Memory and Silence in A Shayna Maidel
In A Shayna Maidel by Barbara Lebow, first produced in 1985, a concentration camp survivor comes to New York City, to join her father and sister. Lusia, who had become ill when her family was scheduled to leave Poland nearly twenty years earlier, remained behind with her mother. Her younger sister, Rose, or Rayzel, as she is still known to her family, had left with their father, Mordechai Weiss, and grown up in New York. The arrival of the Holocaust survivor, in 1946, bearing the signs of her ordeal, is as disruptive as it is welcome to those who have been making gradual and effortful adaptations at cultural assimilation.
Lebow's stage directions reveal how significant the form of the play itself is in suggesting the painful modulations the family undergoes:
The action of the play occurs before and after time lived in the camps. It is important that any references to life and death in the camps be filled in by the audience. There should be no visual or auditory images suggesting a concentration camp. Any temptation to play tragedy, sentiment, or melodrama, must be avoided at all costs. The characters should be perceived by actors and director simply as members of a family who cannot communicate. They do not know the Holocaust is behind them.
The displacement of focus from the Holocaust experience to the vicissitudes of the family, as it attempts to reassemble itself, serves to evoke what is concealed. The audience is asked to supply, from its own evolving storehouse of information and images, what remains unsaid about the camps. As a result, while A Shayna Maidel is in some ways as gentle and evocative as its title, Yiddish for the endearment "a pretty girl," it is also as disturbing and resonant as its subject matter demands. The Holocaust experience is unrepresented, but deeply felt in the drama.
In his book, Zakhor, the historian, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, asks: "What should we remember, what can we afford to forget, what must we forget?" (107). Lebow places such questions at the center of the play by making them intrinsic to its form. The structural reticence of A Shayna Maidel replicates the psychological distancing that often characterizes the response to trauma and the all-too-vivid memories it engenders. As Primo Levi says,