The Holocaust is an incredibly heavy burden for survivors and their descendants.
Knowing that the state was intent on murdering members of their families simply because of their identity isn’t something that most people like to discuss.
Add in the dynamic of intergenerational trauma and there can be a lot to unpack by the time the third generation rolls around.
Vancouver singer-songwriter Leah Abramson is one of many residents who have had to live with this burden her entire life. As is the case in other families, her grandmother never talked about it.
“We had to sort of figure out what had happened and what was going on—and why we were the way we were,” Abramson tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “A lot of that was a process of discovery and kind of peeling back the layers.”
Her sister, Claire Sicherman, addressed this directly. She wrote a book, Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation, which was released in 2017.
“She thought a lot about how it was affecting her son and about that whole relationship—and about her body,” Abramson says. “And I can relate to those things as well.”
Abramson, on the other hand, chose a more indirect route to greater self-understanding, one that took several years. The result will finally come to fruition in her interdisciplinary stage show, Songs for a Lost Pod, which will have its world premiere this weekend in a Music on Main presentation.
In her childhood, Abramson was far more preoccupied with other pursuits. She grew up in Vancouver, where beluga whales were kept in the local aquarium, and she had a recurring dream of about one of these creatures in a swimming pool.
This phase eventually passed, but in adulthood, she started having repeated dreams of orcas. That sparked a curiosity that led her to read more about orcas in science journals and listen to northern resident orcas’ vocalizations on the Internet’s Orchive archive.
“I learned about how they came into captivity and all these things about whale families and about their structures and how similar they are to humans in some ways,” she says. “I started feeling these sort of parallels between orcas and my family history.”
Abramson mentions that she was blown away that researchers at Orca Lab on B.C.’s Hanson Island could recognize families of whales by differences in their dialects.
She visited Hanson’s neighbouring Malcolm Island several times before she was finally able to watch an orca perform a rubbing ritual on the pebbles near a beach in 2016. She followed that up in 2017 by releasing the album Songs for a Lost Pod, which includes whale vocalizations.
Abramson emphasizes that she doesn’t want to anthropomorphize orcas. But she also recognizes similarities between human and orca brains, though orcas “are more developed in terms of limbic lobes”. And that might explain their tight family ties.
By talking about those similarities, she believes that it offers people a way to empathize with nonhuman creatures.
“There’s an ‘us and them’ when it comes to animals,” Abramson says. “We think of humans and animals as so different and so separate. I do not think that is the case. We forget that we have animal bodies. It’s really not so different.”
She says that she did some processing of her family history on the album, but not in a head-on way.
“I never liked talking about my family’s Holocaust history,” she states. “I just found it too painful. But then, I was never able to fully process it when I kept it hidden.”
Abramson finally decided to tackle it by writing a companion script for the album. This way, she says, the family history could be “present in the project in a way that was a lot more truthful than when it was just the music”.
The interdisciplinary project features visuals from Mind of a Snail, narration by Barbara Adler, a six-member choir, and a five-piece band performing the nine-song cycle.
“There’s music underneath some of the narration,” Abramson says. “These musicians can do anything. So I’m very, very happy to be working with them right now.”
Abramson does not appear in the production, which is directed by Megan Stewart. According to Abramson, people who attend won’t recognize the orca vocalizations because they’re embedded into the fabric of the music and a lot of the beats.
While she acknowledges that it’s a “bit of a heavy show” with serious and painful content, there’s also beautiful music and visuals to help audiences get through this.
Abramson says that most people already know the horrifying facts about the Holocaust, so Songs for a Lost Pod doesn’t get into those details.
“I think what’s helpful is trying to figure out how to process the emotions that come from that,” she says.