Yulianna Avdeeva, born in 1985 in Moscow, was the first woman in 45 years to win the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, held in Warsaw in October 2010. On January 3, Avdeeva, who beat out nearly 80 competitors, was center stage at New York City’s Polish Consulate for the Grand Finale of the Chopin 1810–2010 yearlong series of celebrations. Model thin, and chic in a satin pantsuit, Avdeeva flawlessly aced several Chopin works. Consul general Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka introduced Waldemar Dabrowski, general director of Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki Opera Narodowa (Great Theatre —National Opera) and director of Warsaw’s Chopin 2010 Celebrations Office, who in turn acknowledged Rabbi Arthur Schneier. Among the Chopin aficionados was Holocaust survivor Sigmund Rolat, chairman of the board of directors for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews; North American Council. Dabrowski credited Schneier, founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, with “bringing Pope Benedict XVI to New York, who then visited your synagogue.” Dabrowski (whose family, I later learned, helped save Jews “within the shadow of Treblinka”) informed that “Chopin has the biggest number of societies of all composers, with some 4,000 events having taken place this year worldwide… including Africa and the Emirates.” Smiling, Dabrowski said, “Imagine, a woman coming out in a burka and playing Chopin like an engine” — explosive.
The consul general hosted an intimate post-concert reception that included Schneier, Rolat and Elzbieta Penderecka, president of the Ludwig van Beethoven Association. Dabrowski reflected on the unfairness of stereotyping that “as a Pole, I am automatically labeled an anti-Semite.” He revealed, “My grandparents kept 11 Jews in the attic, with Germans below.” The family lived on land near the concentration camp Treblinka, and Dabrowski recalled, “My mother, who was then 19, said she hoped that one day Hitler would be hanging head down on the gallows,” as were the Jews whom the Nazis hung by their feet — “a sight intended to terrify the arriving transports.”
The January 6 lecture “New Yiddish Film,” featuring film historian and movie maven Eric Goldman, and the signing of the revised and expanded edition of Goldman’s book, “Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film — Past & Present” (Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 2010), was an apt forshpayz, an appetizer, for the January 12–27 New York Jewish Film Festival, at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Goldman’s lecture, co-sponsored by YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Yeshiva University Museum and the Anna and Murray Rockowitz Fund, took the audience at the Center for Jewish History on a fascinating 100-year film feast that included works on Yiddish theater in Russia, Yiddish silent films, the Golden Age of the 1930s and postwar movies. Among the obstacles faced by Yiddish films, Goldman cited a 1930s riot in Tel Aviv when “a Yiddish film was shown with the sound off” so as not to compete with Hebrew.
Goldman’s view of the future of Yiddish films was upbeat. As an example, he cited the once unimaginable “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” (which is scheduled to premiere at the festival), in which the lovers — Lazer Weiss (Lazer/Romeo) and Melissa Weisz (Faigie/Juliet), escapees from their ultra-Orthodox worlds — speak the Yiddish most often heard in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Also present was Yelena Shmulenson, who appears in the film. She also appeared with her husband, Allen Lewis Rickman, in the nine-minute Yiddish preamble of Ethan and Joel Coen’s “A Serious Man,” which Goldman touted as among the finest Yiddish film sequences on record.
In his preface to “Visions,” Goldman — whose credentials include founder and president of the video publishing company Ergo Media, film curator at YIVO and a teacher at Farleigh Dickinson University — writes: “The Yiddish cinema transcends territorial, political, and aesthetic boundaries… and contains a richness that envelops Jewish theater, music and folklore.”
He lauded “A Serious Man” for its “authenticity… a glorious moment in Yiddish cinema.” He cited “Solomon & Gaenor,” a 1999 Academy Award nominated film about a love affair between a Welsh woman and Jewish man, “which had dialogue in Yiddish, Welsh and English.” Among films using Yiddish, he also highlighted Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 film “Hester Street.” Notwithstanding the 1930s anti-Yiddish film attitude in Israel, Goldman noted, “there is now a new appreciation of Yiddish culture that was lost when parents — survivors of the Shoah — did not tell their children about their [Yiddish] heritage.”
Among the films Goldman highlights in his book is the 1935 “Mir Kumen On” (“We Are on Our Way”), which was filmed at the Medem Sanatorium at Miedzeszyn, just outside of Warsaw. The film, Goldman writes, “documents the awful living and working conditions in the Polish Jewish ghetto” and then “showcases the fresh air, open spaces at the sanatorium… an institution which was in part run by a self-governing body of campers and had a radio station run by [then teenage] Yosl Mlotek,” Father of the artistic director of the National Theatre Folksbiene, Zalmen Mlotek, he was at one time the managing editor of the Forverts. Banned by the Polish censor because, as Goldman writes, “the inclusion of a ‘socialist’ scene, where a group of 190 youngsters offers to make room for non-Jewish Polish children whose fathers were on strike,” the film was shown clandestinely in prewar Poland.
During the prewar summer of 1939, as a young camper I learned to sing what has become an anthem for the Medem Sanatorium. On the brink of war, my mother came and took me home to Warsaw. The children who remained — some had been my schoolmates — were among the first victims of the Nazi mobile poison gas trucks. When the staff was offered their “freedom” by the Germans, without exception, the teachers volunteered to mount the trucks and share the children’s fate and comfort them on their ride to death. Among them was Yankl Trowpianski, who was a family friend, my teacher and a composer of the popular children’s musical “Di Lialkies” (“The Marionettes,” which is still performed today). “Mir Kumen On” is the only witness to a “Camelot” chapter of Polish-Jewish life that bloomed for just a short time.