Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Skeleton in the Family Closet

Memory is one of the most fascinating aspects of intelligence. Animals can be trained to perform a variety of tasks from bringing in the newspaper to guiding the blind through their daily activities. As people age, short-term memory seems to diminish in strength ("Where are my keys?" "Where did I leave my glasses?") while the power of one's long-term memory can be astonishing.

Some people claim that hindsight is 20/20 but, to my mind, what happens in our dreams and our determination to investigate our past is where the real drama lies. When I was child, certain types of devices were fascinating. The electric windows on a family friend's Cadillac were a marvel of engineering. Being allowed to push the buttons in an elevator was not just a thrill, but a privilege. In a recent dream, I found myself in the elevators of my grandparents' apartment building and the building where the proud owners of that Cadillac lived. I can't imagine what sparked such images in my sleep, but I could almost smell the food cooking in the apartments opposite the elevator door.

A typical elevator door from days gone by

In today's world, old photo albums are easily digitized and shared with friends and families. One can even take home movies filmed in 8 mm or Super-8 format and have them converted to digital formats. Packets of love letters can reveal the thoughts and emotions of people from previous generations with the same sense of wonder that repressed memories can contribute to what is now known as "recovered-memory therapy."

Perhaps because of language barriers between different generations (How many people speak conversational Yiddish these days?) or past traumas, certain topics were regarded as taboo for many years. The parents of many baby boomers were often loathe to discuss the Holocaust, cancer, or homosexuality. It took years before people could even find words to talk about such issues as gender dysphoria, post traumatic stress disorder, autism, or introversion.

Arnon Goldfinger's 2011 documentary, The Flat, found its story in an event that confronts many families: having to clean out the home of a recently deceased relative. While getting rid of pots and pans requires few wrenching decisions, dealing with old photo albums, letters that have not been read in decades, and works of art that have been in the family for years can open new wounds and rub salt in old, long-forgotten ones.

In Goldfinger's case, the death of his grandmother opened a shocking can of worms. After leaving Nazi Germany in the 1930s, his grandparents settled into an apartment in Tel AvivKurt and Gerda Tuchler kept their apartment furnished very much as they had in Berlin, with bookshelves filled with German literaturefox furs, and tchotchkes that evoked memories of happier times.

Poster art for Arnon Goldfinger's documentary, The Flat

Because Goldfinger's grandparents had never discussed what happened during World War II with their children, there was a sizable information gap in the family history. Although willing to indulge her son in his research, Arnon's mother, Hannah, had no emotional attachment to a past about which she knew nothing. Even after his shocking discovery, her eagerness to delve further into the family's history was minimal. The film (and the personal investigation into his family's past that Goldfinger documents) was inspired by hints of an unsolvable mystery. As the filmmaker explains:
"My mother never told us about her childhood, her education, or the world in which she was raised. Now I know that she, too, was rarely told things by her parents. In keeping in accordance with the yekkeh [German Jew] tradition, the parent-child relationship was based on separation and distance. And this is how we were raised -- like a tree that does not even think about the importance of its roots. If my grandparents had not been so good at keeping things, there is a good chance that I would not have changed my view of their lives as superficial and dull. 'The flat' has always been there. I visited it from as far back as I can remember; the heavy European furniture, the paintings, the porcelain collectibles -– it was like a well-preserved installation from another world. But it was only after my grandmother’s death that I realized that the flat contained a treasure -– one that could illuminate the present as well as the past.

I have never gone through anyone else’s pockets, or opened up someone’s secret drawer. Moreover, I have never even opened a letter that was not addressed to me. Yet all of a sudden, and against my will, these norms of proper yekkeh etiquette melted away, and I found myself unable to relinquish even the smallest piece of paper. Forces that were stronger than me compelled me back to the many piles of papers in the hope of finding more and more information to help shed light on the connections and clues to the story that was rapidly unfolding."
Filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger

Like a deep-sea treasure hunt, what Goldfinger and his mother discovered in a box of documents was almost beyond their comprehension. First was a bunch of newspaper clippings, including a 1934 front-page article from a Nazi newspaper, Der Angriff, entitled "A Nazi Goes to Palestine." Mixed in with the clippings were some papers on which both a swastika and a Star of David had been drawn.

The article identified Leopold Von Mildenstein (a member of the Nazi Party who eventually became a senior SS officer and worked closely with Adolf Eichmann). The man who had been von Mildenstein's guide during his tour of Palestine was none other than Goldfinger's grandfather.

Goldfinger discovered that, not only were his grandparents friends with the man who gave Eichmann the idea to export Germany's Jews to Palestine, after World War II ended, the Tuchlers and von Mildensteins resumed their friendship and would often vacation together. Goldfinger's research led him to von Mildenstein's daughter, whom he interviewed on camera as they perused some of the memorabilia from her family.

The filmmaker's grandparents, Gerda and Kurt Tuchler

The Flat gives audiences a chance to watch what happens as two sets of adults unravel a past that was unknown to their families. As Goldfinger explains:
"On the surface, my film seems to be trying to find the answers to one family’s mysteries. We find ourselves in a conflict between our familial heritage and our personal identity; a conflict between forces that are pulling us forward and those who call upon us to pause and look back for a moment. It is a struggle between a yearning to understand our story of origin and the desire to get rid of all that, and to just take a blank piece of paper and write our own history. This is a film which attempts to endow your family history (even if it is not a simple history) with a meaning that is significant to you. It is also an investigative expedition into the depths of denial and forgetfulness. Yet, at the same time, it is a film about human friendship that crosses enemy lines and a love (from which you cannot shake free) for the fatherland."
As one watches The Flat it's easy to feel annoyed at the filmmaker's tenacity, astonished by his discovery, and fascinated by what happens when he arranges to meet von Mildenstein's daughter (this film is a far cry from the standard Holocaust documentary). Here's the trailer:

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Having grown up on the East Coast, most of what I heard about atrocities aimed at minorities focused on African Americans during the Civil Rights struggles and Jewish families who perished in the Holocaust. It wasn't until I moved to San Francisco in 1972 that I started to learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Cover art for Last Days of Summer

In addition to documentaries I saw at the Asian-American Film Festival (now CAAMFest) and Kevin McKeon's stage adaptation of David Guterson's 1994 novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, I was deeply moved by Steve Kluger's 1998 novel, Last Days of Summer. In her recent article on the Atlas Obscura website entitled The Art -- and Anger -- of Japanese Internment Camp Silk Screeners, Cara Giaimo described what happened to Japanese-American photographer Michiko ("Mike") Wada after graduating from the University of Redlands and heading to New York to earn his graduate degree in the 1930s.

Following President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, Wada's father (a Baptist minister) and mother (who taught at a Japanese language school) were arrested and sent to detention facilities in separate states. After returning to California, Mike was sent to an internment camp and eventually joined two sisters, his niece, nephews, and brother-in-law at Camp Amache near Granada, Colorado.
"After the war, Mike Wada went back to New York and became an engineer. By the time he died in the late 1980s, he was the Vice President of Mitsubishi Aircraft Industries. Like many people who took up creative work in the internment camps, he never silkscreened anything again. He did bring one thing with him, though: All his life he was an avid photographer.”
Mike Wada's photo of Camp Amache (Image courtesy of Mitch Homma)

This spring, as Americans mark the shameful 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 and its horrific contribution to racism in the United States, two Bay area theatre companies are staging dramas of particular interest. At Center Rep in April, Mina Morita will direct a production of Philip Kan Gotanda's play, Sisters Matsumoto (1999). Down in Berkeley, TheatreFIRST recently presented the world premiere of Beneath The Tall Tree, a poignant new drama by Adrienne Walters and Jeffrey Lo.

Lucas Brandt (Tom) and Adrienne Walters (Cass) in a
scene from Beneath The Tall Tree (Photo by: Jon Tracy)

Beneath The Tall Tree takes a fairly circuitous path toward the meat of the matter. Adrienne Walters plays Cassandra, an Asian American woman who is part Japanese. As a Yonsei, she is the fourth generation of Japanese immigrants (meaning that her great-grandparents were Issei and her parents were Nisei (second generation). As a modern, thoroughly Americanized woman, she has great affection for her grandfather Tetsuo (Sam Stark), an American-born writer who, in his late 20s or early 30s, enlisted in the United States Army to prove his patriotism during World War II.

Sam Stark delivers a beautiful performance as both the young and
the elderly Tetsuo in Beneath The Tall Tree (Photo by: Jon Tracy)

Cass's career has taken some surprising turns, which include dropping out of her musical studies and dropping out of medical school when she experienced emotional setbacks. As the play begins, she is heading off to an archaeological dig in Pompeii. "Grandpa Tets" meets her at the airport to give her a gift and wish his favorite (and only) granddaughter good luck.

Bonnie Akimoto (Professor Fowler), Adrienne Walters (Cass) and
Lucas Brandt (Tom) in a scene from Beneath The Tall Tree
(Photo by: Jon Tracy)

Upon her arrival at the excavation site, Cass meets the socially clumsy Tom (Lucas Brandt) and the formidable Professor Fowler (Bonnie Akimoto), both of whom are impressed by her determination to be accepted into the program without any previous experience. Several weeks later, after discovering a rare urn (which everyone agrees is quite remarkable for a neophyte archaeologist), Cass gets a phone call from her father informing her that Tetsuo has died following a heart attack. Although her parents urge Cass to stay in Italy, she is overwhelmed with grief and leaves for California without telling anyone where she is going. During the long trip home to Palo Alto, she has a dream in which she sees a young Tetsuo frantically trying to bury a sword in the ground. The dream makes no sense to her.

Tetsuo (Sam Stark) attempts to hide the family's samurai sword
in a scene from Beneath The Tall Tree (Photo by: Jon Tracy)

Although she should be excited about her discovery, Cass is more worried about following a pattern in her life in which every time someone who is close to her dies, she abandons her work and, feeling guilty for not having done enough, loses her way. When her best friend (Ryan) died, she was unable to help him. With Tetsuo's death, she feels the same sense of helplessness weighing her down.

Cass (Adrienne Walters) attends the funeral for her grandfather,
Tetsuo (Sam Stark), in a scene from Beneath The Tall Tree 
(Photo by: Jon Tracy)

Years ago, Cass had moved in with her grandfather after her grandmother died. Several weeks after Tetsuo's funeral, her mother brings several boxes of his personal belongings down from the attic. As Cass begins to read his diaries, she realizes that Tetsuo never talked about his experiences during World War II. When she mentions the nightmare that she had about the sword, she touches on a subject that had been buried in the family's past; a subject of great shame and remorse. Despite her mother's pleas to leave the matter alone, Cass becomes determined to find out why and where her grandfather buried the family's revered samurai sword and, if possible, to retrieve it.

Cass's mother finally relents and tells her daughter the heartbreaking story of what Tetsuo discovered when he returned home from World War II (before the rest of his family arrived back in Palo Alto). Painted in red on the wall of his best friend, Randy Okamura's, home were the words "No Japs." As Cass struggles to understand the missing chapter of her grandfather's life, she discovers an important clue which might point her to where the sword was buried.

Randy Wong-Westbrooke's unit set for Beneath The Tall Tree
(Photo by Jon Tracy)

Adrienne Walters and Jeffrey Lo have done a beautiful job of contrasting the clinical approach to an archaeological dig with Cass's passion to connect the dots in her family's missing history. With costumes by Miyuki Bierlein and a simple unit set designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke, the production has been directed with great sensitivity by Joy Carlin.

Lucas Brandt alternates between radiating nerdy clumsiness with expressing genuine concern and compassion for Cass while Bonnie Akimoto does double duty as the icy Professor Fowler and Cass's mother. While Adrienne Walters turns in a beautiful performance as Cass, the top acting honors in this production go to Sam Stark, whose portrayal of Tetsuo at various stages of his life is deeply touching.

Performances of Beneath The Tall Tree continue at the Live Oak Theatre through March 25 (click here for tickets).

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