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Monday, November 24, 2014

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Solo show tells of growing up as a hidden Jew – in Canada

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MONTREAL — Frannie Sheridan grew up with a deep, dark family secret: her parents were really Jewish, and survivors of the Holocaust.

Frannie Sheridan

To the outside world, however, this family, which grew to seven children, were devout Catholics.

Sheridan, the second youngest in the family, born in Ottawa in 1961, was admonished never to tell anyone beyond their home the truth, “or I could get killed,” she said in a telephone interview.

Needless to say, this masquerading did not make for a healthy upbringing. Sheridan’s childhood was dominated by “shame and fear” that left her emotionally scarred.

Her mother and father, who had come from Orthodox backgrounds, quarrelled over the choice the father had made. The children sided with one or the other. Eventually, the parents divorced and there was a rift between the brothers and sisters for years.

Sheridan, a Bishop’s University graduate who went on to study theatre, became a stand-up comedian in Vancouver and gradually introduced some of her story into her act.

This evolved into her dramatic one-woman play, The Waltonsteins, which premiered in Vancouver in 1995 and was toured in North America, including Ottawa’s Museum of Civilization.

Sheridan, who now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., has reworked that play into Confessions of a Jewish Shiksa… Dancing on Hitler’s Grave!, which premiered in her home state in January and will have its first production outside Florida in Montreal Sept. 21.

This is a lightly fictionalized retelling of her search for identity as the child of two war-traumatized Jews who met in Canada, renounced their heritage and then returned to Judaism at the end of their lives.

Sheridan describes the hour-long performance as 60 per cent drama and the rest humour. She narrates from a child’s perspective and plays a range of characters.

Confessions is a benefit performance for the Jewish General Hospital Auxiliary, part of its Menus for the Mind series. The evening takes place in the Samuel S. Cohen Auditorium, and proceeds will go to the new JGH Centre for Child Development and Mental Health. It is sold out.

“I saw her show at the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach in April on a recommendation,” said the auxiliary’s Susan Raymer, event co-chair. “It is a brilliant solo performance which is provocative, witty and brave… I spoke with [Frannie] after the show and she is as vivacious and dynamic as her performance.”

Sheridan’s father, Dr. Bernie Sigal, born in Vienna in 1913, escaped from Austria, was a medic in the French army, fought at Dunkirk in 1940, ended up in Britain and was deported to Quebec where he spent three years at an enemy internment camp in Île-aux-Noix. Upon his release, he settled in Montreal and retrained in medicine. He lost all of his immediate relatives in the Holocaust.

Sheridan’s maternal grandmother was killed in Kristallnacht in 1938, and the remainder of the family managed to immigrate to Canada around 1940, to a farming colony in Saskatchewan where a distant cousin lived.

Sheridan’s parents met in Montreal, and lived here for a while after marrying before her father, an ophthalmologist, established a practice in the small town of Morse, Sask.

For reasons not clear, her father soon after was viciously beaten and left for dead in his office by another doctor in town and his wife. They were convicted of assault, but given paltry fines (Sheridan has the 1951 newspaper clipping).

Her father, traumatized by the war, was convinced anti-Semitism was the motivation (the assailant was of German origin) and feared a repeat of what happened in Europe, said Sheridan. With three children already and fearing for their future, he forced the family to convert. They moved to Toronto, cut ties with any remaining relatives and anglicized their name.

“It was ridiculous because they looked and sounded Jewish, while pretending to be someone else,” Sheridan said.

Her father eventually moved back to Vienna and her mother, who remained in Canada, died in 1989.
“When I contacted him about the play and my intention to tell our family secret, he threatened legal action,” Sheridan said. Some of her siblings also tried to stop her.

But the show went on, and as it happened a writer for the Jerusalem Report magazine was in the audience for the premiere of The Waltonsteins at a 100-seat theatre in Vancouver. That review and other media exposure that followed led to a reunion with family members cut off long ago.

“The power of truth-telling created massive healing… My father sent me a letter of thanks. The fear had been lifted, a piece of him had healed,” she said. “He renounced Catholicism and went back to Judaism, and is buried in a Jewish cemetery near Vienna.”

Her mother, before her death, had also returned to Judaism.

Sheridan reconciled with her siblings. All of them came to the opening at the Museum of Civilization in 1996, which was co-sponsored by two Ottawa religious institutions, St. Basil’s Church and Temple Israel, to promote interfaith understanding.

“I always believed I was Jewish, and knew we were pretending,” Sheridan said of her own identity search. She has studied Judaism with her uncle, her mother’s brother, who is a rabbi, and now goes to synagogue. Her husband is Jewish, an American-Israeli. They have no children.

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