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Between Two Worlds - The Identity Crisis Of A German-Israeli Artist

Sara von Schwarze on stage
Sara von Schwarze on stage
Jennifer Bligh

TEL AVIV - The apartment in downtown Tel Aviv could feature in any architecture magazine as the quintessential artist’s digs. Two cats doze picturesquely amid piles of photographs, books, scripts. At the big round table sits Sara von Schwarze against a backdrop of trees swaying in the wind visible out the window behind her.

The actress is very famous in Israel, and has at least five awards sitting in her closet. Right now, the 44-year-old is not only starring in the play Between Two Worlds at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, she wrote it. "I just had to tell my story," she says, running her hands through her hair.

The play is about Ruth, an Israeli woman who thinks she’s killed somebody and – although they’ve not been in contact for years – flees to Germany to stay with her father Abraham and his new girlfriend Sabine. Reunited, father and daughter find themselves hashing through all their issues – Christianity, Judaism, Germany and Israel.

Von Schwarze’s character has, of course, killed no one but her confrontation with her own confused past is more than enough material. She based the play on her own story: born in 1968 in Munich, moved to Israel at age three after her parents converted to Judaism.

"In our neighborhood in Israel, nearly everybody was from Europe,” she recalls, “and many were Holocaust survivors.” Even as a little girl she remembers feeling that her German name and Bavarian family were something of a provocation here.

She remembers how those who had been in concentration camps – instantly recognizable by their identification tattoos – would wait in the line in front of the baker’s and whisper to each other about who had lost which relatives in which camp. "I wasn’t used to the heat, and in combination with the guilt, it made me sweat twice as much as other children.”

But her father was the one who couldn’t come to terms with their new home, and he returned to Munich. "I on the other hand ‘forgot’ – repressed – memories of Munich and German until I went to visit my grandmother in Munich for the first time,” von Schwarze says.

A citizen of the world

She was around 10 when she took that trip. She remembers how her Grandma took her to Munich’s pedestrian zone and out to eat in Bavarian restaurants.

"Their little house in Grünwald was decorated in 1940s style, and we had delicious German food. I also discovered German filter coffee,” she says. A bright lamp from the Grünwald house now sits next to the sofa in her Tel Aviv home.

Entirely unexpectedly, the success of Between Two Worlds drew a connecting line between her present life and her German roots. A distant relative in Germany read a review of the play and got in touch with von Schwarze on Facebook. "Through him I met a whole other branch of the family in Stuttgart that I’d known nothing about."

She takes this as a reward for not only having had the courage to tackle her story but to speak German on stage – mistakes and all. "I know how to express my feelings in German, but have no sense for the grammar," von Schwarze explains.

And speaking bad German somehow sits with her idea that one has to accept oneself as well as one’s origins. That doesn’t make her any easier to categorize. "I feel like a citizen of the world," she says – and that includes Jew, Israeli, German, and from Munich.

"I cannot understand how a person can think they can change their identity,” she says energetically. She believes parents have a duty to provide their kids with answers. She has three daughters, and the eldest just got herself exempted from military duty: "She’s a pacifist, like me." Von Schwarze wasn’t so lucky – despite her objection (as a German she says she didn’t want to pick up a gun), she had to serve for two years in the Israeli army.

Although it was a long time ago, it fits perfectly with the story she tells in Between Two Worlds. Sabine, her father’s girlfriend, has a monologue that should have come out of the mouth of Ruth, the character von Schwarze plays, but the playwright says she couldn’t find a plausible way for Ruth to deliver it. The way the monologue ends – "Just live!" – about sums up the self-acceptance and healing doing the play has brought her.

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