Santa’s Story is the compelling tale of singer Aviva Pelham’s mother, who survived the Holocaust and years of persecution before landing in South Africa – only to find poignant parallels in the racial hatred here. Review by LESLEY STONES.
On the way home the words of an old pop song were looping through my head: “I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man.”
The tune was nothing like the traditional Jewish and European songs I’d just listened to in Santa’s Story, but they were the most fitting words after what I had just seen.
Santa’s Story isn’t some jolly fairytale about Christmas; it’s about two decades of horror for the Jews in Europe. Yet despite the dreadful memories revived on stage, it’s a captivating and often humorous tale focusing on Santa Pelham, an ordinary woman who lived an extraordinary life.
Santa’s daughter is opera singer Aviva Pelham, who co-wrote the autobiography and poignantly plays the role of her mother in this one-woman show.
It’s a traumatic tale, to be sure, and made me realise that the persecution of the Jews in German didn’t begin with the war, but was already going strong throughout the 1930s. The family was hounded from Germany into Spain, then hounded from one war zone to another as a hatred for Jews not only blazed from the Nazis, but from ordinary citizens too, and spread like a cancer across Europe.
For me the most striking line came near the end, when Santa said: “Hitler didn’t have his way.” Yet the frightening thing was seeing how his insane fury against another race had cascaded down to poison the thoughts of everyone. The similarities with xenophobia in South Africa are remarkable – ordinary people can be turned so easily by a bit of hardship and angry rhetoric to inflame blind fury with unspeakable results.
Santa’s Story also shows how not all the whites who washed up in South Africa came to pillage, plunder and subjugate. Santa came for safety, driven out of Europe and willing to marry a stranger in another land as a lifeline.
Sombre issues of starvation and isolation, the separation of families and the loss of her parents and brother to the death camps are recounted vividly by Pelham in a perfect pitch of sorrow and hope, stoicism and resignation. Her voice is beautiful as she sings songs from the different times in different countries, in German, Spanish, French, Yiddish, Hebrew and English, while a screen translates the words so none of the impact is lost.
She’s backed by Matthew Reid on clarinet, Petri Salonen on violin and Nicky Jansen on the accordion, a melancholy-looking trio that occasionally adds some lighter touches before the tale becomes too sad to bear.
Director Janice Honeyman also helped to craft the script, which was drawn together from some original taped memoirs augmented by impeccable research. The stage set features a few chairs that Pelham moves between as she recalls the rich history of her mother, a feisty woman whose life was dictated by the actions of others but saved by her own reactions to the unbelievable brutality inflicted on a nation.
Santa is 94 now, but walked on stage to take a bow and sing along with her daughter. It’s an emotional evening, and – sadly – quite perfect for South Africa today, as this nation also turns on itself with racism, misogyny, crime and violence. DM
* Santa’s Story runs at Sandton’s Old Mutual Theatre on the Square until February 17.
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall