Keeping Memory Alive


By Masha Leon

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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‘In some paradoxical way, we each have come here to be alone — with our thoughts, with the last distant memory of loved ones long gone,” said David Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event held April 23 at Hunter College. Noting the “responsibility to the past, to remember, mourn and honor those who perished,” Marwell touted the museum’s “garden of 18 stones — with a tree growing from each one — a tree that represents life and the promise of the future.” The event was co-sponsored by the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, the American Jewish Congress-Council for World Jewry, the Consulate General of Israel in New York, the New York Board of Rabbis, UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

“I learned what can happen when Jews have no power,” said New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, museum chairman. “Although I was blessed to be born in this great country, the Holocaust has played a significant role in my life. Along with other veterans, [I] helped defeat Hitler and his henchmen. Following the vision of mayor [Ed] Koch, I helped establish the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where memory is preserved and where education is our most important mission.” Ambassador John Bolton, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, paid tribute to his Israeli counterpart, Dan Gillerman, and cheered the monumental January 17 U.N. Resolution that instituted worldwide commemoration of the Holocaust. “We cannot depend on occasional movies [to remind us] of the Holocaust,” New York State Senator Charles Schumer said. Alluding to Iran and Hamas, he explained: “In every generation, there are those who would try to destroy us.” Israel’s consul general in New York, Arye Mekel, mused: “You’d have thought the world would have learned a lesson. All they want to do is destroy the Jews and Israel.” Citing “the crazy leader of Iran, [as well as] Hamas and Hezbollah,” he said: “This is not an Israeli problem. The world has to stop Iran.”

Sam Bloch, president of the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Survivors Association, delivered what he defined as “a symbolic speech” in Yiddish, “the language of [most of the victims] and survivors.” Block later told me that when he was asked to speak at the 1995 anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the then-president of Germany insisted, “You must deliver your speech in Yiddish, because that’s what most of the victims spoke.” After a rather lengthy narrative of how and where the victims died, he concluded his talk: “Now, flowers and grass cover the shame of the world.” Survivor Robert Donat recalled: “It was Passover 1947. We had recently come to America. My mother put a few potato peelings on the Seder plate to remember [concentration camps] Majdanek, Radom, Dachau and Auschwitz. My wife and I have kept up this tradition. Later, my father wrote the story of our family’s journey through ‘The Kingdom of the Holocaust’ [Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963]. He wrote it for my children and their children and for all people, so they would [know] what this generation suffered in civilized Europe.” (On the jacket of my copy of Donat’s book, Elie Wiesel notes: “I have read hundreds of eye-witness accounts on the holocaust-kingdom…: I know of few other books of this kind that I could recommend without reservation.”) As the Temple Emanu-El choir sang, a procession of female survivors — Ruth Westheimer among them — and their children and grandchildren mounted the stage to light three sets of six candles, symbolizing the 6 million lives lost. Interweaving pain with anger, the Fifth Avenue Synagogue’s cantor, Joseph Malovany, sang a wrenching version of the prayer “El Ma’ale Rachamim” and then led the audience in singing the Partisan hymn “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (Never say you are on your final road/Our step beats out the message — we are here!”)

* * *

Anything negative that I say about ThinkFilm’s 2005 movie “When Do We Eat? Sex, Drugs & Matzoh Ball Soup” probably will have little effect on ticket sales. There is an audience of Jews and gentiles who will find hilarious the film’s pathologically dysfunctional family’s attempt at a Passover Seder. What kind of rite were these people celebrating? Meant to bring together the family, their Seder turns into a battlefield of old hurts, clashes of ego and unsavory revelations. The bizarre gathering includes Ethan (Max Greenfield), who has left his father’s business to become a Torah-quoting baal teshuvah and yet still has the hots for his cousin, who seduces him at the Seder. Jack Klugman, of “Odd Couple” fame, is pigeonholed as Artur, the family’s grandfather. A Holocaust survivor, his fear of unpacking — a well-founded survivor trauma — should not have been an object of insensitive humor. Born in Santiago, Chile, the film’s writer-director-producer’s Salvador Litvak, has a name that suggests Litvak provenance. Though Litvaks are noted for their irreverence, by the time the film begins to reverse its vulgar spiral, I, a Warsaw-born Litvak, found that the taste of bitter herbs had become irreversible.

* * *

Last week I ran into comedy king Freddy Roman on Madison Avenue. After a hug and a couple of air kisses, I asked him, “Have you seen Jake Ehrenreich in ‘A Jew Grows in Brooklyn’?” “Is it good?” he asked. “Would I be going to see it again if it wasn’t?” I answered. This time I went with my Bronx-born husband, Joseph, who, during intermission, earned points from former stickball-playing Brooklynites when he told them that he had been a “three-sewer” stickball hitter on Tiffany Street. Ehren-reich’s delicious, nostalgic, poignant and, at times, hilarious two-hour-marathon autobiographical retrospective of growing up in Brooklyn is pure joy. The son of Holocaust survivors, Ehrenreich presents an odyssey from Brooklyn to worldwide globetrotting musician, with rest stops in the Catskills as a multitalented tummler-musician. He had the audience roaring. I won’t give away the jokes or the stories, but Forward readers will get a kick out of the exposé about Joe and Paul, that haberdashery store whose jingle was a staple on the Forward’s WEVD radio hour. If you remember when the beginning of phone numbers had names (like Kingsbridge-8), and you have warm memories of Catskill kochaleins, or classy hotels, you need not be from Brooklyn to relish the show. Just brush up your Simon Sez — you will be tested! After May 28, the show will be moving to Broadway’s charming Lambs Theatre, on West 44th Street.

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