Sometimes I think I became a performer so I could tell this story,” says Lisa Kron. “In a way, it’s the central story of my experience.”
Those who know Kron’s work as a comic raconteur and member of that irreverent troupe of sapphic satirists The Five Lesbian Brothers might be surprised to find that her “central story” addresses the Holocaust. But that’s where she goes in 2.5 Minute Ride, currently at The Public Theater. Kron’s grandparents died at Auschwitz after managing to get her father, who was then 15, out of Germany on one of the Kindertransports. By turns poignant and hilarious, Kron’s monologue is about her own need to relate to this legacy —and the impossibility of comprehending it.
Early in the ’90s, she and her father visited his hometown in Germany and then went to Auschwitz together. “Somewhere I’d been intending to do that my whole life, thinking that some kind of completion would happen,” she says. But instead, it was just the beginning. Kron enlisted Mary Patierno of Dyke TV to help her make a video about her father’s life. They did some talking-head interviews and filmed the family on its annual excursion to an Ohio amusement park where Kron’s father rides roller coasters. Eighteen hours of tape later, Kron found the footage disturbing and realized that the History Channel approach was just a way for her to avoid her own “emotional burden.”
“I could never figure out how to talk about my father with any kind of integrity by just telling stories he told me,” says Kron. “They were too mythologized.” So she focuses on what she’s witnessed firsthand—her own experiences accompanying her father to Auschwitz and to the amusement park, along with other slightly surreal family adventures.
The program for 2.5 Minute Ride includes a picture of a roller coaster, a good metaphor for the monologue’s tragic/comic mood swings, and superimposed on it is this quote: “The first time a story is told, it’s fact. The second time, it’s fiction.”
With the Holocaust now more than 50 years past, a second generation has taken up the task of bearing witness to the unspeakable. This has given us one humble masterpiece, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but it’s also led to the wildly popular revisionism of Life Is Beautiful. “At the end of Life Is Beautiful,” Kron observes, “they say, ‘We won,’ and I think, ‘What did you win?’ There’s this desire to believe that it’s over, that everybody was fine at the end.” That’s the inevitable falsification of reality that goes hand in glove with sentimentality.
Kron cites Maus as one of her favorite pieces of Holocaust literature because it does just the opposite, despite the fact that it’s a comic book. Spiegelman tells the story of his parents’ survival in Auschwitz, framed by his own struggle to record the story from his incredibly irritating father. “What Spiegelman gets at is that it didn’t end,” Kron observes. “These people were a mess, many of them. We all know children of survivors whose parents were seriously wrecked by this experience, and it was passed on to their children.”
Kron feels she needs to address the fact that “when you do a show about the Holocaust, the audience doesn’t just hear what you’re saying” because they’ve already seen so many powerful images of it. She assumes we’ve seen Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List and the PBS documentaries, and therefore, “I don’t need to describe this to you.” She keeps showing us “slides” that are blank patches of light. She says she wants us to be aware of the Holocaust image bank in our heads. Because even something as evil as genocide can become a mere set of clichés that prevent people from reacting emotionally.
Yet, despite all the images and words, there’s a real limit to what can be articulated about an atrocity. Kron begins to describe the cliché piles of shoes and hair she sees upon her arrival at Auschwitz. Feelings of sorrow and rage seem almost banal, and that too is sad and enraging. So Kron can’t really come to grips with what happened to her grandparents. “Will we step on their ashes? Is that my grandmother’s hair?” The problem is that every prisoner gassed at Auschwitz lost his or her identity, and no survivor who shows up at the ovens can reconstitute it. For a moment, Kron rolls right up to the edge of bathos here, then pulls back. There’s nothing to be done.
The life in this piece comes from her connection with her father, a voluble, legally blind, diabetic 77-year-old retired lawyer with an odd passion for the wildest of roller coasters. The words “death-defying” come to mind. But the truly amazing thing about Kron’s father is his unwillingness —actually his complete inability—to see himself as a victim. He would often tell his family the story of a boy in his hometown named Lohmann, the other boy who did not join the Hitler Youth. Kron’s father couldn’t join when he was a boy because he was Jewish, but Lohmann had refused because he thought it was wrong, and both boys were regularly beaten. Kron’s father had often wondered if he would have had the courage to be Lohmann. He’d say, “I was lucky to be a Jew.”
Kron says that from her father’s point of view, if you don’t look at genocide that way, you haven’t learned anything: “We say, ‘Never forget,’ but what are you remembering if what you come away with is, good people are victims and bad people hurt them.” Her point is that if you make it that simple, there’s no way to keep it from happening again. The Nazis, after all, were the champions of making things simple. “I’m disturbed so often by what I see in Holocaust museums, which are all about pushing peoplebuttons and allowing them to feel this moral outrage without challenging them. I don’t think many of us are prepared to raise our voices and go against the crowd. Yet we can look at the Holocaust and convince ourselves that we would have.
At its best, the work of the second generation can add shades of gray. Kron’s piece seeks to rescue the Shoah from sentimentality, but not from humor. And, like Maus, it is very much about her bond with her father. Spiegelman, for all his rage, is clearly bonded with his.
It’s bonding around a story and the need to keep it alive. Kron’s father seems to be aware of this unspoken agenda. He has seen 2.5 Minute Ride and his critical assessment is: “Nice eulogy, but I’m not dead yet.” Still, she thinks he’s relieved that the story has now become public.
This week, Kron has taken a few days off from performing to go to Germany once again with her father. It’s the 1275th anniversary of his hometown. “They’re having a week of reconciliation, a commemoration for the Jewish population that’s left,” she says. She hadn’t wanted to go since it conflicted with her run. But then she called her father to say so, and he responded with a disappointed “Oh boy.”
“It was like a dagger in my heart,” says Kron. “It became clear to me that he was horribly disappointed, and in thinking about that, I realized that my function in his life is to be the person who creates human connections with his past.”
2.5 Minute Ride has been extended through May 9 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street.