by Frannie Sheridan
Frannie contacted me a few weeks ago in response to Marc Stevens’ very dramatic story, “The German Jew Who Bombed Berlin” When she told me hers, I had to add it to this collection because we all share the same elements in our families of origin: fear, shame, family secrets, discovery and learning to adjust to our own new reality. Yet every story is unique.
I grew up in a picture postcard perfect family…or so I thought. My six siblings and I lived in a nice middle-class largely Christian neighborhood in Ottawa, Canada. My lovely German mother wore her blue-black hair atop her head in Rita Hayworth-style rolls, my brilliant Viennese father was an eye surgeon with two practices, and we went to St. Basil’s church every Sunday, religiously.
I was born in 1961, baptized, then confirmed, and given first communion. I have four names: Frances Rose Mary Sheridan, and I attended Catholic elementary school.
When I was nine, my father slipped up at the dinner table and said something about “…a Jewish…” So I asked him what “a-Jewish” was, and he responded “It’s not a-Jewish, it’s just Jewish…it’s a religion, a culture. It’s what we were…what we are. But many people hate Jews and would happily kill you and all of us! So we are Catholic. That is what you tell people. End of story!”
In an instant my Mickey and Minnie Mouse imagination flooded with demons, and I felt something was very wrong with us. With me! Why else would people want to murder us if they found out who we really were?
From that point on, every day and at night, when post-traumatic stress disorder would rob his ability to sleep, my father began to obsessively tell me Holocaust stories. Instead of playing or having cozy dreams, I was hearing about what the Nazis had done to him and his family, and to my mother and her family.
My father had experienced anti-Semitism in Vienna from the time he was a schoolboy, and was regularly beaten by classmates and forced to crawl home through the gutter. One of the boys in his class, a gentile named Erich Haider, often tried to protect him
The day after Hitler took Austria, in 1938, my father went home to look for his parents, Jocheved and Josef Sigal, but his parents weren’t anywhere to be found. After walking the streets for hours searching for them, he saw his old school friend, Erich Haider, wearing the arm band of the SS. My father’s heart leapt; Had Eric officially joined the SS? Will he shoot me?
Erich took my father into an alleyway, showed him his name on the death list, and warned him to get out of Austria immediately. He also told my father that his parents had been taken away in a truck the day before. So that night, my father crawled across the bridge which connects Austria to Switzerland, as bullets whizzed inches from his head. He then made it to France where he was rescued by a French priest, Pere Goison, who hid him in his seminary. He tried to get him to convert, but my father responded; “I don’t change my religion as easily as I change my shirt!”
My father told me that in 1951, when he and my mother were still orthodox Jews and their last name was still Sigal, he was establishing his first medical practice in a small prairie town called Morse, Saskatchewan. A jealous anti-Semitic doctor and his wife burst into my father’s office, beat him unconscious, smeared anti-Semitic slogans on the walls, and left him for dead. The assailants were fined thirty dollars for assault.
That’s when my father decided that losing yet another family, this time in North America, was not worth it. He forced my very proudly Jewish mother to convert to Catholicism, relocate, sever ties with all their extended relatives, and anglicize their name to Sheridan. From then on the newly minted Sheridan’s kept their Fort Knox level secret. My father’s stories were always capped with an admonition to never ever tell anyone that we were Jewish, or it would get all of us killed.
So I didn’t….until I was in my thirties, when I wrote and performed a stand-up comedy show across Canada. The bit in the very middle touched on the ridiculous of people pretending to be something they so obviously aren’t. Politicians pretending to be human beings etc. I also shared how my Jewish parents had raised me Catholic but they were so clearly Jewish. For example, when we attended church, my Dad complained all the way through communion! (with hunched shoulders, speaking in a Yiddish-European accent) ”I can’t eat this cracker it’s so dry…needs a shmear of pickled herring… something, a little cream cheese, vat is this?!”
And the critics loved it. But I was struggling with anxiety, depression, terror, and shame – all the conditions of inherited PTSD. Although I had comedy big shots around me who believed in my potential, that my career would soar, I kept coming up against emotional paralysis. It wasn’t just regular stage fright. I would lock myself in my apartment and self-medicate with food and sit in a chair, trying not to move, or feel, or breathe for stretches of up to twenty-four hours.
Around that time, I was approached by a theater producer who was searching for a dramatic solo show to produce. I had been consistently plagued by an inner voice “Tell your story, tell your story…”
I thought it had meant write shtick. But now I was pulled to move ahead with deeper truths. I ran the idea of transforming my family story into a play by my then 86-year old father, who had retired and was living in his native Vienna, as a Catholic. He threatened me with legal action, as did two of my six siblings. But I couldn’t sleep nights. I felt compelled to do the play.
I called it “The Waltonsteins.” But when I came onstage before my first performance, I was plagued by anxiety at the possibility of being killed by anti-Semites mid-performance. Then a calming presence came over me. Somehow I knew it was the spirit of my maternal grandmother, Selma Zwienicki who had been murdered in her home in Bremen, Germany on Kristallnacht.
After my performance, the audience wouldn’t leave the theater. A journalist, who had been in the crowd, wrote an article in The Jerusalem Report magazine that was distributed internationally. It was read by those extended family members who my father had cut off in 1951, and they began to call me from all over the world. This reconnection contributed to much familial healing.
One of my sisters, who I hadn’t seen in nine years, came to visit me. Although my father had wanted to protect us, his unhealed emotional wounds had instead caused him to recreate a war within the confines of our family, dividing us children into two conflicting sides.
During our visit I retrieved my mail and then shared a letter I’d received from my father, with her. One paragraph read ”Through your play you have given me the courage to reclaim my Jewish roots. Yesterday, I went to the Jewish Community Center in Vienna and publicly redeclared myself a Jew, which I had never stopped being in my heart.”
My father, Bernie Sigal, is buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Vienna, as a Jew.