Michael Rubenfeld grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, thinking Poland was scorched earth. It was a place his Holocaust survivor grandparents had escaped, a country about which they only spoke negatively, and to which they had no interest in ever returning.
So when Rubenfeld traveled to Poland in November 2013 to learn about his family’s past, he would never have imagined it would quickly become a big part of his future. As it turned out, Rubenfeld ended up not only finding his roots in Poland, he found a wife there, too. He married Magda Koralewska, a 34-year-old graphic designer and lay leader in the Krakow Jewish community, in April 2015. Rubenfeld, a theater professional, now splits his time between Canada and Poland.
However, Rubenfeld decided not to focus on this unlikely turn of events in a theater piece he made about the journey. Instead, he developed his new play, “We Keep Coming Back,” around his relationship with another key woman in his life — his mother, whom he convinced to accompany him on his initial trip to Poland in 2013.
Rubenfeld, 37, believed the joint trip could help mend the longstanding rifts in his relationship with his mother, Mary Berchard.
“I always knew I had to go to Poland for myself. But when my mom was having health problems and we didn’t know what was going to be, I wanted to try to resolve some of our issues. I had an epiphany: We should go to Poland and see if that could help us work things out,” Rubenfeld recently told The Times of Israel by phone from Krakow.
As a theater professional who creates work by undertaking deeply personal explorations of his and other people’s lives, Rubenfeld instinctively knew he wanted to turn the trip into art.
Rubenfeld had actually proposed the idea to theater director Sarah Garton Stanley, his partner in the Toronto-based Selfconscious performance company, before mentioning it to his mother. Stanley loved the idea, but getting Berchard on board was another matter.
Rubenfeld ended up finding not only his roots in Poland. He found a wife there, too
“My mom initially thought it was a crazy idea. She didn’t really understand the theater concept, but she was happy for the opportunity to spend time together, so in the end she agreed to it,” Rubenfeld recalled.
Rubenfeld approached the project on the basis of the huge gap he perceived between himself and his mother in terms of their identities. For Berchard, Poland was “the Big, Bad Wolf,” as her son put it. It had to do with mourning and unresolved residual trauma.
On the other hand, Rubenfeld had always felt that the Polish aspect of his heritage was missing. Unlike other immigrants to Canada who kept strong ties with their homelands, Rubenfeld couldn’t fully understand why his family ran away from Poland and never looked back, even to their lives before the war. He yearned to somehow be in relationship with the country where his ancestors had lived.
After some delays due to Berchard’s health, she, Rubenfeld and Stanley flew to Poland in November 2013. Upon arrival, they met up with Katka Reszke, a Polish-born, US-based writer, documentary filmmaker, photographer and researcher in Jewish history, culture and identity. She is the author of “Return Of The Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland,” and an expert on the recent reemergence of Jewish culture in Poland. Reszke, 38, earned a doctorate in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after discovering as a young woman that she had Jewish heritage and deciding to live as a Jew.
Reszke had originally been asked to come along as a guide and videographer to document the mother and son’s journey in Poland. In particular, the trip focused on their search for Komarówka Podlaska, the shtetl where Berchard’s father’s family had lived. In the course of time, eventually, Reszke, too, would become part of the story and would be asked to act onstage with Rubenfeld and Berchard in “We Keep Coming Back.”
‘There is a sense of cultural loss when people can’t access their trauma and understand the root of it… We distill it down to its impact on a mother and son. It becomes an intimate exchange that the audience can tap into’
“Like Mary, I am not a professional actor. But it turned out to be very rewarding. I understood why Michael and Sarah wanted me to become part of the narrative. In a way, Michael and I are the mirror images of one another, the flip sides of the same coin. We share the same heritage, but we experienced it in very different ways. I grew up Polish and then discovered I was Jewish. Michael grew up Jewish and was now discovering also his Polishness,” Reszke explained.
Rubenfeld and Stanley, who is also the associate artistic director for English theater at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, turned the emotionally charged journey into a media-rich piece of theater that incorporates video footage, archival material, and music. They deliberately left the script relatively open, forcing the actors to improvise each time the play is performed. This makes the dialogue raw and immediate, allowing the audience to feel the genuine emotion between mother and son, and the tensions between Rubenfeld and Reszke.
Stanley is confident this theatrical approach works.
“There is a sense of cultural loss when people can’t access their trauma and understand the root of it. Genocide is overwhelming, but we distill it down to its impact on a mother and son. It becomes an intimate exchange that the audience can tap into,” she explained.
In the play (as in real life) Rubenfeld and Berchard reach a breakthrough in their relationship when they finally experience Poland as a place of life, and not only death. They understand more about what life was like for their ancestors before the Holocaust, and that the Jewish past and the Polish past are inextricably linked, especially in the country’s larger cities. They also discover that vibrant Jewish life is again flourishing in Poland, particularly in Krakow, where Rubenfeld’s new wife is active.
For those who have been following developments in Poland over the last decade, this is not news. But many in the audiences of “We Keep Coming Back” have as little knowledge of the subject as Rubenfeld and Berchard before making their trip.
‘I am incredibly hopeful about Jewish life in Poland and I feel most Jewish when I am here’
“There is definitely a growing interest among North American Jews in contemporary Jewish life in Poland and in getting in touch with one’s Polish-ness, but this is still hardly the dominant narrative among Jews in North America and Israel,” Reszke said.
For Rubenfeld and his mother, Poland has most definitely become part of their consciousness and their identity. Berchard, who never used to think of Poland in positive terms, has made four trips there since 2013 — one of them for her son’s wedding in the oldest synagogue in Krakow.
Rubenfeld, who has picked up some Polish, still does not feel totally comfortable in the country, but he’s getting there.
“When I am in Krakow I can see the Jewish history there. Psychologically, I feel like I am a continuation of a line of something here. I am incredibly hopeful about Jewish life in Poland and I feel most Jewish when I am here,” he said.
“We Keep Coming Back” has played to audiences in Poland and Canada, most recently at Ashkenaz in Toronto.