'Holocaust Remembrance Day Is Also My Father’s Day'

Acclaimed ‘Shoah’ documentarian Claude Lanzmann refused to admit that Israeli artist Sara Siegel was his daughter. In her new show at the Israel Festival, she explores her personal history

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Sara Siegel. 'I feel as though I’ve always known, and my knowledge simply became increasingly complex.'
Sara Siegel. 'I feel as though I’ve always known, and my knowledge simply became increasingly complex.'Credit: Emil Salman
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir

The first thing Sara Siegel does in her new show is stand behind a camera placed at center stage, surrounded by a sort of living room full of furniture. She begins to hum a song and points the camera at the audience, pausing on this face and that. Next to her, a TV set on a chair displays what Siegel shoots.

At a certain point, she pauses on the face of a random man and sits on the chair next to the TV. She tells the man on the screen about herself, about the dental teeth problems in her family, about the video of her from age three that her mother lost.

'He offered to pay for the abortion, and when he realized that she was planning to keep me he told her: ‘You won’t give birth to a genius like me, you know.’'

But whom is she speaking to? Who is the man in the crowd whose image is projected on the screen supposed to replace? Siegel calls this scene “A Date.” But perhaps the “date” hides another figure: Siegel’s biological father, to the best of her knowledge, who denied his paternity to his death – French director Claude Lanzmann, one of the greatest documentarians in history, and the man responsible for the documentary masterpiece “Shoah.”

“For anyone who doesn’t have a father, it’s the same, because she doesn’t have him. It doesn’t really matter who he is,” says Siegel. “He is mainly – in the show, too – constantly present because of his absence. And I have this thing that it’s a story – a story I’m currently exploiting to appear in Haaretz. I feel OK doing it now, because it’s not thanks to him that I’m at the Israel Festival and I want people to come see my art. All this man left me is the story – he gave me nothing in this life, only the story. So I use this story when I want. It’s my story.

Siegel, 31, a graduate of the School of Visual Theater in Jerusalem, grew up and lived in Israel’s capital all her life. Our conversation takes place in her home on Agrippas Street. A giant window overlooks the neighborhood’s alleys, and it is hard to take one’s eyes off of it. Siegel knows this window better than any other in the world. Until three and a half years ago, her grandmother Marcella – her nonna – lived in this apartment. The window was her favorite corner.

When Marcella got cancer, Siegel and her mother moved into the house to nurse her. After her death, Siegel remained in the apartment, which is now transposed to the stage in the show NONNA, centered around the three women. Her mother sits in the audience, performs in the piece, and helped produce the show, and Nonna’s voice emanates from one of the screens.

In addition, her dog, Nora, also wanders freely on the stage. The furniture on the stage is taken from Nonna’s actual living room. It won’t be returning to the apartment on Agrippas – Siegel is taking the opportunity to give them away. We hold our conversation on a relatively new sofa, the first piece of furniture she bought for herself.

Marcella’s story of survival as a Holocaust survivor from Italy is threaded throughout the show, with parallels to the story of Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” “That’s how I imagined her as a child: Running away from home, arriving in the woods and joining the partisans, and walking and walking and walking, and all sorts of terrible and scary things happen to her along the way, and she just wants to go back home,” Siegel explains.

She says that the show is “among other things, about what is left after a person passes. The furniture remains, my memories of her remain, my memories of her memories remain, the testimony remains, the documentation remains, the trauma remains, the demons remain.”

After the “date” that opens the show, Siegel lip-syncs a filmed monologue by her mothe, Dvora, taken when she was 31 herself. Then she holds conversations with the recordings of her grandmother. Various characters in the show, which includes over 20 participants – act out the recordings and react to the videos, some of which come from archives and some of which are taped during the show. The whole thing spins out of control and settles back down when a magician pretends to saw Siegel in half. After Siegel is revealed to be whole and well, she grabs the magician’s hat and launches a monologue:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this hat is empty. Even if I tap on it or shake it, nothing comes out.” At this point, she turns to the man with whom she had the “date”: “How is your eyesight, reasonably good? Come take a look at this hat, please tell me if it’s empty. Empty, right? Great, so the gentleman here confirms that this hat is empty, and just for the sake of protocol – I didn’t tell you to say that, right? Again, we’re not friends, we weren’t together in high school, the army, we didn’t date, we didn’t exchange saliva. You don’t know me, I don’t know you.

“Are you willing to just declare before this entire audience that you and I never had sexual relations, whether protected or unprotected? You have no obligation to me, as they say; we aren’t married, we don’t have a joint bank account, or a shared home, or a child who is ours, whom you don’t know and you don’t acknowledge, right? Great.”

Siegel during a performance of 'NONNA.'Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

This monologue alludes to the father who refused to acknowledge Siegel until his death in France in 2018 at the age of 92. She tried to contact him several times, over the years unsuccessfully. She used to add her name to his Wikipedia entry in English, but as long as he was alive, her name was erased time after time. Since Lanzmann’s death, her name has remained there.

In most of the articles published about him after his death, she went unmentioned. When he was alive, she sued him in France to prove his paternity, but his lawyers dragged out the trial until his death. Now it is no longer possible to verify the DNA. “A Jew can’t be removed from his grave,” says Siegel. “We’ll let him rest. He did good things, too.”

The man in the brown envelope

Siegel’s mother met Lanzmann when she was working at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. He came to the Israeli premiere of “Shoah.” She was in the audience. So was Grandma Nonna. “At the end of the film Nonna approached Lanzmann, hugged and kissed him and thanked him for what he had done,” says Siegel. “She didn’t know that shortly afterward he would throw her daughter down the stairs when she told him that she was pregnant with his child.”

The affair began shortly afterwards. They used to meet when he was in Jerusalem or when she visited Paris. About a year after she filmed the monologue that appears in “NONNA,” she became pregnant and decided to tell him. “She thought there would be a conversation, and he simply turned his back on her,” says Siegel.

“He offered to pay for the abortion, and when he realized that she was planning to keep me he told her: ‘You won’t give birth to a genius like me, you know.’ He treated her like a pesky mosquito, like nothing. And then she said, “ OK, if I’m nothing, then you’re nothing, either.’”

How were you told this story?

“I feel as though I’ve always known, and my knowledge simply became increasingly complex. As a child in kindergarten I remember that someone would say something about his father, and I would say, ‘I have no father, I have a biological father.’ I didn’t even know what ‘biological’ meant, but I felt that it was actually cool – not just a father, but a biological father. And I remember that there was a brown envelope into which my mother would put newspaper clippings of articles about him and pictures of him, and when I wanted to look, I had a brown envelope that was that man. Only when I began to enter the world of art and film did I take an interest in who he was on an artistic level.”

Siegel’s mother tried to contact Lanzmann after her daughter was born, but he once again shook her off. “She did it so I would have something, but he simply came to her with a battery of lawyers and scared her and threatened her,” Siegel says. “They called her names, treated her in a shocking manner.

“Very soon, when she realized that it was harming her mothering, she set it aside, and raised me to believe that I don’t need him,” she says. “That’s the type of education I received. I don’t need anyone. But she never hid anything from me and whatever I wanted to know, she told me. In my art, too, when I want to talk about it I can talk about it. In my head there’s her story and there’s my story. And it’s not the same.”

Siegel also tried to speak to Lanzmann herself. “Every few years he would come to Jerusalem, and it never entered my mind to go to see him,” she says. “When I was 20, he came again, and I was sitting in the audience, and he went onstage while talking on the phone, and to every question he was asked he simply said, ‘It’s a stupid question.’ That was the first time I saw this person. I told myself, ‘I don’t want to approach that man,’ and I returned home.

“A few years later, when he was already older than 90, he came to Israel again, and I realized that it was probably the last time. I went to the Cinematheque and waited outside the theater. He came out and I approached him. At first he thought that it was a fan, and then I said to him, ‘Hi Claude, I’m Sara, I’m Dvora’s daughter, and yours.’ And then his expression simply changed, he muttered something to himself, and simply continued walking.

“Now, I didn’t think that he would say, ‘Ah! Hi, let’s talk!’ But he shows up, and it’s my city, it’s my home, and the arrogance of coming here and being sure that I won’t approach him and won’t embarrass him. I wanted to show up suddenly, I don’t know whether I’m entirely happy about that, because why did I do it? But I wanted him to look me in the eye, I wanted him to see me, and I wanted him to think that I’m pretty.”

Why was that important to you?

“I knew he was a womanizer and I fantasized that someday he would approach me, hit on me, and then I would tell him that it wasn’t a good idea to hit on his daughter. Something like that. It didn’t happen. But when he passed me in the Cinematheque, I shed tears of a kind I hadn’t known before. I’m very emotionally divorced from this story, but tears came that hadn’t even passed through my mind, they simply came – like a child who is hurt and the tears come – because it’s insulting. It’s simply insulting, that a person rejects you and doesn’t even acknowledge your existence.”

Do you blame him for anything?

“I don’t blame him. Had he been in my life, that probably wouldn’t have done me any good.”

From your knowledge of the persona?

“Everyone knows who that man is. I listen to interviews with him and how he talks about art, and suddenly I feel, ‘Ah, maybe it’s somewhat similar.”

Are you looking for similarities between you?

“Yes, yes.”

And do you find any?

“Yes, and I also find very different things.”

And a physical resemblance?

“When I was a child I resembled him, children look like their fathers when they’re young.”

Her ‘Shoah’

In April, Siegel mounted a performance art show called “566 Minutes,” which has to do with her father. In the performance, she walks on a treadmill while watching “Shoah.” “Performance is an activity that connects my two Holocaust heritages,” she wrote at the time. “One heritage is the fact that I’m the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, who raised me along with my mother … The second heritage is the fact that I’m the biological daughter of Claude Lanzmann, creator of the film ‘Shoah.’ Lanzmann never acknowledged my existence. In return, I never watched the entire film.”

Now, she is able to say what she thinks of it. “Wow, that film, there are things there that everyone must see, and my friends saw the film thanks to me, which is funny. On the other hand, in my opinion it’s too long,” she says and bursts out laughing. “But if it weren’t nine and a half hours long it wouldn’t be ‘Shoah – the Film.”

Do you think that your interest in the Holocaust can be profound even without him?

“Yes, I’m totally second generation. But there’s another layer, that Holocaust Remembrance Day is also my Father’s Day. Every Remembrance Day, I remember him too.” She laughs once again. “It’s strange, it’s simply a weird story.”

Sometimes such bizarre things happen to us that it feels as though they didn’t really happen.

שרה סיגל צועדת על ההליכון בפרפורמנס "566 דקות". שתי ירושות שואה

“But that really didn’t happen to me. Nothing happened to me.”

What happened to you is that he was never there.

“But does who isn’t there matter?”

Maybe it does, because not only do you know who he is, you have access to his art, to his films. You have something to hold onto.

“True. I have a complex relationship with him. I’m kind of proud,” she says. “I feel that in moments when I lack confidence, I call him up. In a bad way, sort of. I remember that in my first year of studies, I made a film and a performance that were very well-received, and suddenly I felt that I had a responsibility to do another good thing, but I lacked confidence. So I said OK, I’ll use Claude.’ And I made a film that I called ‘My Shoah.’

“I did more or less what he did – I collected testimony from my mother and my grandmother, both about the Holocaust and about the story with him. One of the teachers said to me, ‘What a mistake you made – you wasted your ace card now.’ But it’s not my ace card, and the best thing I’ve done is the film about my grandmother” – the short and lovely documentary “Still Here”. “She was the best grandmother in the world. And the fact that I’m now appearing in the Israel Festival is in no way connected to him.”

Siegel found her way to the Israel Festival thanks to her preoccupation with her nuclear family and the blurring between reality and art, which she does in almost all her works. The artistic directors of the festival, Michal Vaknin and Itay Mautner, viewed her work and gave her the stage – not something done lightly for an artist who has just completed her studies.

“This is a work that began in the School of Visual Theater, with lots of people participating in the project, and not only performers, and it’s an exciting gamble that Itay and Michal took,” says Siegel, and gives a special thanks to her mother. “Everyone thinks that their mother is the best mother in the world, but she really is. And she’s right alongside me on this. She not only cooperates, she’s also the creator – she’s with me, she’s behind me, she’s in front of me, she’s on the sides. A psychologist would say that the way I grew up isn’t healthy, I think.”

Why?

“Because there was a very symbiotic connection, and whenever my mother and Nonna fought, I felt bad. I would get up at night and force my mother to run and check whether [my grandparents] were breathing. They were totally my entire world.”

Siegel says that until the death of her grandfather – “Nonno” – when she was 12, he was her father figure. And when he died, she first felt the lack of a father. At the same time, the relationship between her mother and her grandmother became tense. “After Nonno died, the dynamic between them became harder and Nonna became more and more extreme. There was one summer vacation when I didn’t leave the house.

“A family doctor referred me to a psychologist, and things became clear to me there,” she says. “Suddenly, I discovered that the way they brought me up was wrong, that it was screwed-up, that it was too mixed-up, that I had responsibility that I shouldn’t have had, and for two years of therapy [the therapist] distanced me from those two women. I hated them, and that made me sick. She didn’t understand that to cut me off from them was to leave me with nothing. I started to suffer from eating disorders.

“At some point, I woke up and left the therapy and returned to being who I am, but that took years. That business of what’s normal and how things are supposed to be – in art, I reached a place where this symbiosis, and the things that seemed screwed up and unhealthy to me, are the most beautiful things I have to show the world.”

But the journey she has to take until the beauty reached the stage is also painful and traumatic. “I’m not saving anything for the next project – I’m doing this work as though I’m going to die tomorrow,” she says. “That’s how I was during my studies. I feel that death is very present all the time.

“Claude would also say during his interviews that he was obsessive about death. My grandmother was obsessive about death, and I feel that even with this project – I can’t explain it exactly, but I couldn’t really begin to work on it until I was ready to die. I’m at the start of my career and don’t know many things. Honestly, I’m not sure that this is what I should do in life, because I arrive at such difficult places and situations.”

So this might be your final project?

“I don’t have much of a plan B. What would I do? I’ve already tried studying psychology, I did four years out of three,” she laughs. “And I finished without a degree.”

On the subject of psychology, she recalls something that disturbed her during the period of her studies. “Every psychological illness we learned about, the list of risk factors always included ‘the father’s elderly sperm.’ And I’m like that, there’s no sperm older than mine. On the other hand, they also say that the older the sperm, the more beautiful are the people who are born.”

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