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Before Poland: Achelachl

Performance-in-progress presented at Theaterlab, New York, on August 6, 2016

The excerpt below is a script explored through letters to an imagined future daughter, named Sal.

* * * * * *

- video plays of moving sky as seen through a porthole



Dear Sal,


In a way, I am always writing you. Part of me believes what we speak in our heads gets archived in the air somewhere. And that, as limited as we are in our ability to really see, or hear, or know, if we extend a net out long enough, chances are, we will catch something.


This letter marks the beginning of a voyage.  May it provide some insight into who you are.


The first kernel that led me here requires a little reminder of our Eastern European Jewish origin, combined with a leap of faith. A few years ago an opportunity fell right into my lap as if from the sky. I was offered a trip to Prague to learn about the art scene there. I had been dying to travel, so I went. I had never been to that part of Europe, so close to from where our family had fled. I didn’t know what to expect.


- fade to roving meadow, soundtrack



While there, I was taken on an excursion to the Czech countryside near the border of Poland. I was traversing a field when I was suddenly washed over by a powerful sense of déjà vu, a memory distinctly linked to the childhood of my grandmother Rae, (may her memory be a blessing) my mother’s mother. It was something about a break or respite her family took her to, with other families, in the country… It was so close in my mind and yet I couldn’t grasp it. Was it from a story my grandmother told me decades ago? A dream? Some other kind of memory I could not explain? Could her family have been near here at some point?


My grandmother always said they were Austrian, her brothers said they were Polish. With all of them gone now (may peace be upon them) it remains unknown.


But this phantasmic cognition in the Czech countryside awakened something in me.


I returned home a little different. A little less secular. I began to crave the traditions of my Jewish ancestors. I found myself curiously drawn to Hasidic men.  Something was happening to me.



- Meadow, grandma photo overlay, shifting colors


Sal, I’d like to describe my grandmother Rae. I say this with the greatest respect: You did not want to cross her. She was a tough, outspoken woman. But she was much more than that. And she was my only living grandma, I, her only granddaughter. This was innately felt in her cool grey eyes, her impish grin, her scent of sweet lotion, her soft mushy arms just like my arms, and how she would brush her rosy cheek to mine and call me “Bubbeleh.”


For at least the last 7 years of her life, Rae’s mind started to go.


- Image fades, faint voice plays "achelachl, achelachl"


It began with all the standard confusions between names and faces, apparitions of her past.  But then, interestingly, she reverted to fluent Yiddish. And then, sometime after that, she could speak only one phrase. It sounded like Achelachl. At first, it came between words, but then it replaced words altogether. She would speak it with intention with direction. To her family, on the street, in stores. Achelachl achelachal. But on one understood.  My family wondered, does it mean something? We wanted it to be something. Achelachl achelachl.


Sal, there was no Google then. I recently tried a search and discovered some synchronicities that are coincidental but stirring nonetheless.


Image of “aCHel” Wikipedia page-


ACHels- Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. A family of medication used to treat the symptoms of dementia


- Image - The Ruins of Achelach


Ruins of Achelach - near Turinturk Great Britain. The only reference that exists is from this one person’s posting… Patrick Mackie. who asks to be credited every time the photo is used. Ruins of Achelach. I think I’ll travel there someday…


Dear Sal, I keep picturing that I am writing you from an airplane flying overseas. Just as my grandmother, long before I knew her, drafted a letter to my mother while en Route to Alaska.


- rolling image of letter with soundtrack



“Dear Bernice: Although it was so cloudy below, once we got up over the clouds it was blue and sunny and beautiful. Suddenly the thought came to me why do we have to live on the earth when its so beautiful from up here. I think some day perhaps people will live here in the cloudless sky.


After a short while, the stewardess came around selling drinks. Daddy ordered a scotch and soda, and although I had some doubts about the idea of ordering a drink so soon after taking a Dramamine, I asked for a scotch sour. The stewardess said she had never heard of a scotch sour, she knew of a whiskey sour but not scotch. I recommended that she try one the next time she ordered a drink.


Every time she saw me after that she kept saying “scotch sour” Well I settled for a scotch and soda. After that they served lunch, and what a lunch. Fruit cocktail, steak, little potatoes, carrots, salad, soft rolls, a great big cream puff, and coffee. However, by that time I kept on falling asleep and Daddy kept on telling me, wake up.”




I was 23 when Rae passed away.



- transition to shifting colors         


We were left with nothing but her things. I took almost her entire wardrobe. I had been obsessed with her style, since I was, like, 10. She was four-foot 11- I’m five foot five, but most of her clothes fit me …


her blouses, skirts, dresses, slips, coats, gloves (a little tight)

everything except those tiny shoes size 5 shoes. There were so many pairs. But I couldn’t even get my toe in.


- look down at bare feet (could wear her clothes but never walk in her shoes)


- put on beads


Since Rae was 11, she had lived tormented by the fear that her young mother, who died suddenly, had been accidentally buried alive. Even though it goes against Jewish law, it became her end-of-life request to be cremated, in order to spare her children.


-(put on head scarf)


I have this recurring dream that grandma is back - rehabilitated by doctors, able to speak again with regular words – a little out of it, tentative. My mom, my brother and I meet her for dinner, pretend that it’s normal. Each time I have the dream, I am sure that this time, it is real.


Dear Sal,


For seventeen years, I have worn and worn through my grandmother’s clothes.


I feel her. She is out there-- my little grandma jumping coordinates in time and space.


I need to place her.


It’s become my mission to find the place where she lived innocently as a child, to lie down on the earth where she played.


I have decided to do this right, and asked my mother to join me. She said yes! So its real. I am forty. Mom is 74. We have always wanted to take a trip together. You’ll be with us in spirit. 


You know, sometimes I dream of you too- you are a fully articulate baby, and you tell me how to care for you.


- Image of top half of document


Dear Sal, there has been a development. The other day, my mother uncovered this crumbling document salvaged from Rae’s things.


It took some time to decode, but there is a lot to discover here:

  1. It's in Polish.

  2. IT’S A SCHOOL REPORT CARD from 1913/1914 – when she was 8! It shows what nation it was: the former kingdom of Galicia, under the Austrian Empire.

  3. Rachela - her name in Polish. We knew Rae had changed her name from Rachel. (which sounded like Ruchel in Yiddish spoken at home). Ruchel, Rachela,..the first sounds she heard as a baby

  4. It also shows the town where she was born (point), and the town where she lived and went to school – Ropcyzce- now in Southern Poland.


Ropcyzce was home of a famous shtetl where Jews had thrived until the first World War. Based on oral history accounts, at the beginning of WWI the Austrian army brought all of the Jews from Ropcyzce to Bohemia - to protect them from the Russian army and notorious Pogroms. The final term of the school year, left blank, marks the moment of evacuation.


- Map of Galicia

Here is Galicia, Dabrowa, Ropcyzce


- Map of Bohemia and Galicia –


Here is a map from the time that shows Galicia and Bohemia in relationship to each other


- Map of current Czech Republic, with green location point


This map shows where I was when I had the deja view


– Map overlay of Bohemia and current CR


This shows that depending on the route they had taken, they really could have spent time around that area where I was.


There is something else…


– Detail, bottom of document


at the bottom of the document: the signature “Salomea Hirsch” as mother. We have discovered the name of my great grandmother, who died so soon after their arrival in New York, she was never known by anyone in my family still living.


There is much to discover.


- transition end to Achelachl sound piece, and conclude.

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