre and music ensemble, Muze. Sami Feder was to play a big role in Sonia’s life. Born in Poland in 1906, he was an accomplished director of theatre and cabaret. He received his training in Frankfurt-am-Main and Berlin. In 1927 he joined the Berlin Jewish Theatre Studio under innovative Austrian theatre director Max Reinhardt.
Feder’s mentors included German producer Erwin Piscator and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose productions sought to confront audiences with issues of social injustice and exploitation—and to challenge them to take action. They focused on political content, and strove for detachment over an appeal to the emotions. Inspired by his mentors, Feder worked as an actor and writer, and co-published the Yiddish weekly Die Neue Zeit. He was active in the Berlin Actors Union and founded the Yiddish Cultural Labourers theatre ensemble.
With the beginning of Nazi rule in 1933, Feder went into hiding and fled to Poland. He made his way to Warsaw and warned his fellow Yiddish writers of the murderous intent of Nazism. Disillusioned by their complacent response, he established the Orpheus Yiddish Labourers Theatre and rehearsed them in a space in the Warsaw Circus.
Sami Feder defined his prewar Polish-based theatre as ‘careful art’, masking its subversive intent with entertainment. He drew on his years of training in political theatre to co-write, with Shmuel Volman, and direct Hitleriada, a satire on the Führer. In the Berlin tradition that nurtured him, Feder saw theatre as a craft at the service of higher ends. He inserted anti-Nazi texts between popular cabaret acts, and renamed the play There Is Nothing New under the Sun, as another means of deflecting attention. As the Germans tightened their grip on power, Feder walked a tightrope in increasingly perilous times. While he aimed to warn audiences of the dangers of Nazism, he wanted to survive and avoid arrest in order to continue his subversive practice.
When Germany invaded and occupied Poland, Feder was interned. Hence began, as he calls it in his aptly titled memoir, My Life: Through Twelve Portals of Hell. He was imprisoned in a succession of ghettos, forced labour camps, and concentration camps. Wherever he found himself Feder sought out acting talent, formed theatre ensembles, and directed programs of songs, skits and scenarios that highlighted the plight of his fellow inmates, while seeking to lift their spirits.
Through necessity he continued his practice of ‘careful art’ in Bedzin ghetto, disguising his intent by playing on Jewish stereotypes to appease his German captors. His audiences of Yiddish-speaking inmates understood his ruse. As conditions deteriorated, and as the deportations to death camps gathered pace, his caution gave way to what he was to define as ‘Frontline Art’ and, as a title of another memoir of his has it, the art of the ‘Clenched Fist’.
Sonia was drawn to Feder’s energy and vision, and became a key member of his Bedzin ghetto ensemble. His ideals of theatre were perfectly suited to Sonia’s Bund upbringing. Her skills in Yiddish cabaret allowed her to assume a leading role in his productions. She sang, recited poems and performed texts written by Feder, and by her friend Sophie Shpiglman, who was later murdered in Auschwitz.
The ensemble met with opposition from the Bedzin Judenrat, whose leaders saw it as having a negative influence on the ghetto population. Feder persisted. Theatre was a form of cultural resistance, an act of defiance—performed openly if possible or, when need be, in secret, in crowded barracks transformed into performance spaces. Feder drew on memory to re-create prewar Yiddish theatre classics, alongside original scripts reflecting the immediate predicament of ghetto inmates.
Of the thirty thousand inmates in the Bedzin ghetto, two thousand survived. The ghetto was liquidated in 1943. Feder continued his journey through his 12 portals of hell, while Sonia was deported to the slave labour camp Annaberg, then to Mauthausen concentration camp and finally, in January 1945, to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. Here, despite the squalor, the mass starvation, the imminent threat of death through illness and murder, she sang for her fellow inmates.
Sonia was among the thousands of inmates liberated in Bergen-Belsen by British troops on 15 April 1945. They were shocked at the scenes that met them. They came upon men, women and children shrunken to skin and bone, expiring of typhus, tuberculosis and dysentery. Thousands of naked corpses lay scattered about the camp. Exhausted inmates infested with lice lay on bare boards in squalid compounds, unable to move even at the sight of their liberators. Thirty thousand died within reach of freedom. Fourteen thousand were to die in the first weeks after liberation.
Perhaps Sonia was among the newly liberated women who raided the quarters where the SS women kept their make up. The women applied powder and lipstick to their gaunt faces in order to regain a sense of womanhood. I never heard her speak of this period.
The British military administration burnt the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and set up a Displaced Persons camp in the former officers quarters, two kilometres distant. Sonia Boczkowska, as she was still known, was reunited with Sami Feder, and joined him as a key member of the Bergen-Belsen DP camp’s Jewish Central Committee. She collaborated with Feder and others in creating a culture department, and in July, midsummer, three months after liberation, she helped him found a camp-based theatre ensemble.
In one of the few stories she told me about the theatre, she said she rode a bicycle round the DP camp in search of people with theatre skills, and invited them to join the newly formed ensemble; she cycled over long distances in a camp that held many thousands.
Sonia Boczkowska joined Sami Feder, stage designer Berl Friedler and his wife, choreographer and dancer Dolly Kotz, as a key member of the theatre. Feder was the driving force. His charisma, experience and clarity of vision generated energy and commitment. His theatre art had been forged in the furnace of a brutal genocide. Initially called Di Dramatishe Studye, The Drama Studio, the ensemble was renamed the Katzet Theatre, the Concentration Camp theatre, in homage to the actors who had performed in the camps and ghettos. Many lost their lives. Of that period Feder writes:
Our theatre was born in the night hours after days of starvation and suffering … In the end, we transmuted our hope into theatre. Our strength was only in our hearts and feelings—we had nothing: no pencil, no paper …When the Gestapo dogs gave us time, we moved tables together and set to work. Then we forgot that we were in a concentration camp. From mattresses we extracted ties, we created drops. We made up our faces with ash from burnt matches. Thus it began … As gratitude from the audience we received cigarette butts, which were the highest tribute.
As the director of a postwar Displaced Persons camp theatre, Feder’s purpose shifted. The theatre served as a drama school to harness and upgrade the acting skills of amateurs, and focused on retrieving a prewar eastern European culture that had been all but annihilated. It also sought to document, and confront, the horrors the actors and their camp audience had so recently endured. ‘Our duty’, proclaimed its banners, ‘is to spread light and culture.’
Sonia joined Sami Feder in gathering stories of the ghettos and concentration camps. She went from bed to bed in the camp hospital and collected testimonies from survivors, which Feder drew upon in writing original texts. She retrieved and sang Yiddish songs so that they could be written down and adapted for performance. The songs were compiled by Sami Feder and his collaborators in Zamlung fun Katzet un Ghetto Lieder—Anthology of Songs and Poems from the Ghettos and Concentration Camps, published in 1946.
The anthology is illustrated with black-ink drawings—scenes of hangings, leather-booted men wielding whips, beatings and killings. On the cover is a watercolour of a skeletal figure—kneeling, with bound hands reaching up towards a burning cloud—engulfed by leaping flames and entwined in barbed wire. Many of the works were written by unknown authors, a handful by well-known poets. The works are a collective cry of despair and torment. They are pervaded by a sense of betrayal and abandonment. Mothers weep for their lost children, inmates lament the murder of their mothers and fathers, and the annihilation of entire communities. The crimes are made explicit—the slave labour, the deportations, the mass disposal of corpses in crematoria.
A good number of these works were woven into the performances of the Katzet Theatre. The premiere was staged on 6 September 1945. Sonia was a key performer: as singer, reciter of poems and lead actress. Three thousand inmates crowded into a ‘theatre tent’ that could accommodate one thousand. Thinking a mass demonstration was underway, British officers called for tanks. The tent was located beside a cemetery in which were buried thousands of survivors, who had died from the effects of their imprisonment in the months after their liberation. The performers did not portray themselves as victims. They were not bowed by their experiences, and they did not shy away from representing their trauma and suffering. Journalist Marian Zhid, who attended the first performance, reported in the journal Freiheit:
They played it as written: with tears and blood, with … self-sacrifice and love. They had no need to play-act their roles; they had lived them in the reality of Nazi camps, ghettos, and forests, pursued like homeless dogs. This was a new universe, a new theatrical reality. They pulled me with them into a valley of tears, death, mud, and illness … and a minute later they lifted me up to their hopes and dreams. Never was there such art in the history of our theatre.
As Zhid claims, this was a new theatrical reality. The performances, inevitably, moved beyond Brecht’s theories about emotional distance. Given the horrors of the recent past, it could not be otherwise. The boundaries between performer and listener vanished. The synergy between them was electric. The members of the audience registered their instant recognition. Their responses were immediate and visceral, the impact cathartic.
Joseph Wolhandler, an American relief worker who witnessed Katzet Theatre performances, wrote in the New York Times in 1946: ‘At the finale there never is applause, just significant and painful silence that hangs over the theatre … an audience of over 3000 burst into hysterical sobbing throughout the production.’ He observes that the ensemble provided ‘emotional release … it has assumed a unique role—the role of the healer, the physician’. He describes Sonia Boczkowska, in performance, reciting, Feder’s poem ‘Ikh bin a shotn’, ‘I am a shadow’: ‘Like a shadow I lie on my bed … I am a shadow upon the world, existing in a dream, everything that was, everything that I once knew is gone, mutilated, burned … I cannot cry
The work grapples with themes of profound loss, expressions of hatred and rage for the murderers, loss of faith and belief, and confessions of shame and guilt: ‘I have even forgotten the smile of my murdered child.’ It cries out for revenge and retributive justice for the perpetrators: ‘I will confront them with the weeping of children / the moans of mothers and fathers / the grinding of teeth / the screams of girls who have been violated / then poisoned and burnt / They have made of me a shadow / but with every shadow I will haunt them / day and night.’
The words, and Sonia’s intense performance, spoke directly to the audience. The poem reflects the internal conflicts that plagued many survivors at that critical moment, a time of transience and transition, an interlude between their recent suffering and an indeterminate future.
The members of the Katzet Theatre recognised the gravity of their task. In a group photo they appear as one—21 members are pictured huddled against each other in striped prison clothes. They are tightly knit, interwoven, bonded. Their faces are earnest, confronting, ghostly almost. They gaze directly at the viewer. As performers, and in their very being, they mirrored the state of their audiences.
In their initial performances the Katzet Theatre rotated two programs in cabaret format—sketches, scenarios, songs, poems and dance representing the recent horrors of the Nazi death network. The items ranged from depictions of the brutal round-ups, the first attacks, and acts of intimidation, to scenes of ghetto uprisings, partisan sabotage, espionage and daring rescues. A dance choreographed and performed by Dolly Kotz, in front of a black flag with a Nazi insignia, depicted the pain of mothers.
The programs included works of renowned prewar Yiddish authors, linking the audience to the time before, when Yiddish culture was at its zenith and theatres drew mass audiences. Now an abyss separated the time before from the time after. Retrieving and restaging these works was an act of renewal. It provided a bridge to the past and helped assuage an aching nostalgia—in the deepest sense of the word: Nostos, the return, algia, pain, hence, literally, ‘the pain of longing for the return’.
Sonia Boczkowska was well versed in the Yiddish theatre genre known as ‘word concerts’, involving the recital of literary works. She sings ‘Eins, Zwei, Drei’, a song reflecting upon life’s fluctuating fortunes—couples whirling, the wheels turning from youth to ageing, mirroring life’s eternal riddle: ‘Do you know what it is?’ She joins the ensemble in performing Mordechai Gebirtig’s prescient prewar hymn ‘Es brent’: ‘It’s burning / Brothers it’s burning / Our impoverished shtetl is burning’—a song that moves from anger at the townsfolk’s passive reaction, to calls for resistance. And most powerfully, the ensemble performs the partisan hymn ‘Zog nisht keynmol’, ‘Never Say’, written just 29 months earlier by the young poet Hirsh Glik in the Vilna ghetto: ‘Never say you are on your last way / when blue skies are concealed by clouds of grey / the hour you have longed for is surely near / with our steps we will proclaim, we are here.’
The Katzet Theatre employed the symbolism of Nazi persecution—SS insignias, the swastika, striped prison garb—in its costume designs, stage sets and flyers. In a photo I first saw in Sonia’s personal album, she is seen reciting Yiddish poet Moshe Shulstein’s ‘Shikh vun Maidanek’. Dressed in a black gown, intertwined with a broad-sleeved, prison-striped blouse, a large yellow Star of David pinned to her chest, she performs in front of a backdrop depicting a dense pyramid of shoes:
Hear the shuffle of shoes left behind—that which remained
From small, from large, from each and every one
Make way for the rows—for the pairs—
For the generations—for the years
The shoe army—it moves and moves
We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses …
The Katzet Theatre added two more shows to their repertoire—Feder’s adaptations of two plays written by one of the most loved of Yiddish writers, Sholem Aleichem: Zvei hundert toisent, der groiser gevins, ‘Two hundred thousand, the big win’, and Der farkishefter schneider, ‘The Enchanted Tailor’. These works made an explicit link to the time before, enhanced by Feder’s interweaving of popular prewar Yiddish songs and folk melodies. The sets and costumes re-created a lost world of townsfolk dressed in shtetl garb. The plays appealed to the camp audiences’ yearning for familiarity and continuity. Thereafter the Katzet Theatre rotated the four programs in six-monthly cycles.
In the summer of 1947 the theatre toured DP camps in Germany. They embarked on a European tour and performed in France and Belgium. Wherever they appeared they were greeted with great emotion by audiences who had recently emerged from their harrowing experiences. When the tour ended the theatre was disbanded, despite efforts to keep it going. The plans to tour America were never realised. The material was too confronting. Relief agencies were concerned with more immediate needs. And many of the performers wanted to move on, to find normality.
Sonia and Sami Feder married and settled in Paris. They remained absorbed in theatre and in their community of fellow refugees and survivors. Sonia studied humanities at the Sorbonne, and moved in progressive circles—in later years she spoke of her friendships with Edith Piaf and Jean-Paul Sartre. She performed with the Yiddish Art Theatre. Gerard Frydman, an actor with the troupe, describes the years following liberation in Paris as a period of euphoria for the Yiddish theatre.
In 1950 Sonia and composer Henekh Kon toured a concert of Yiddish song in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany. They performed in Bergen-Belsen, in the final months before the DP camp was disbanded. Kon described Sonia’s voice as a ‘beautiful mezzo soprano’. There was a hunger to resume life, to re-create the rich repertoire of Yiddish culture, and Sonia was at the heart of it.
Sonia and Sami Feder separated in 1962. Feder moved to Israel, Sonia settled in New York. She never spoke of the reasons for separation. She changed her name to Sonia Lizaron, and never returned to Boczkowska. She continued her career as a singer of Yiddish song, and performed internationally, including occasional concerts in Melbourne. Her LP record In Joy and Sorrow, backed by an orchestra conducted by Alexander Tarski, enhanced her reputation as an interpreter of Yiddish song.
Listening to the record, I am impressed by Sonia’s skill, her expressive voice, its range, and the drama she brings to each song. Sonia had performed many of the songs in the programs of the Katzet Theatre. But she could not survive on her singing alone. She started a new career as a computer programmer at a time when computers were the size of a room. Sonia was over 40 at the time, adjusting to a new language, a new home and new skills.
She was shedding her past. She sought out ways to deal with her wartime memories. She spent many months in an ashram in India, and credited meditation with helping her temper the burden of her trauma. She ceased openly dwelling upon the horrors, bar those seminal stories she returned to—such as the tale of Rossner, the man who saved her life, and of the bicycle trip in which she gathered performers for the troupe. She moved ever more firmly in the present. A curtain was being drawn over the past, the horror confined to and ritualised in remembrance evenings at which she continued to sing and recite.
Sonia became well known in New York theatre circles, and befriended writers and artists, including Nobel Prize–winning Yiddish author I.B. Singer. She told me that she had observed one of his methods of writing in his New York apartment. Singer would randomly draw out several characters from a filing system and bring them together in a story.
In the 1980s Sonia rekindled her friendship with Pinche Wiener. She had first met the Wiener brothers, Bono and Pinche, in the Bund primary school she attended in prewar Lodz. They shared a childhood map, mutual memories. Barely out of his teens when herded into the Lodz ghetto, Bono became a leader in the ghetto underground. A charismatic, larger-than-life figure, Bono emerged from the Holocaust as a fierce survivor, a builder of institutions, and was one of the founders of Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre.
Pinche had served in the Polish army and spent the war years in the Soviet Union, initially as a prisoner of the Soviets in the city of Lvov, and then as a slave labourer in the Arctic Circle. When the brothers were reunited at war’s end, they vowed never to separate. They emigrated to Australia in 1950 and after a stint as contract labourers in Perth and Adelaide, settled in Melbourne. Their home in the bayside suburb of Elwood was a centre of political and cultural discussion, the walls and shelves crowded with artworks, books, artefacts from their extensive travels. The Wiener brothers lived life with a passion.
Sonia fitted in perfectly. She too maintained a passion for culture and friendship. She moved with Pinche into the Wiener brothers’ Elwood house, but kept her flat in New York, dividing her time between Melbourne and New York, where she lived independently for up to six months of the year. As she aged, Sonia wound up her affairs in New York and moved in permanently with Pinche.
It was in her Elwood home in the 1980s that my friendship with Sonia flourished. After my son Alexander was born in 1993, she assumed the role of surrogate grandmother, and Pinche that of surrogate grandfather. Alexander loved the evenings spent with them in their Elwood home. He was drawn to Pinche’s impolite jokes and his belligerent ways: ‘Your father is a no-good bastard’—and was nourished by Sonia’s unconditional love. The couple marked Alexander’s growing height with a pencil on the kitchen door.
When Alexander developed an interest in Klezmer music and the clarinet, Sonia insisted on buying him a good-quality instrument. She came with us to the music store to choose it. Sonia would ring and always leave the message, ‘Well, let’s hear some news.’ She moved with Pinche to the Gary Smorgan House as they both reached their nineties.
There is a deeper story to Sonia and who she was. Since her death I have thought of her often—listened to her music as I have driven around the city. I have learnt more about her through many sources. Much has been written in recent years about the Katzet Theatre and much is revealed in Sami Feder’s diaries and memoirs.
Yes, Sonia was a modest woman. She never big-noted her achievements, but she remained fiercely determined. She lived a creative life in a dominant male culture. While she lived with powerful, loving but domineering men such as Sami Feder and Pinche Wiener, Sonia quietly maintained her sense of dignity, her self-possession.
In New York Sonia lived in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment. I have an image of her climbing and descending the four storeys day after day, mornings, afternoons and back into the city at night to perform, to meet friends, to go out to theatres and the cinema—Sonia going solo, finding her own way, through necessity. She created a new identity as Sonia Lizaron, combining the first names of her mother Liza and father Aron. It was a perfect stage name, an expression of her deep love of her mamushka and tatushka, but also a statement of independence.
She continued to perform community concerts into her seventies, and sang often for the elderly at Melbourne’s Kadimah Yiddish cultural centre’s Wednesday club. She joined the group of volunteers restoring and cataloguing Yiddish books in the Kadimah library and, in this understated way, resumed her commitment to cultural retrieval.
Sonia was much loved in her final years by staff in the Gary Smorgan House and attended concerts and functions where she sang along. She had the devoted support of her dear friends Sheila and her daughter Susan. And she kept her own space. Sonia commanded space. When fellow residents wandered into her room from the corridor, Sonia would order them out. These were among the rare times when she flared up in anger.
Her final room was her kingdom, her retreat. In the ghettos and camps, the boundaries between private and public were all but non-existent. In her final years, obliged to live in community care, Sonia moved between the two domains, the public and private, while guarding her own space fiercely. When she joined in community activities or sat at the dining-room table, she maintained her composure; and whenever we visited, my partner Dora and I, she was waiting, ready to receive us. I’d ask, ‘How are you? ‘Hanging in there,’ she invariably replied.
Sonia hung in there even as she was no longer eating. After she died, on 21 August 2015, as we sat by her body, late into the night in that final room, Susan made a profound observation. Sonia had been there before, she said. Her body could cope with hunger and deprivation. She was reliving the memory of her survival in the camps, the months of starvation in Bergen-Belsen. The memory was in her body.
As too was the trace of a time when time stood still—that hiatus between past and present—when Bergen-Belsen was transformed into a DP camp. At this time and in that space there flourished a certain kind of loving. On one of my visits to Sonia in her final year, I showed her a photo of Sami Feder. She responded: ‘Yes. I know him. Sami. He was my husband.’ We can never know what drove the couple apart, or together, but there is a clue in the anthology of poems and songs Feder published in Bergen-Belsen. His poem ‘I am a shadow’ is dedicated to Mein khaverte Sonia—a matonne. ‘To my comrade, Sonia—a gift’. Sonia recited the poem many times in the programs of the Katzet Theatre.
In this fraught interlude Sami and Sonia were of one voice, a couple reunited—and united in a common purpose. As they waited in the shadows, alongside thousands of fellow survivors, the couple, and their collaborators, gave personal and collective voice to their mutual suffering, through their artistry. They were uncompromising in their expressions of grief and rage, and emotionally open in articulating their pining for murdered loved ones. Sami and Sonia cast light in the shadows as they found their way back to life: fists clenched in defiance. Frontline artists.
Sonia’s most enduring love remained poetry and song. She retained the lyrics of many songs: Russian, Polish, French, English and Yiddish. They remained her principal means of communication. This was how we communicated best in the final years. We often sat together in comfortable silence. At a mention of France, she would sing a Parisian song. And so it was with the other languages. One line of Yiddish song, and she would take it up and find her way to the words, the melody.
One poem stands out, ‘Eybik’ by the Yiddish poet H. Leivik. Eternity: a poem about endurance, a reflection on human brutality and terror, driven by a determination to not be intimidated by it. Whenever I quoted a line, Sonia would recite the entire poem. This is how it was, weeks before she died. The first verse, as do all five searing verses, contained images that mirrored her lifelong journey towards stoic acceptance:
Di velt nemt mikh arum mit stekhike hent,
Un trogt mikh tsum feyer, un trogt mikh tsum shayter—
Ikh bren un ikh bren un ikh ver nit farbrent,
Ikh heib zikh oif vider un shpan avek veiter
The world embraces me with barbed hands,
And carries me to the fire, and to the pyre;
I burn and I burn, but am not consumed,
I lift myself up, and again stride onwards.
In all the years I knew her, I never saw Sonia cry. She maintained a vigil against painful memory. She was resolute. The closest she allowed herself to come to tears was in a gesture: she would close her fists and brush the back of the knuckles across her closed eyes. Then she’d reopen her eyes and return to full, attentive presence. Ikh heib zikh oif vider un shpan avek veiter: I lift myself up and again stride onwards. She practised the art of the clenched fist till the end—in her own quiet way. She concealed the past in her closed hands.
Each song in her one and only record displays a different facet of her repertoire. Sonia performs folk songs, traditional songs, love songs, humourous songs and several songs by Mordechai Gebirtig, the folk artist who perished in the Krakow ghetto.
The song that most characterises Sonia’s love of art and verse, her playful spirit and independence is ‘Einzam’. Solitude, written by the Yiddish troubadour Itzkhak Manger. In her expressive mezzo soprano, the opening lines lines come to express the deepest of human cravings—to be understood: ‘No-one knows what I say / no-one knows what I wish.’ The final lines, as rendered by Sonia, hold to the mystery, while hinting at acceptance: ‘I put on my capulusz / And go on my way / Where does one go late at night / in solitude, alone?’
Sonia Lizaron forged her own path—in solitude, in the most daring sense—in a coming to terms with life’s fragility, its extreme injustices, its brutalities. Yet, despite it all, somehow, with the spirit intact, she was able to endure, to love, and to live with grace and kindness.
In writing and researching Sonia Lizaron’s story, I have drawn on my many conversations with her over the years; on extracts from the memoirs and postwar theatre diary of Sami Feder; and on the work of researchers who, in recent years have documented the history of the Katzet Theatre. They include Zlata Zaretsky, who met Sami Feder in his final years and has documented his story; Sophie Fetthauer, who has written of the Katzet Theatre, and who alerted me to Feder’s diary and to several of the specific quotes I have drawn on here; and the generous Brazil-based researcher and theatre performer Leslie Marko, who sent me primary sources, and who has recently completed a doctorate on the Katzet Theatre.