Content Warning: references to genocide and trauma
I walk into the Motley Blackbox theatre and Ella Fitzgerald’s dulcet voice greets me as I take my seat. An enormous pile of books catches my eye. There is a desk, a lace tablecloth, a couple of chairs, and piles and piles of books. Most of these are writings either by Jewish authors, about Jewish history and culture, about the Holocaust and World War II.
NIUSIA, directed by Kathryn Yates is Beth Paterson’s autobiographical story of self-discovery through an investigation into her family history, exploring her Jewish roots, and her attempt to understand her grandmother, a Polish holocaust survivor: Niusia, whom Beth remembers as an ‘angry, dying woman’. Because by understanding her grandmother, Beth will understand herself.
This is something that I relate to on a personal level.
I also come from a family where intergenerational trauma runs deep, and has been passed down from mother to daughter. Like Beth’s own family, where Jewish inheritance runs down the matrilineal line, women play a crucial part in my own. In my family, it is also the women who inherit pain and resilience. I am part of the ethnic Chinese community in Indonesia, which, similarly to the Jewish community, has experienced centuries of persecution, marginalisation and scapegoating. NIUSIA touched me even further because my own grandmother passed away recently, and I too have spent the past few years trying to understand the history of my family, through her life.
Beth speaks of a topic that is rarely understood by most people. Or at least most people who live in first-world countries. Yes, you may say that I am generalising, but in my experience, this has been the fact. It is very, very rare to find someone who understands intergenerational trauma itself, let alone its impact. But when you do find that person (or if you are really lucky, those people) who understands, you will have found yourself a beautiful community, with whom you can connect with on that rare, deeply personal level.
Through the writings of Jewish authors and thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Beth finds “a community that [she] didn’t know about”. She talks of her deep dive into her Jewish identity and history, especially the Holocaust, describing how she read “book after book” in order to learn about and more importantly understand the genocide, and what it has done to her family.
In La Mama’s show program, Paterson describes NIUSIA as “an act of confabulation”. Yes, I too had to google that term myself. It means: “FALSE MEMORIES. a problem that makes someone produce false memories about events, or the false memories themselves.”
NIUSIA’s headline for Melbourne Fringe is “How can you honour the legacy of a woman you never knew?” NIUSIA is based off of recollections, many of which aren’t even Beth’s – she interviews her mother, Niusia’s daughter Suzie, which she records and plays to the audience. It is a beautiful, and brilliant, artistic decision. It strengthens NIUSIA as a story about storytelling and remembering, about memories passed down from generation to generation. It also exhibits the collaborative essence of NIUSIA. It is a collaboration between Paterson, her creative team, and her family, including her “Jewish ancestors” from whom she not only inherits memories, but also “instincts”.
Suzie and Beth’s recollections of Niusia are often hilarious, sometimes disturbing, and at other times sad. Beth brings her grandmother to life by imitating her Polish accent, her gait and her many quirks. She imagines her grandmother making sly remarks about friends and strangers, but also relives Niusia’s trauma as a Holocaust survivor. Beth also portrays Niusia’s “black rage”, the “angry, dying woman” whom she remembers more clearly than the kind, funny, caring mother that Suzie recollects.
Paterson illustrates the complexity of victims and victimhood. The fine lines, the threads, the detail of intergenerational trauma that only a person who has experienced it themselves can ever know. NIUSIA is a courageous, hilarious, and affecting work. It is an homage to the women in Paterson’s family. To community. And to survivors.
NIUSIA showed at the Motley Bauhaus in Carlton from 2-8 October as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival 2023.