A personal reflection by Santa’s granddaughter, Gabi Nudelman
I always knew that I was lucky that my grandmother talked about her life experiences. It is well known that many victims of major trauma, such as that caused by the Holocaust, are unable to voice their experiences. For this reason, many stories of loss, suffering and courage in the most devastating situations remain untold.
This was never the case with Santa Pelham, the matriarch of our family, who peppered my youth with stories of her upbringing in pre-World War 2 Germany. She didn’t spare my cousins and I the sad parts — we knew she lived as a refugee, poor and stateless, lost family and friends to the Nazis and embarked to Africa alone to start a new life with a man she hardly knew. But her stories were lightened with humour, and her sparkling eyes and trademark wit meant we could relate to her tales as our own.
When Santa was 90, I had the privilege of working through a transcript of her spoken-word memoirs with her, adding in anecdotes here, fixing grammar there. Over cups of tea we laughed and cried as I followed her footsteps from her happy childhood in a small German town, to her life as a refugee in Spain and France, and her new life and eventual happiness in Rhodesia. I learned more about her parents and brother who were murdered by the Nazis — the great-grandparents and great-uncle I will never know.
After the critical success of her book, we knew Santa’s story, with its universal themes, needed to reach a wider audience, and who better to make it come alive than my mother, performer Aviva Pelham. She spent countless hours converting the book into a script, and then the script into a live performance that not only captured the essence of Santa but honoured all she’d lived through.
I’ve never felt as proud as I did the night I first saw my mother perform Santa’s Story at the Fugard Theatre. Her incredible talent for connection with an audience and ability to weave a story through speech and song shone through. As she embodied my grandmother on stage, I knew that Santa’s story was my story too. In honouring Santa, she honoured the family Santa lost as well as her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and future generations.
Santa’s Story is an unmissable production. It has played to audiences in London, Helsinki, Cologne and New York, with a tour to Melbourne and Sydney planned for November 2017. While Santa’s story is just one of so many emerging from the Holocaust, beneath the grand lesson of history lies a personal tale that has touched and will continue to touch audiences around the world.