First premiering in 2008 at the tiny space that is La Mama, Hold the Pickle has been successfully presented each year in various Melbourne metropolitan venues as well as touring regional Victoria. Each time, in each venue, it has touched a chord with its audience – for many different reasons.
As the stage darkens, a woman slowly and deliberatley descends a flight of stairs. We recognise who she is, but when she starts to speak, another world comes alive. A world that strikes fear into the minds of some who still remember, and horror into those who will never experience such tragedy in their lives.
The woman we see is Rachel Berger, but the words are those of her mother, recalling what life was like in the war-torn Poland of 1942, living with her husband, both young, but somehow managing to always keep one step ahead of the Nazis.
From sorting shoes in a building that looked like a factory to hiding within a cupboard under some stairs, and living there for 13 months, we all know what possible fate lies waiting and where all the shoes came from. All the while, the mother's recall is precise, direct, without any sentimentality. It is powerful, unsettling, painful.
Out of this incredible opening monologue, Rachel emerges and the story moves along with tales and anecdotes about both her mother and father, a man who survived a bullet and an arm blown off, and a wonderful character in his own right.
The story tells of this couple's ongoing struggle to survive and their eventual migration through Austria, Germany, France and Israel, where Rachel was born, and untimately Melbourne, where the family settled. The fact that they survived is more than remarkable. What ultimately emerges is the very clear message that these two people truly loved each other – something that is touchingly acknowledged with the simple line 'he loved me too much (to leave without me)'.
Recalling life in 1960s and 70s Australia, the laughs come frequently as we discover the trials of running a Milk Bar in Spotswood, before relocating to Acland Street where the family ran a successful Deli, and where Rachel found her 'tribe' as she puts it – the many other East European Jews who settled in the area.
Rachel Berger has written a beautiful homage to her parents and to a history that still needs to be remembered, as well as revealing her own heritage which is completely captivating. She performs this with such grace and ability that it amazes audiences who have only ever seen her perform standup comedy. She knows this story and these people, and evokes them with so much humour. She delivers all their eccentricities, but always gives them great dignity.
There are moments that have you laughing out loud and then suddenly gasping as you choke back tears. Recalling her father's punishment when she stole some lollies from their store (he didn't speak to her for a year) highlights as she puts it the 'betrayal and grief' that so many felt and could not easily overcome.
But above all, we are treated to the knowledge that love is indeed all-powerful and that no matter how extremely some are made to suffer, they are, sometimes, able to overcome their past, re-build their future and live a life with some humour along the way.
The first time that I saw this performed I was deeply moved. On this, my third visit, I am still deeply moved, still amazed and still feel that this was one of the better evenings I will spend in a theatre this year.
HOLD THE PICKLE
Written & Performed by Rachel Berger
Venue: Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre, 100 St. Kilda Rd, Melbourne
Dates: 20 – 24 September, 2011
Times: Tues 7.30pm, Wed-Sat 8.00pm, Sat 2.00pm
Tickets: $40 – $55
Bookings: www.theartscentre.com.au | 1300 182 183