BREAD FOR LIFE
(English translation)

January 23, 2005
DER TAGESSPIEGEL
, German National Daily,

 

 

Written by Susanne Kippenberger

He would have died for a piece of bread. That is what he often told his daughter and that is literally the way it was, he almost died for a piece of bread. He only had a crust and that fell out of the window at the camp. If the others hadn’t held him back he would have jumped the 25 meters to retrieve it from below.

It was at Theresienstadt shortly before the end of the war. The prisoners from Auschwitz had been marching for a week. He later related to his daughter how he ate grass along the way. Once she asked him if he had had to drink his own urine. Yes, he replied. The shock still remains deep within her.

Bread was his life. The parents of Sol Filler had had a bakery in Galizien. He actually wanted to become an electrical engineer but then the Nazis came and he survived in the ghetto by being a baker. In 1942 he was taken to Auschwitz where he had to shovel coal. His parents were killed, his brother, and 72 relatives in total. Sol and his brother Ben were freed in Theresienstadt. He asked for flour from the Russians and together with other German prisoners of war he baked bread with them and for them. The Russian officer who spoke Yiddish with him could not believe it! Germans?! Yes, said Filler, you are hungry, we are hungry, they are hungry. An amazing gesture of reconciliation says his daughter as she tells the story of her father.

It is her story. When Deb Filler was born in Auckland, the war had already ended nine years previously, thousands of kilometers away. After spending four years in a lager for displaced persons in Landsberg, he emigrated to New Zealand. But for his 50 year-old daughter, the Holocaust never ended. “Angst” is the name of a New Zealand film about children of Holocaust survivors. Deb Filler is one of the three main figures, all are comedians. For the showing of this film at the Jewish film festival last summer, Deb Filler came with her mother to Berlin.

During a conversation in the Schoeneberger Café, the artist talked about the book, “The History of the Jews” which has a place of honor on her bookshelf in Auckland. Her father looked at it time after time whenever he could. As a baker he would rise at 2 a.m. and retire at 8 p.m. He had no possessions of remembrance, no photo album, just his stories that connected him to his past plus this book that he often showed his daughter. This house is similar to ours, see the caps, we wore ones like those, see this young fellow, he resembles my best friend. But the most fascinating photos were those of the Holocaust. For the father it was an eternal presence. That’s why he always told his daughter to behave and never stand out. Whoever didn’t obey in Auschwitz would be killed. And this brought Deb to rebel.

The horror to be met with humor by the only Jewish New Zealand comedian in the world. One has to laugh. Her father said he would not have survived the KZ without humor. The first night in Auschwitz we laughed all night. There’s no other story of her father’s that illustrates this better than the following: at Auschwitz her father managed to obtain a raw potato that a Gestapo wanted to take away from him. He was so hungry he held the potato as tight as he could and the Gestapo beat him to a pulp. Another prisoner was laughing very hard. Outraged, her father demanded the fellow explain. It could have been worse said the man. “How?” asked Sol who was almost beaten to death. Really, explained the fellow, it could have been worse, I could have been beaten. Then Sol Filler also started to laugh.

On the stage and as well as in conversation, his daughter relates with delight these tragically funny stories, full of love and black humor. “Punch Me in the Stomach” is the name of the one-woman-show about her father and their trip together to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. Her mother did not play a role in this show, so afterwards the performer wanted to write an act about the women in the family from a woman’s perspective, from the kitchen. In a virtuoso performance Filler plays almost 30 different roles in “Filler Up”. She moans like Aunt Vippy, complains like Grandma Friedel, copying her heavy European accent, bringing the audience to laughter, tears and pondering.

Her show, written with friends and colleagues, doesn’t give an exact description of the Filler family history. She exaggerates and elaborates on the details. Half-truths says the artist. I want the truth not the exact reality. Though these are both not far apart. She did not inherit the recipe box from her grandmother, but the memories of her art of cooking are real, the Black Forest cake, the butter cake, the herring salad, all of which Deb creates today from memory.

Filler’s mother, Ruth, is a second-class Holocaust survivor as she ironically calls herself. Her family managed to leave Hildesheim for New Zealand before the Nazis rounded them up. Debbie loved visiting the grandparents, the meals there were always a feast for the living (survivors). Meals were eaten from plates from Hildesheim, stories from Europe were told and Wiener Schnitzel was served with potato salad. After our conversation in Berlin she said would be going to Einstein to eat Wiener Schnitzel and potato salad.

“We dreamed of food, we constantly talked about food, cookbooks were serious literature at our house relates the artist in “Filler Up”. In the one and a half hour show the main theme is food, you are what you eat, the obsession with food, dieting crazes to be thin. At one point she portrays her aunt as she strolls into the house, fanning her face and asking for something “cool”. “Debbie dear, give me a cold piece of chicken.”

“Filler Up” is also about surviving, says the artist, about the self and the battle with your own body. War and Peace. She ends with her own abundance. Nine pounds she weighed at birth, relates Deb Filler on stage. The pride of my mother. A fat child is a strong child. “Filler up!”

The structure of the show is encompassed by Challa bread, the baker’s daughter bakes bread on the stage. First she tried making cinnamon rolls but that didn’t work. “I need a metaphor.” So she kneads and slaps the dough as she tells the stories. She braids the dough that symbolizes her family’s relationships, everything is woven together, also the laughter and the tears. The way the bread rises in the oven, as she grows inside, that pleases her.

The baking on stage also has another purpose, the audience should start feeling hungry. The tantalizing smell of the sweet bread fills the Kreuzberger theater “Friends of the Italian Opera”, increasingly awakening the audience’s appetite. After the performance the audience grabs pieces of the warm Challa bread spread with butter while issuing sounds of contentment.

Actually her father, a slightly-built man of simple tastes, such as goulash with mashed potatoes or a can of sardines with buttered bread, was not to be included in this women’s show. Then he somehow sneaked in said the daughter. When she started with rehearsals, he was diagnosed with cancer; his dying and death then became included in the piece. And his Challa bread. The father baked hundreds of them every Friday, and they would be broken for the celebration of Sabbat that evening. It would be eaten on the weekend and toasted on Monday morning for breakfast and still tasted great.

Deb Filler got the recipe from her father on his deathbed, or rather not exactly a recipe. He didn’t know the ingredients for only a single loaf of bread. He said take a sack of flour. The passing on of a tradition from a world that had brutally destroyed life and relationships and to share that with others, that is what makes her happy. That is also what she loves when she cooks, which she does with the same passion that she eats. But not Wiener Schnitzel with potato salad, oh my God all those carbohydrates, calories, those damnable things…

At the moment, Deb Filler, who lives in Toronto, is on stage in Montreal performing “Filler Up”. But the show is not the same as it was in Berlin. Now the performance in Kreuzberg has become part of the story. To stand on the stage in Berlin and bake Challa bread – that gave her goose bumps. She says that is as if half a year later a circle has been completed. She would love to do it again.