Child of Survivor seeks Catharsis through Choreography

Lisa Marielle Bleyer

This paper was delivered at the Evocation of the Holocaust in Contemporary Canadian Arts Conference, Montreal, Canada. May 4 and 5, 2000. Lisa Bleyer

Let me begin by introducing myself. My name is Lisa Bleyer. I am the daughter of Stephen Bleyer who was a Holocaust survivor and a former president of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. I live in New York. I was a dancer and choreographer for many years and I currently work as a social worker.

Several weeks after I had agreed to take part in this symposium I spoke with Loren Lerner on the phone. I hemmed and hawed, not really saying anything but trying to find some good reason why I shouldn't be involved. Loren's response went right to the crux of the matter. She said:" don't feel that you have to give a personal testimony". What a relief! She talked about the other angles I could take: the educational aspects of the piece, and how this piece fits into my work as a whole. That was just what I needed to hear. I was reassured. I felt I could move forward. Then, as I began to think about this piece, my one Holocaust piece and the very first piece I ever made, I realized that it was nothing if not extremely personal. I saw that no matter what angle I took the core, the essence of this piece was emotion and feelings ... my feelings. There was no getting around it.

In 1994 I attended a sort of self-help group for children of survivors. I was looking for a common experience, a shared feeling that one can sometimes find in just such a group. I only went once. It was not the right group for me. Most of the members had been meeting together for a while, they were all older than me, and to my surprise they were all angry. They talked of childhoods that had left them bitter and angry at their parents. I did not fit in.

My father never hid the fact that he had been in a concentration camp. Certainly the tattoo he had on his arm could not escape the curiosity of a child. My brother and I both knew. On the other hand the information that my father relayed to us was highly filtered, probably whatever he felt was enough for a child to absorb. Between his filter and my own what I actually absorbed about his experience was quite little. For example I remember light-hearted comments about eating nothing but sawdust. I thought about it often but I never felt that I had to appreciate the food on my plate or savor every bite because of what he went through. I knew, and yet I considered my childhood perfectly normal and happy. Both my mother and my father were loving, generous, wonderful parents. I did not grow up with any shadow of the Holocaust looming over me. I guess that was their intention.

However life is never just black or white. As the social worker in me looks back at that time, I can't help but wonder about all the nightmares I had as a child and consider some connection.

Anyhow my life progressed. I was around 20 years old and I was in Boston getting my bachelor's degree in dance. At the same time my father, here in Montreal, decided it was time to "come out" so to speak, to tell his story unfiltered. One of his first public interviews was for a high school project. This launched what soon became a kind of second career for him as he gradually took on more and more speaking engagements and eventually became quite a public figure focusing his message on social justice, goodwill and the value of freedom. It was an important step in his life and we, who have heard him speak, have benefited greatly. But getting back to that interview. He sent me a copy. It was my first glimpse at what his experience had really been. It would be an understatement to say that I was shocked. From that interview I learned details of my father's past which literally took my breath away, made me feel so sick with grief that I thought I would go crazy.

So what did I do? I made a dance. It was my first attempt at choreography. I had no idea what I was doing but I couldn't talk about how I was feeling and I knew I needed an outlet. It was what I needed to do in order to go on with my life. I never really thought of it as a Holocaust piece. It grew out of one moment in my father's story which grabbed my heart and squeezed it so hard that I felt like I was screaming inside and I couldn't stop.

My father was 13 years old when he ended up at Auschwitz. In that interview he described standing in front of the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele. All the people arriving off the trains were being separated into two lines: the men in one line, the women in another. He was only 13. Of course he wanted to stay with his mother. But his mother must have sensed something and she told him to stand with the men. That was the last time he saw her and the first of several times that his life was saved.

That one moment became so huge in my mind. I couldn't imagine the terror and the agony but mostly the strength of this woman. I couldn't face it. And then I realized that this woman was my grandmother. She had always been my father's mother in my eyes, connected to him rather than to me, and suddenly she was MY grandmother. My feeling of loss was overwhelming. So that is where the piece grew from. I called it : "Forbidden Life".

The piece is basically a duet, with a group. It is about two people who love each other very much, they are thrown into a terrible place and forced apart. I remember feeling very strongly that I did not want to be literal and I spoke at length to the dancers about trying to convey an emotion not an event. I was dealing with the emotional experience of a forced separation of any two people attached by some deep bond. As a counterpoint to the intensity and emotion of the duet I used a group. Who or what the group is open to a number of interpretations: It represents people so stripped of their freedom and individuality that they lose the ability to feel. It is also like a machine that cannot feel, that just moves forward on its path of destruction, sucking up whoever gets in its way. It is lots of different voices that no one will ever hear. But when push comes to shove, the group exists mainly because I felt that these two people were not alone, in every sense of the word. That's the beauty of being the artist/creator, you can make one image mean lots of different things at once. The final element in the piece is the guard. His part is small. I wanted someone who could throw the dancers on and carry them off, to highlight the lack of control. He is dressed like everyone else, a prisoner doing a job to save his own life. He represents some of the inhumanity of the situation. The structure of the dance has the duet in the foreground, the two dancers moving apart and together, not wanting to let go and yet trying to say it all, their fears, their love. The group slowly advances snaking across the stage, gradually moving forward, closing the space for the duet, taking away their freedom. And then all of a sudden one of the two dancers is in the group. There is no buildup. It just happens. And she disappears.

My idea for the final image of the piece came from Michelangelo's Creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When I was growing up there was a small print hanging in our home, a close up of the two hands. I loved that image. It spoke volumes to me. It was powerful and gentle, two hands dying to touch. So when the dance ends the group is gone, the two dancers are left alone. Their hands reach for each other but do not touch. The stage goes dark except for a light on their hands.

Choosing music can sometimes be an agonizing process. However in this case, once the idea for the piece existed, I immediately knew the music I wanted to use. I'm not sure why. I didn't question my conviction. I just went with it. Had I known that Albinoni's Adagio in g minor was an overused choice for dance music, I probably would have stayed away from it. But my ignorance allowed me to assume ownership.

The process of making this dance was a great learning experience. Just dealing with the logistics of using twelve dancers is a huge undertaking for a first time choreographer (some would say madness), not to mention the emotional output needed to draw them all into my psyche. When the piece was performed for the first time in 1986, the dancers were all very excited to know that my father was coming to see it and that this was my first attempt at expressing my feelings to him. The performance was extremely charged. When the piece ended there was not a dry eye either on stage or in the audience.

The title I chose for this talk: Child of Survivor seeks Catharsis through Choreography is significant in that I was seeking catharsis, I didn't necessarily achieve it. I didn't get rid of my nightmares and it wasn't any easier for me to talk about this stuff in the years to come. However, I did find the outlet that I needed at that moment and I was able to express some part of my feelings to my father. I raised some peoples' awareness, they learned and gained insight from being part of my story.

Although the Holocaust was the subject of my first piece, I am not an artist who uses the Holocaust as a theme. What I learned from it was that the nonverbal expression of dance and choreography suited me just fine. So I went on to make dances that helped me to express many different parts of myself. I have not made another dance that deals with the Holocaust directly but I would be fooling myself to say that it is not a part of my work. It is a part of me and therefore it is in my work, whether I choose to see it or not.

The interesting thing for me, watching the video some 15 years later, is that I see a piece that is not about two people being wrenched apart, not about the loss of a loved one, or about individuals lost in a faceless feelingless group. I see a piece about me, broken, trying to absorb the information, trying to make sense of the senseless.

I'm going to end with a quote from my father's interview. This quote was printed as a program note when the piece was performed. I wanted there to be some words attached to this wordless piece. And I wanted to leave people with a message of hope.

So I leave you with my father's words:

"I always had hope -- without hope I would not have survived.  It was not a hope based on reality -- it was a myth that became reality."


Born in 1965 in Montreal, Canada, Lisa Marielle Bleyer is a second
generation survivor. Her father Stephen Bleyer was born in Hungary and
was 14 when he was liberated from Auschwitz. He came to Canada in August 1951.
Ms. Bleyer began studying ballet and modern dance at a young age and
eventually completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance from The Boston
Conservatory in 1987. She then moved to New York City where she worked as
a modern dancer and choreographer performing locally and internationally.

In 1996 she received a master's degree in social work from Hunter College and
began a new career as a social worker. She now lives in Brooklyn, NY with
her husband and two daughters.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.