Life & Culture

The circus acrobat’s amazing escape

There were once dynasties of Jewish circus performers. Stav Meishar's show tells the true story of an acrobat who fell in love with a clown - and was saved from the Nazis by the Three Musketeers


The improbable combination of Jews and circuses turns out to be not just probable, but rooted in historical fact — from Jewish clowns and acrobats to Jewish-owned circuses and even dynasties of Jewish circus performers.

In 19th century Germany most circuses were traveling enterprises, with only  a select few able afford to station their circuses at a permanent building. Most of the circuses who enjoy such success were owned by gentiles, save for one, The Blumenfeld Circus in Magdeburg.

So, as they moved around Europe,  the fame of the Jewish circus families spread across Europe. The story of one family, heirs to the Lorch Circus, has now become a remarkable one-woman show devised by Israeli-born Stav Meishar. She is a Jewish educator who learned about the story of Irene Danner-Storm, a member of the Lorch family, who was saved from the Nazis by the bravery and courage of the Althoff Circus and its owner, Adolf Althoff and his wife Maria.

The Althoffs didn’t just save Irene — they hired her, her parents Hans and Alice and her sister Gerda, forging fake work papers describing them as Italian, hiding them each time the Nazis came to inspect the circus, building a hidden corridor in their caravan, shooing the family off and telling them “go fishing” whenever the Gestapo arrived. For their heroism, Adolf and Maria were named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Irene was a skilled circus performer whose maternal grandfather, Julius Lorch, was, says Stav Meishar, “a world renowned Icarian acrobat”. Icarian games, also known as a Risley acts, are circus acts where the base acrobat lies on their back,  supporting one or more flyers with their hands, feet and/or other parts of the body; spinning a person or object using only one's feet.

More than seven years of sustained research by Stav and her creative team, looking at many aspects of Jews and circus, have knitted together Irene’s painful story.

Julius Lorch taught his granddaughter Irene acrobatics when she was a little girl and she joined the Busch Circus in Germany, learning trick riding from the Italian Caroli family, before begging the Althoff family circus to employ her at a time when it had become illegal to hire Jews.

Adolf and Maria Althoff agreed, taking on, in the summer of 1941, the 19-year-old Irene and then, the following year, her parents and her sisters. Irene fell in love with a clown at the Althoff Circus, Peter Bento, who taught her clowning and took her into his own family troupe.

She also formed a friendship with another circus performer — Mohammed Saharoui, an acrobat. He, Peter Bento and Adolf Althoff were close friends, known as the Three Musketeers in the circus, and each of them did their best, at great personal risk, to save Irene and her family from the Nazis.

Stav Meishar discovered Irene’s story when putting together a programme for education through the performing arts. “I started to incorporate circus methods, too” — she had been training in circus since 2011 — “and I wondered if anyone had done that before. So I went on Google and typed in ‘circus Jews’ — and one of the first results was the New York Times obituary of Adolf Althoff”.

It made sense, Stav concluded, that there would be such things as Jewish circus artists because of long Jewish affiliation with the performing arts. “It became apparent to me very quickly that this was the avenue I would like to develop” — not least because she herself is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.

The more she learned about Irene’s story the more fascinated she became. Irene did not just fall in love with Peter Bento the clown, she had two children with him during the war, (and a further three afterwards) and the couple — she Jewish, he not — were finally able to marry after the war. They returned to Irene’s home town in Germany where they lived until their deaths.

Last year, Stav was in Germany, interviewing one of Irene and Peter’s sons, now in his 70s. She assumed that everyone in the original Althoff Circus drama was now dead, but was extremely surprised to learn that the family was still in touch with “Uncle Momo” — the Moroccan acrobat.

“Two weeks after that interview in Germany, my husband and I were due to go on honeymoon in Morocco”. She made contact with “Uncle Momo” and spent an enraptured day with the 94-year-old, reliving circus memories of the Second World War in his Tangiers home.

There is, says Stav, a very big circus community in Israel — and still a Jewish circus presence internationally. The Swiss Circus Knie is run by a family with Jewish roots, while in the Netherlands the big name is the Strassburger family, who fled from Germany to the Netherlands during the Holocaust and still work in big circuses today.

One of the best-known names in Jewish circus circles is Suzi Winson, the founder and owner of the circus school in New York where Stav Meishar trained. “She’s an ex-Broadway star who appeared with Agnes de Mille and Tommy Tune: now she runs her circus school and she’s a flying trapeze artist”.

Meishar specialises in static trapeze work, where the acrobat does tricks with rope and the trapeze bar. In her show (where she also juggles and does puppetry), she uses the static trapeze to replicate some of what Irene Danner-Storm would have done in the Althoff Circus, before coming out of character to talk about her own family background and experience of the Holocaust.

“It’s not that I wanted to hijack attention from Irene, but to show that generations of people are affected by what happened. It’s multi-generational trauma that second- and third-generation [Jews] live with every single day”.

Her maternal grandfather, originally from Lodz, survived the ghetto as well as numerous concentration camps, the last one being Sachsenhausen in Germany. A family friend, who she calls her "third grandfather"  survived the Holocaust by jumping out of the train on which he was being deported and hiding in a hollow tree trunk, covering himself with leaves. (Her paternal grandparents, from Bulgaria and Romania, were among the founders of one of Israel’s wealthiest kibbutzim, Shamir).

Her show is not a children’s show, she says, but as a Jewish educator she was determined to make it accessible to a variety of audiences — younger people as well as adults.

She doesn’t call herself a circus acrobat, she says. “My level is nowhere near what my peers can do. I am a theatre artist who uses circus as a narrative tool to make the story come to life”.

Meishar’s Israeli background is as eclectic as her show. She was born and raised in Tel Aviv. Her father is an Israel folk dance archivist: his life’s work, says his daughter, is recording every new Israeli folk dance and sending them around the world to groups who want to learn the latest steps. Britain’s own Israeli Dance Institute is a frequent beneficiary.

Her mother, meanwhile, Miriam Krymolowski, is Israel’s best-known performing arts critic, often appearing on TV and now an independent arts guide and lecturer. Meishar’s childhood was a regular round of attending shows, going backstage and waiting while her mother interviewed performers. “I owe her a lot,”she says, while her father’s work led her to be proficient in all manner of folk dances.

After attending a performing arts school in Israel, Meishar moved to New York and began taking circus classes. Today, and for the past two years, she and her husband — who also studied theatre arts — live in Bristol. She has trained at the Bristol circus school while her husband has changed direction completely. and become a cheesemonger, in Bath. “We are a home of circus and cheese”, she grins.

Now, with The Escape Act, Stav Meishar has developed a unique show which plays to her strengths as a Jewish educator and performance artist. The show, she says, is endlessly adaptable: she even has a version which requires no trapeze equipment and just concentrates on the story-telling.

She will be at Limmud this year, re-telling Irene’s amazing story. Her show premiered this summer in Finland, where she worked for two months, and now she is taking The Escape Act around the UK: at London’s Jackson’s Lane Theatre, (September 23 and 24), in Bristol, at Circomedia on September 26; in Birmingham’s CircusMASH on October 27; and the Lowry in Salford on October 29.

There will be a presentation at the Manchester Jewish Museum the evening before the Lowry performance.

The show includes a curated exhibition of Jewish life at the circus during the Holocaust, and a behind-the-scenes talk about the making of the show and Jewish circus experience.

“My main goal in creating this show”, says Stav, “was to make an experience as close as possible to talking to a survivor. I couldn’t replicate it, but I can tell Irene’s story and that of others who lived through the Holocaust. That’s what’s important.”

Stav Meishar will be speaking at the Limmud Festival on December 23 and 24


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