19 actors, 3 characters, 50 letters and Millions of Kisses

By May 6, 2014

Theatre & Dance. Leeds.

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Theatre Company Blah Blah Blah specialise in making theatre for, and with, children and young people. The Company works in a participative way allowing them to invite the audience to step into the story.

Their first production of 2014, Millions of Kisses told a new story for Holocaust Memorial Day. Working with Leeds University and Escape Contemporary Youth Theatre, the production was based on more than fifty letters sent during the Second World War and told the fascinating but agonising story of a Jewish family split between two countries.

Producer & Writer, Anthony Haddon, tells State of the Arts how the idea developed, and how the story brought him a little closer to home than he’d first imagined.

On Sunday January 26th, Theatre Company Blah Blah Blah presented Millions of Kisses, a fifteen-minute performance at Leeds Town Hall for Holocaust Memorial Day.

In this context the word ‘Millions’ is usually associated with the murder of six million Jewish people, but for us it represented the millions of kisses sent in letters between a Jewish mother, her daughter and niece. The letters tell a very simple story. 19 year old Helga Lubranczyk managed to escape the increasingly repressive Nazi regime in Berlin and arrived in England in January 1939. Between her arrival and 1942 she received a constant stream of letters and postcards from her mother Elsbeth and Steffi, her 14 year old cousin: both still living in Berlin. The correspondence came to an abrupt end in 1942. In 1946 Helga sent a letter to Elsbeth and Steffi begging for news of their survival. The letter was returned to Helga who later discovered both were transported to Auschwitz in 1943: neither of them survived.

Elsbeth & Steffi (around 1939)

Finding a story, with Leeds University

Dealing with fragments of stories and piecing together a coherent narrative from a jumble of old, archived documents is the specialism of academics. It was in the company of Doctor Helen Finch from the Department of German at Leeds University that I first came across the letters. We set ourselves the task of finding a Holocaust story in the Liddle Collection at the University, an archive of First and Second World War documents all unpublished and donated by ordinary people with a connection to Leeds. We gave ourselves two hours to make our choice. I was struggling to work through the huge list of war correspondence, memoirs, interviews and photographs, when Helen found the letters – a needle in a haystack. I was immediately attracted to these letters: they captured a moment in time, written by people who did not know what the future was going to hold and had not imagined a Holocaust. I found the sudden break in correspondence very dramatic but was unsure whether any of this could make a good piece of theatre. Little did we know that this story was about to be told by someone else in Leeds.

Our next hurdle was translating the letters from German into English (fortunately there were short descriptions of what had been written in each letter, which gave me a good idea of which to translate). The Department of German played a vital role in supporting this project and Helen brought in PhD student Claire Jones, to help on translations. Reading a description of a letter is one thing but being able to read the translated words brought me closer to these people. As the outbreak of war approached, the letters from her mother changed in tone from concern for Helga’s welfare to urgent demands that Helga should find a way to get them out:

Letter 5th April 1940 from Elsbeth to Helga

“I have to ask myself sometimes if it wouldn’t be better to just stop relying on you. Do you not want to know – or didn’t you know – that I’m not allowed to work here anymore. What’s happening here? I hope that you’re no longer so young and inexperienced to see that something must happen now. Until now I’ve always taken you into consideration and made sure that you had a secure footing in life and now it’s your turn to support us. Show me please that your love for us is real and not just empty words”. [Written August 11th 1939]

That’s a large responsibility for a 19 year-old girl to bear and at the same time trying to make a new life in England; a country which is preparing to go to war with the one she once thought of as her home. In contrast the letters from her cousin Steffi read like this:

“It’s all over with the young lad I met at the tram stop. He reckons he’s so cute! I’m glad to be rid of him, as the only good thing about him was that I could go to the cinema lots and cheaply. He wasn’t really a great catch”

Steffi fills her letters to “Sweet little Helga – Mousey” with news about boys, losing weight, boys, arguments with Mother, boys, hair styles and boys always treading on her toes in the dance classes because they just can’t get the hang of the easy dance steps! Two very different letters and yet both her mother and her cousin would often sign off with 1000000’s of kisses.

Closer to home

Helen applied to the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association (HSFA) for permission to photocopy letters from the archive and we got more than we bargained for in response. The HSFA put us in direct contact with Helga’s son Barry who lives and works in Leeds. He not only gave us permission to use the letters, but was also able to fill in some of the gaps in the story. His Mother died in 2003 and it was then that Barry came across the box full of letters that she had kept but not shared with her family. Helga had tried to cover her past by saying she came from Bern in Switzerland. However, as Barry mentioned, she did not actively hide her past, she just didn’t talk about it and he didn’t think to ask.  Helga must have felt some sort of failure at not being able to get her relatives out of Berlin. Naturally, after seeing the letters, Barry had so many questions.

Developing the characters

This is an untold story from the Holocaust which shines a light on two more individuals, hidden in that anonymous statistic of six million. The young people from Escape Contemporary Youth Theatre based in Leeds took on the challenge of portraying the characters in this story and helped me to find a form in which we could present the content of these letters to an audience for the very first time.

Finding the letters

Helga's Last Letter

Helga’s Last Letter

Simon Brewis, Director of Escape CYT, guided this group through several devised productions and was keen for them to have the experience of handling sensitive material. I was really impressed with the thoughtfulness and inventiveness that they brought to filling in the gaps in the story – and there are a lot of gaps. We spent a long time answering questions that we would have wanted to ask Helga at the point of her first letter in 1946.

Going back

Barry recently made the journey to Berlin with his wife and eldest daughter to find the apartment where his grandmother Elsbeth lived with Steffi in Martin Luther Strasse. They went to lay two brass plates the size of cobblestones in the pavement outside: one for Steffi and one for Elsbeth (below). There are brass plates laid into pavements across Germany and spreading into the rest of Europe, marking the places where Jewish people once lived or worked before being transported to concentration camps. The plates are part of an expanding artwork called “Stolperstein” which literally translates as “stumble upon stone”.

Gold plates

Gold plates

Barry has now put together a story of his family, which is available for bookings through the HSFA. He is very supportive of our project and is looking forward to seeing our group of nineteen teenagers tell a story with just three main characters: and all women!

The Theatre Co. Blah Blah Blah is supported by Leeds City Council and Arts Council England

Thanks to: Professor Stuart Taberner and Peter Freeth, Leeds University, Dave Murray, Musician at Leeds College of Music and Emma Williams Designer, Sadie Smith Translator HMD production team at the Town Hall.


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