Interview: Lucy Pohl

German New Yorker's identity crisis has its Fringe benefits

By John Nathan, August 7, 2014
Lucy Pohl: "I was 'that German girl' in America and 'that American girl' in Germany"

Lucy Pohl: "I was 'that German girl' in America and 'that American girl' in Germany"

Ten in the morning might as well be the crack of dawn for most comics, given that they are notoriously late risers. But New Yorker Lucie Pohl has stirred herself from her bed to speak about her Edinburgh Festival debut. There is a part of her that likes to be on time - "the German part", Pohl explains.

Presumably, if it was up to the Jewish part, which comes from her Romanian-born mother, Pohl would probably still be asleep. But it is that Jewish half that audiences see in her show, Hi Hitler, which deals with the pinball psychology of being born and raised in Germany, migrating to New York when she was eight, going back to Germany and then returning to the Big Apple.

"New York is my home in this story," Pohl says. "When I went back for the second time I expected the city to welcome me with open arms. But I didn't have the right papers. My parents are artists and they never cared about green cards or getting citizenship.They never thought that would be an issue. Neither did I."

The stance of immigration control was that Pohl was a tourist with no right to any kind of permanent residency. Her only option was a visa for artists under the category of "alien of extraordinary ability". So that is what Pohl did. The result is a fascinating autobiographical stand-up performance that tells how a young German girl became a New Yorker, spent large parts of her life in both places but has never quite felt at home.

"The show deals with the sense of not knowing what your identity is. I was eight when we moved to New York - but I remember when I was younger that there were many incidents where my mother would be treated badly in Germany. They would say things like, 'you're a foreigner, get out of here', because she's very small and dark."

That description suits Pohl, too. But it didn't protect her from similar treatment in the States. "When we moved to New York I was always 'that German girl' until I moved back to Germany after I graduated. Then I was 'that American girl'. So the show is about this sense of not knowing where you belong and accepting it."

It was only after Pohl arrived in America for the first time that she started to realise that a lot of her family on her mother's side died in the Holocaust. Her grandmother told her stories about having to wear a yellow star. "I began to understand that the history was directly related to me and my family and my people," the 30-year-old recounts.

"Family and people" include a maternal line that connects Pohl to the German ant-fascist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Her mother is Brecht's niece. "In Romania, she was persecuted for not being the right kind of communist. So they were brought to East Berlin by her aunt Helene Weigel, Brecht's wife. The Berlin Wall went up a week later so she was stuck there. She was later imprisoned for protesting against the government."

It is easy to see how European history and politics was always a subject of discussion in Pohl's family. Her parents - her father is a playwright, her mother is a singer - hung out with German intellectuals and there were often arguments about politics, Hitler and the Second World War.

"My dad was always very provocative towards those Germans who would say things like 'the German aristocracy was against Hitler', and would argue with them. That's how I became obsessed with Hitler. I used to do drawings of him holding up the peace sign and smiling. This character just fascinated me without my knowing he was evil. We're talking when I was four or five years old. My parents thought it funny that I would be doing these doodles of Hitler. And when I told my mum that for the kindergarten fancy dress carnival I wanted to go as Hitler, she looked at me and said: 'I don't think that's a very good idea'. So I went as a spoon."

Of course, Pohl wouldn't be the first Jewish comedian to find Hitler funny. Especially in America. But in Germany the fuhrer is still no laughing matter and there are no plans to take the show to the country of her birth.

"When I first did the show in New York I sent an email to the German consulate asking if they'd like to list it. I'm German, I'm Jewish, so why not? They wrote back and said absolutely not. For a start the title was too close to the original phrase, they said." Actually, it is so titled because of the original phrase that Pohl had misinterpreted as a five-year-old. "I thought it was 'Hi', not 'Heil'. As in 'Hi Hitler, great to see you'."

The show is at the Gilded Balloon until August 25

Last updated: 2:53pm, August 28 2014