Yivo Honors Kati Marton

By Masha Leon

Published June 14, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.

YIVO HONORS A LITERARY DIPLOMATIC DUO

“Thank God for YIVO” declared Kati Marton, who, along with her husband, Richard Holbrooke, was honored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research at its May 9 benefit, held at the Center for Jewish History. A journalist, author and human rights advocate, Marton mused about the Hungarians she profiles in her latest book, “The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World” (Simon & Schuster, 2006): photographers Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz; filmmakers Michael Curtiz and Alexander Korda; author Arthur Koestler, and nuclear physicists Edward Teller, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner. Marton lamented: “The moral is that exile is never compensation for who you once were, what you had and will never again have.… Though they triumphed, they never again found what had been stripped from them — a sense of belonging.” What puzzled me was that prior to the book’s November 2006 publication, I received an “advance uncorrected reader’s proof” copy with the title sticker “Nine Hungarians Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World” superimposed over a printed “Nine Hungarian Immigrants Changed the World.” I wondered why neither early version included “Jews” in the title. Marton, raised Catholic, had been unaware of her Jewish roots until she was in her 30s. That was when, while performing research for her book on Raoul Wallenberg, a Hungarian journalist mentioned it was a pity that “‘Raoul was too late to save your grandparents.’” An emotional Marton told the YIVO audience: “This discovery created a rift in the family, a sense of betrayal… that took a long time to heal. I will live forever [without] the knowledge of what my grandparents looked like.”

Battling the fatigue of having just landed after a 16-hour flight from India, where she spent time with her son, Christopher Jennings (his dad is late ABC news anchor Peter Jennings), Marton explained: “[Christopher’s] in a remote part of India where he is an outside agitator trying to organize farmers…. Chris, who took the U.S. for granted, told me: ‘The first thing I am going to do [when I return] is kiss the ground I stand on… then go for a bagel.’”

YIVO’s chairman, Bruce Slovin, announced, “This has been an extraordinary year” with the astonishing find within YIVO’s own archives — and current exhibit — of the Otto Frank papers, plus the exhibition Bigger Than Life: The Boundless Genius of Yiddish Theatre. Holbrooke, author and, from 1999 through 2001, permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations, was quite emotional about the display of Frank’s letters pleading for visas that would save his family, including his daughters, Margot and Anne. “It’s a collection of actual pieces of paper versus unfeeling bureaucrats who forget that lives are at stake,” Holbrooke said. Defining the dynamics of diplomatic visa distribution, Holbrooke explained: “Your career is on the line when your government boss does not want too many ‘approved’ stamps on visas. Too few — more people die…. Some [diplomats] played it safe, [kept] Jews out of their countries…. Yet a few officials risked their lives and careers to save tens of thousands of [Jewish] lives.” There were audible gasps around me after Holbrooke informed, “At Yad Vashem, not a single American official is honored.”

As in past years, YIVO board member Motl Zelmanowiczspoke passionately in Yiddish (with English translation sheets for the mameloshn-challenged) regarding the “golden thread of our traditions,” expressing hope that the “younger generations will take the light from our hands and continue our historic path to a better future for the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture.” Ringing down the curtain was a musical program “Harts un Soul: A Celebration of Jewish Theater in Music,” featuring Grammy Award-winner Lorin Sklamberg, and theater/cabaret artists Joanne Borts. Also in attendance was Rob Schwimmer, who played piano and theremin. Theremin? For those not familiar with this instrument — very few can be found in family living rooms — it is a square electronic box. One plays the theremin without touching it; the instrument emits unique sounds when hands are moved close to its two antennae. According to the Web site Theremin World, Russian physicist Levy Termen, who changed his name to Leon Theremin, invented the instrument in 1919. The theremin’s spooky sound can be heard in the films “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “It Came From Outer Space,” “Spellbound” and “The Lost Weekend.” Awoooo! Another tidbit about comrade Theremin is that after forcefully being “taken back to the Soviet Union [from the U.S.]… he worked for the KGB, designing — among other things — [an eavesdropping] ‘bug’ and methods for cleaning up noisy audio recordings.”


A LOOK BACK AT THE 1967 SIX DAY WAR IN WASHINGTON AND IN LONDON

The coinciding last week of the annual Book Expo at New York’s Javits Center with the 40th anniversary of Israel’s Six Day War brought back memories of the 1967 American Booksellers Association convention in Washington, D.C. It was June 5, 1967; my husband, Joseph, and I were on the convention floor, and it was business as usual, with exhibitors luring booksellers into their booths. Suddenly someone shouted, “Israel’s at war!” We thought it was a promotional prank. But within minutes, booksellers began shutting down exhibits, leaving skeleton staffs in place. Many buyers, most of them Jewish, lined up at payphones to call family, arrange for flights home and commence fundraising. Joe was particularly concerned, because he had an extended family in Israel; his father was born in Jaffa.

Three weeks later, we were in London. During several of our taxi rides, the drivers asked, “Are you American?” Yes. “Are you Jewish?” A bit taken aback, we nodded. “Good show, you chaps!” It was a great time to be Jewish in London town.

Thanks to Ruth Winston-Fox, a prominent Member of Parliament in the Jewish community, I received a gilt-edged invitation to a luncheon at London’s Hilton that was held as an emergency fund appeal for Israel. The event was under the auspices Harewood’s then countess, the only Jewish member of the royal family. The countess, a talented violinist, was the darling of British Jewry, their Bess Myerson. Because of her, nearly 1000 Jewish ladies — many from families whose Jewish roots had long gone dry, including several Lady Cohens, etc. — mingled in what seemed like a scene straight from “My Fair Lady” at the Ascot races.

They had come to listen to keynote speakers — 28-year old Yael Dayan, a lieutenant in the Israeli Army Women’s Corp., and Avram Yoffe, a tank commander in the Sinai campaign. The longhaired, tanned Dayan captivated the audience with her description of a night spent in the middle of a minefield, waiting for daylight, and then hearing the news of the entry into Jerusalem. Yoffe reported that the army “girls” had been an inspiration to the men, “fighting on equal terms.” Waves of “Hear! Hear!” interrupted their presentations. After a film documentary about Israel that was narrated by late film actor Laurence Harvey , a woman next to me exclaimed, “I didn’t know he was Jewish!” I told her, “He’s a Litvak from South Africa.” While pledges were being collected and counted, I approached the countess and asked for her autograph. It was a protocol no-no, inasmuch as one is never supposed to ask a member of the royal family for an autograph! Perhaps not to offend me, “a colonial,” she graciously signed my invitation. When the ladies saw this, they rushed to the dais, imploring: “Your grace… would you deign to sign…?” As she declined to sign more invitations, a scream, “It’s Topol!” came from the back of the room. Topol — then starring as Tevye in the London production of “Fiddler on the Roof” — had come to the fundraiser to see Dayan, who is a friend of his. In doing so, he inadvertently set off a near riot.

The women forgot about the countess. I was carried along by the crush of the women’s stampede, and was pressed under Topol’s chin and against his more than 6-foot frame. In an attempt to protect my then stylish beehive hairdo, I raised my arms. But I could not protect my ribs, and therefore could not catch my breath. Dangling charm bracelets tore at my hair and suit, as frenzied ladies pleaded, “Topol, please sign ‘For my Fiona,’ ‘For Sheila,’ ‘For Adela’!” Security finally arrived, rescuing me and putting me in a cab. When my husband opened our hotel room door and saw my shredded suit and wild hair, he assumed I’d been in an automobile accident. That night, Fleet Street newspapers had a ball. In his Evening News column, headed “A Touch of Hysteria in Park Lane,” the correspondent known as “John London” reported: “The autograph hunters — elegantly-dressed, well-coiffured, smartly-hatted women — who had been jostling Miss Dayan, daughter of the eye-patch general, stampeded to Topol and for 10 minutes he could not move.”

In 1991, Topol was celebrating his 25th year performing Tevye around the globe. During our interview at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Club, I told him, “I waited 23 years to give this to you,” and handed him a copy of the London paper’s report of the mayhem he caused at the London Hilton Israel fundraiser. He laughed, then segued to his Tevye persona. “When I first played Tevye, I was only 10 years married, so the 25 years of Tevye’s marriage looked like eternity,” he said. “Now it’s 36 years, so that Tevye’s 25 years is like child’s play.” Two years ago, New York’s America-Israel Cultural Foundation honored Topol. He and I reminisced about the heady post-Six Day War time in London. Topol just shook his head and smiled.



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