Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry Connect With Jewish Trauma and Family in 'Treasure' – Kveller
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Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry Connect With Jewish Trauma and Family in ‘Treasure’

The Jewish actors tell Kveller about their experience shooting the Holocaust tragicomedy in Auschwitz.

TREASURE Still 4 Courtesy Bleecker Street1200

Courtesy Bleecker Street

Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham are not related — yet talking to them, it feels like they are. The connection is palpable in the new movie “Treasure,” in which the celebrated British comedian and the “Girls” creator and star play a very special father and daughter duo, Edek and Ruth. The film is based on a book by Lily Brett about the author’s journey back to Poland in the ’90s with her father, an Auschwitz survivor.

It’s not just that both Fry and Dunham are Jewish (though they are) or intimately connected to the subject matter (they both have relatives who perished in the Holocaust). It’s the way they talk, with language so precise and unique, making you wish you had more time with them to let their words breathe and settle in a little. When I interview the pair, I’m stunned at the richness and depth they imbue in our very short conversation. “Treasure” director Julia von Heinz tells me about listening to them talk on set during breaks, marveling at their brilliance. “They should have a podcast, shouldn’t they?” she bemuses.

In “Treasure,” Fry’s Edek speaks English with a deep Polish accent while driving Ruth (Dunham) crazy like only a Jewish father can. He is funny and sweet and infuriating all at the same time — flirting with women, abruptly changing their travel plans, charming every person in their wake while at the same time stealing away from the very real trauma and fear the war indelibly left him, and his late wife, also an Auschwitz survivor, with. He doesn’t understand why any Jew, let alone his own daughter, would come to Poland as a tourist. Yet letting her go alone is too terrifying for him to consider. He hides his terror with charm and jokes — until he can’t, faced with the very tangible evidence of his loss.

Ruth, or Ruthie as her father liltingly calls her, is single-minded in her determination to retrace her family roots, from their old home in Lodz, now inhabited by a Polish family, to Auschwitz, the place whose memories made her mother a haunted, austere woman. She is morose, yes, but also a determined, independent, successful journalist (not quite as glamorous a job as her starry-eyed dad believes it to be). And despite not speaking a word of Polish, never having stepped onto that land before 1991, that same family trauma lives in her, the film exposing its devastating impact.

As its title alludes, the movie is about unearthing a family treasure — but is that treasure the possessions of their late loved ones, the truth about their history, or a renewed familial connection and a way to heal? You’ll have to watch “Treasure” to uncover that. In the meantime, Dunham and Fry spoke to Kveller about the treasure they uncovered while shooting the film — a deeper connection to Judaism, a way to honor their roots, and also, it seems to me, a really magical connection.

I loved the movie so much, especially as someone who is third generation to the Holocaust. Lena, your performance really made me feel and see the pain of the second generation in a way that I’ve never really seen onscreen before.

Lena: I’m so glad. You know, a lot of people are finding that there’s trauma to the third generation. I was speaking to a friend who was realizing [that], and Julie [von Heinz], our director, is third generation, and so much of this story for her is about what it meant to interact with a mother who was a second generation survivor — the secrets that lead to secrets that lead to secrets. I’m really glad that this conversation is being opened up, because it’s generations of people who have this kind of key to their own identity. And it would have been nothing if we hadn’t had the bravery of Stephen’s performance and what he was willing to face.

Stephen, you were so wonderful in this and also so deeply funny. Do you two have feelings about the marriage of this very heavy subject matter with humor?

Stephen: You know, as a Jewish person, how important humor is to the Jewish people, and how it is both a delight and a confection that gives warmth and pleasure, but also an armor that protects against too much depth and analysis. And so it can be annoying, you know. You can get annoyed by your grandfather constantly flipping things away as a joke. You think, come on, I want to talk about this. And of course, it’s not just Jewish people. In fact, Julia discovered quite late in life that her father was gay, and that he had hidden this, that he was traumatized by it. Obviously, he was shamed… and he raised a family whom he loved, his daughter, but it was only towards the end of his life [that he spoke about it]. And so that’s a similar kind of trauma, if you like. We were talking earlier to an Indian journalist who was talking about the 1947 Indian experience of the partition of their people between Pakistan and India. So I’m thrilled to hear, obviously, Jewish people finding a story that they can relate to and that often connects with their own family experience, but I also hope that people from other backgrounds see it, too.

It’s universal, yes.

Lena: It’s universal, and I think that there have been at times a challenge in people being able to see and hear each other’s trauma, who come from different backgrounds and different stories. And if the movie can do anything, especially at this moment in history, to create unity instead of division, that would be such a big goal for us. Obviously for both of us, as Jewish people with family members who were decimated in the Holocaust, this is deeply, deeply personal. We’re also just so thrilled by the possibility of the universality and the connection that it could create between people of all creeds, ethnicities and religions.

I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the most Jewish projects for both of you. Did the experience of making this movie change your relationship to Judaism or to your Jewish identity?

Stephen: So Judaism, I’m not really connected with. Like a lot of Jewish people, I’m an atheist. My grandfather used to say “Jews invented atheism!”

Lena: He’s our most important atheist and we must treasure him and wrap it up like a Faberge egg.

Stephen: Which doesn’t mean I don’t have respect for the Judaic tradition. It’s so clear how it’s kept us together — Passover seders and all these kinds of things. It’s such an important glue for the community. But [the movie] did wake up my Jewishness in me, as has, you know, what’s going on in the world. I came from a very assimilated family. My grandfather was born and fought in the First World War for the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his accent was very strong and everything — he saw himself as almost aggressively English, wearing tweed suits and going out on shoots with aristocrats. But you can’t hide it. It’s complicated. And it’s part of who one is. And you certainly can’t let antisemites decide if you’re Jewish. One has to forestall them and stand up.

Lena: What you said is beautiful. And it’s funny, because I have always played Jewish characters, because I’m a Jewish person. And the characters that I wrote came from Jewish families, which is what I relate to, and what I connect to, but always in a way that was very cultural. It was about the way that they communicated. It was about their sense of humor. It was about the way that their aunts argued and yelled at each other. It was about the way that people ate dinner together. It was about an occasional reference to Jewish summer camp. But it was not about the bread and butter of either the experience of Jewish trauma or the experience of the Jewish religion.

I came from a Reform Jewish family. It was very much a part of the culture every day; we went to temple exactly the days that you had to, no more, no less. But at the same time, those traditions formed me. Even when I whined, “Why do we have to drive to Long Island for Passover tonight when I want to do blank or blank,” those were the traditions that formed me. What I loved about these characters was that it was about the history of being Jewish.

Ruth and Edek are secular Jews. Ruth and Edek are not sitting there praying, they’re not keeping kosher. What I love about it is that we understand that this kind of trauma affected every kind of Jew. It affected the most religious Jews in the world. And it affected the people who were Jewish in genetics only. The fact that even though their Judaism may not necessarily be a part of their day-to-day religious experience, it is an inescapable part of who they are. That is true for so many people who have a race or religion-based violence in their past; is it has nothing to do with what they believe and everything to do with what other people believe about them.

You both have explored your family histories on shows like “Finding Your Roots” for Lena, and “Who Do You Think You Are?” for Stephen. Stephen, there’s a really moving moment when you see on paper that members of your family died in Auschwitz. What was it like for you to then return there and be on the site of that trauma?

Stephen: It is a simultaneously sacred and profane place, Auschwitz. It’s sacred because of the memories of the people who were there. The fact that the very ground you walk on still contains particles of them, that the ashes of the particles that came from the chimney are still there. And wonderfully, the people who run it, the memorial trust that runs it, are aware of that and respect that.

But it’s obviously also a profane place because the memory — you stand there on the railway line where the train came in, and you picture coming out of it these young girls who would have been your aunts, and you see them moving off, and it’s so unbearable, it’s imponderably dreadful to try and picture that and hear and smell all the senses that are there.

But you also feel a sense that you are honoring them, or you hope that you’re honoring them, by being there, and blessing them, and using all your emotional resources to connect with them. The strange thing is you don’t feel anger. If you’re angry, you’re angry at younger generations who don’t know [about the Holocaust], who should know. But you don’t say: Oh, I’m so angry with Hitler. It’s a meaningless thing. It’s too huge to be angry. There’s grief, there’s horror, there’s all kinds of other emotions. Lena, what did you feel?

Lena: I think what was the most surprising to me, and there were many surprising aspects of the visit, was you think you’re going to approach this place with this imposing gate that feels like it’s from an old horror film…

Stephen: Yeah, the looming high walls.

Lena: Yeah, like some kind of a terrifying boarding school from a Charles Dickens novel with a terrifying turret. And you get there, and what is so horrifying about it is the simple, orderly, organized fashion in which this place was created. Jonathan Glazer’s film “The Zone of Interest” does an absolutely incredible job of illustrating that reality, illustrating both the mundaneness and the meticulousness of how these places were created, and the mundane and the meticulous nature of evil. Watching that film was a very important companion piece for me.

I just remember looking at Stephen and going, “The houses are all in lines. They’re in lines, they’re in lines, like you’re visiting a housing complex.” I remember calling my mom on the phone and trying to explain it to her and realizing that actually, despite being a writer, I did not have the language to give my mother that information. It truly was one of the only times in my life where I’ve gone, “I’m so sorry, I don’t have the words to tell you what we saw today.”

Before I go, I just wanted to thank you because I also feel like this movie had Jewish joy and a sense of Jewish family that was really beautiful and made me feel seen in a positive way, too. 

Lena: That is so beautiful, and I’ll really hold onto that because because we had a lot of Jewish joy together and that’s so important. I think the joy of being part of a Jewish family is my favorite part. It’s the reason that my Christian dad jumped over to the Jewish side and never went back.

Stephen: That wonderful word — naches.

Thank you. I’m schepping naches about you both. 

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