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October 10, 2003|By Rona Marech, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sylvie Braitman feels like she carries the ghosts of people who have suffered.
"I don't know where, how, why, even who," she said. "Because no one took care of those people, I feel I have to do it. It's almost like they give me my individuality. I am because of them. I'm afraid if I let go of them, I'll be nothing.
"I'm not sure it's very healthy, but I don't feel I have a choice either. Transforming it into something redemptive is the best I can do."
She's talking, as she often does, about the Holocaust -- a subject she grew up with, as the child of survivors, and one that haunts and "chases" her as an adult. But suffering and redemption is a theme that threads its way through almost everything Braitman does and she's also, in a way, talking about her latest project, a CD of songs about prostitutes, "Les Demoiselles de Pigalle: Songs of the Streetwalker of Paris, New York, Berlin, Buenos Aries, Panama and Warsaw."
In her melted chocolate voice, Braitman sings in French, German, Yiddish, Spanish and English about wasting love on men "with hearts like shifting sand, " of "the bruises of sin," of the mother who would bleed from her eyes if she could see her child. Some of the songs on the CD, such as "Pigalle," about the Parisian red-light district, have a lively spirit of "bon enfant." Others are despairing: "She Used to Walk Pigalle Street" tells the mournful story of a prostitute who fell in love but ultimately was cast aside because of the stain of her past.
Prostitution has become something of a symbol -- of patriarchy, of tension between the sexes and of womanhood itself -- Braitman said at an interview at a cafe on a recent afternoon. Braitman, 47, has curly hair and oceanic, blue-blue eyes. She speaks with a French accent and, when she thinks, she squeezes her eyes shut and bites her lips. It's charming verging on cute, except Braitman is far too serious and cerebral for a word like "cute."
"There is beauty in the symbol. . . and there is also hell in the symbol, " she said. "Art is a way to transform pain. Songs can talk about something awful and terrible and still be pretty."
"That's part of the survivors of Holocaust syndrome . . . What do you do with human suffering? Ignore it like the culture here is trying to do? Do you get drowned by it? . . . Or do you transform it?"