AUTHOR ERICA JONG AT CHARLOTTE WHITE’S SALON DE VIRTUOSI CONCERT
Several years ago, during my first lunch with Charlotte White, founder of Salon De Virtuosi, she told me: “My father and grandfather began each day with the Forverts, and my mother loved A Bintel Brief.” We were at the Regency Hotel, and a stack of Forwards sat on a table behind the maître d’ station. White’s latest Salon concert, held on January 22 at the Hungarian Consulate, showcased prizewinning Hungarian cellist Istvan Vardai and 22-year-old Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich. A top prizewinner of Israel’s 12th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition who made his debut at age 10 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta, Rabinovich dazzled the audience with Franz Liszt’s challenging Sonata in B Minor. The crowd included novelist and poet Erica Jong, whose 1973 blockbuster “Fear of Flying” set the literary world afire and prompted Henry Miller to declare the book as “making literary history… women will find their own voice and great sagas of sex, life, joy, and adventure.”
White (now 95, and looking decades younger) has showcased young prizewinning artists from all over the word in her Salon concert series, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. A pianist in her own right, she once told me that at 15, her father, a music lover, ran away from Warsaw to join impresario Max Reinhardt’s theater. “I studied with Regina Lhevinne and Adela Marcus, and performed until 1952, when I married a diplomat [Paul White], a second cousin of Cary Grant. His mother’s father was the brother of Cary’s mother.” (Amplifying the relationship, White said, “The family fled the [Spanish] Inquisition and later settled in the south of England.”) Three months into her marriage, White landed in Rangoon, Burma. “I saw a sign on a store, ‘Solomon Bros. — Coats, Suits, Fabric,’” she said. “I went into the dimly lit store, hesitatingly said ‘Sholom aleichem,’ and got an ‘Aleichem sholom’ in return. They introduced me to the Jewish community — mostly Iraqi Jews from Calcutta. There was a Burma-Israel Club in Rangoon, where we held receptions, concerts and celebrated Pesach.” Desperate for a piano, she found an upright Steinway in a hut on a mud floor. “But… it was tuned to the Burmese scale! The Pakistani ambassador then ordered a ‘tropicalized’ piano — a British specialty — and I was able to give concerts and lessons.”
White and her diplomat husband were then posted to Japan, “where my daughter was born,” and then went on to Katmandu, Nepal and India. “We ended up in Cochin, whose red-haired Jewish mayor’s family had come from Holland in the 15th century. We were on an island called ‘Jewtown.’” After locating a perfectly tuned upright, White said, “I performed a concert of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin.” She asked Mayor Koder what else she could play for him. “‘You can play ‘Hava Nagila,’ he told me. And I did.”
Post-concert, over platters of Hungarian goulash, tangy cucumber salad and devastating pastries, Jong told me that her grandparents on her mother’s and father’s side came, respectively, to London from Odessa and to Vilnius (also known to Jews as Vilna) from Grodno. Collectively, they spoke Yiddish, English, French and Russian. All of her grandparents ended up settling in New York. “My grandfather was a painter,” she said. “He did posters for MGM and, even during the Depression, was able to support the family as a portrait painter…. My now 97-year-old mother was also a painter. My father was a jazz musician… I did not want to compete with my mother, father or grandfather, and poetry was my first love. So I am the first writer in the family.”
“Love Comes First,” Jong’s most recent volume of poetry, is part of a Penguin Books republishing project that includes her “backlist.” (Just read a “buzz” that Kate Winslet may portray Isadora Wing, the zipper-obsessed heroine of “Fear of Flying.”)
OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE FILM “DEFIANCE” AND PARTISAN GROUPS
When I asked Nechama Tec, author of the novel “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans,” how she felt about the reviews of the eponymous movie, which starred Daniel Craig, her response was, “An author is always happy to see his work made into a film.” Hot and lukewarm reviews, commentaries and critiques uniformly tout the film as an “at last” exemplar of changing the image of powerless victimhood during the Holocaust. As a child in Warsaw, having witnessed young Jews battling Polish police on horseback or standing up to antisemitic ruffians, my mindset has been tempered by an awareness of the heroism of those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, revolted at Sobibor, destroyed the crematoria in Auschwitz; those who kept schools going and libraries open inside ghettos, and the tens of dozens partisan groups — most smaller than the Bielskis — who managed to save Jews and to repel and kill some Germans. Among these were the partisans of Vilna and partisans like Shimon and Chaye Palevsky, who fought in the Belorussia, in the Naroch forest. My recent column noting my mother’s and my arrival at, and escape from, Byten (my parents’ home town in Belarus), elicited a letter from Forward reader Abraham Ross of Allentown, Pa., who just returned from Byten. He had retraced his mother’s survival in the Volchy Nori (Wolf Caves) forest and swamps near Byten, south of the forest where the Bielski brothers survived and where my own family members perished, some fighting alongside the partisans.
Ross writes: “I was born after WWII, on September 5, 1945, in my grandparents’ home outside of Ivatsevechi, Belarus, 14 miles from Byten. When I saw ‘Defiance,’ I saw on a large screen the same story my mother told us. She was in the Ivatsevechi Ghetto, then the Byten Ghetto in 1942 and from August 1942 to July 1944 in Volchy Nori… the winters were bitter, below freezing, food, basically potatoes and potatoes… endemic Typhus, German manhunts — “they shot us like animals” — and unsympathetic Russian partisans who wanted the Jews dead. My uncle, Aron Suchowicki, was an active Jewish partisan (Boya Voya Group), under the leadership of Bori Yudkovski. They fought the Germans by cutting phone lines, blowing up rail lines and trains and in armed combat…. All the other Jews and my family were killed at the edge of an open pit in Ivatsevichi on August 6, 1942… 1,000 Jews arrived in the Volchy Nori Forest in 1942 from the surrounding towns of Byten, Slonim, Kossovo.”
“My father never sought fame,” said Robert Bielski, the 56-year-old son of Tuvia Bielski, at a prerelease screening of “Defiance,” which I attended at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. The entire audience was composed of Bielski survivors — those who were saved by, or fought with, the Bielski brothers — and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “We are all banded together; we may not be family, but we are closer than blood,” Bielski said. “It is our responsibility to pass on the legacy, who we are and where we come from, and tell the world proudly, ‘We are Jews!’”
As Bielski called out family names, small groups got up from their seats. Applause greeted film producer and director Edwin Zwick, who said: “Tonight this is no longer your or my story; it will belong to all those who see it. There was the fear that the story would not be told, that victimization and passivity, hopelessness, is what will be remembered.”
‘SPIELZEUGLAND’ — A REDEMPTIVE FILM. OR IS IT WISHFUL THINKING?
What a relief, to chance upon what one dares label a German “feel-good” film about the Holocaust. Seemingly an attempt at redemption, this 2009 Oscar-nominated short, “Spielzeugland” (“Toyland”), takes place in 1942 Germany. Two little boys — one of them Jewish — are playing four-hand piano. All around are hints of Nazi antisemitism: a Star of David on a door, complaints about the noisy “piano-playing” Jews. The Jewish family is deported. The German mother tells her son that his friend went to spielzeugland, and Heinrich, who is an Aryan, wants to join his Jewish friend there, but is rebuffed. His mother fears that he may have inadvertently followed the Jewish family to their unknown fate, so she races to the train. There, we encounter one of those film moments that makes you wish a redemptive act like this had actually happened. The film opens and ends with a piano performance of “Hiney Ma Tov Umanayim.” Jochen Alexander Freydank’s 14-minute movie allows you to “breathe.” It opened last week at the Independent Film Center in New York and in 60 cities throughout the United States.