Eduard Freudmann talks about his new show, The White Elephant Archive, Setting No. 3. It will be presented in NYC at Columbia University on Thursday, February 1, with additional performances in Chicago and Los Angeles.
The White Elephant Archive, Setting No 3 explores the legacy of the Shoah from the perspective of the third generation living in Austria today. In this intensely personal, one-man production Freudmann uses his family's archive—which includes poems written by his grandfather while imprisoned in concentration camps—to explore his family's silence about the Shoah, and his own attempt to understand the burden of this legacy through art. Reflecting on the politics of commemoration in Austria, and larger questions about how to speak of a horror once its witnesses are gone or silent, this production provides a rare and important glimpse into the experience of the third generation living in Europe, and the impact of trauma across generations.
The Shoah was the elephant in the room in my own family, but even more so in the society in which I grew up. After 1945 Austrians collectively denied their responsibility in the Shoah, insisting that they were the Nazis’ first victims. But at a certain point some of the perpetrators’ and bystanders’ children began questioning this narrative, and joined forces with survivors and their descendants to publicly refute the national myth about Austria’s wartime actions. It was a small but powerful alliance. Painful debates ensued, ranging from the public forum of the national parliament to the intimacy of the family dining table, and led to a social split in the country. Today, after decades of silencing, and political, cultural and social struggle, large parts of the society accepts the nation’s responsibility for the Shoah, though there is still ignorance and a lack of responsibility among many Austrians.
My grandparents’ silence was not a means of denial but a way to deal with their trauma. However, theirs was an ambivalent silence. They wanted us to “look forward instead of backward,” but they also wanted us to know. In 1979, my grandmother began creating a family archive. She collected all sorts of documents to pass on to the next generations. When I was 12 years old I first read the poems my late grandfather had written in the concentration camps. They became important companions to me and as a young artist I started to research my family’s history. My uncle provided me with the material my grandmother had collected: a large cardboard box full of letters, biographical documents, testimonies, poems, photographs, audio and super8 recordings. My family’s history became a personal obsession that has been haunting and challenging, a treasure and a burden. Over the years I have vacillated between feeling a magnetic attraction, and a self-protective repulsion to the archive. I have conceived dozens of plans for art projects dealing with the material, but eventually I dropped all of them.
But the archive never let go of me and in 2012, when I was awarded an artist residency in Tel Aviv, I decided it was time to face its material artistically. Israel was a favorable environment for coming to terms with a challenge I had a hard time confronting in Austria. The first task was to come up with an artistic format. As an artist I like to choose a format, a medium that suits the content of a project. I have created books, installations, videos and carried out interventions in public spaces. I read a few theatre pieces my grandfather had written after returning to Vienna from the camps. He believed in theatre as a tool of political agitation. He wrote plays for the Communist theatre that were never produced. Theatre—documentary theatre, object theatre and post-dramatic theatre—became the missing link; the format to confront silence and to tell my family’s story.
The White Elephant Archive is a series of performances: the first version, Setting No. 1, was shown in 2012 at a Tel Aviv art gallery, and Setting No. 2 in an empty Jewish theater in Vienna. The White Elephant Archive, Setting No. 3 premiered at the Spinoza Theater in Budapest in 2015. The performance series is the result of a personal and artistic struggle to speak what was deemed unutterable by both my family and parts of the Austrian society. My family spoke about their experiences through documents and images because they could not bring themselves to speak directly about their trauma. Their silence was a challenge for me personally, but foreshadowed the silence we face today with the increasing absence of survivors. When documents and images are all that is left—how will this change the way we speak of the Shoah?