Munich, on Film and in Person

By Masha Leon

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
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A barrage of laudatory critics’ quotes in print ads and on television regarding Steven Spielberg’s overlong, gory thriller about the slaughter of the 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the ongoing media debate — some of which reads like an apologia — has left me with “Munich” fatigue. Though a sympathetic texture is allotted the Palestinians designated for assassination by the Mossad team, headed by Avner (Eric Bana), this is not counter-balanced by a similar sensitivity for the relatives of the murdered Israelis. Despite one brief scene of the families in Israel witnessing the athletes’ actual-in-time murder on a TV screen, there is no other portrayal of their anguish.

Did Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) actually say: “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values”? Which values? Were this a courtroom drama, the victims’ attorneys would be bellowing “Hearsay!” and demanding proof. And while the audience giggled at the persistent demand of a Mossad case officer (Geoffrey Rush) for “receipts” for expenditures so that they could fund the team’s mission to kill the athletes’ executioners (the Palestinian terrorists), it was uncomfortably Shylockian. Then there’s the manipulative breath-holding scene of a young Palestinian girl in a red dress about to pick up a phone the team has booby-trapped. Was this an oblique allusion to the little girl in a red coat in “Schindler’s List” who is a victim of the Nazis’ slaughter of the Jews? At the pre-opening screening I attended, no one applauded at the end.

In 1979, our Austrian “I-was-on-the-Russian-front” guide, Rudi, drove my husband, Joseph, and me past the Munich Olympic village. Unaware that we were Jewish, he casually said, “Something terrible happened here in 1972.”

The next day as we waited in the lobby of the Munich Hilton to lunch with Dr. Simon Snopkowski (a representative of the Jewish community in the Bavarian parliament) and his wife, Ruth (a founder of Munich’s Yiddish Festival), I heard a woman’s voice telling her American doctors’ group, “Schnell! Schnell! The bus for Dachau leaves immediately!” Spotting the tall, stocky, blond woman in navy suit and blue shirt, I whispered, “See, Joe, there she is, a double for Ilse Koch!” — a reference to the infamous “Witch of Buchenwald” who had an obsession for tattooed human-skin lampshades. As I approached her, I saw that she was wearing a large gold hamsah amulet in the shape of a hand with Hebrew inscription! “Ich auch, me too,” I said, pointing to a similar silver hand amulet (which I bought at New York’s Jewish Museum, and without which I never traveled abroad). “Ach, ja. You know, that terrible thing that happened in 1972, when those athletes were murdered,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “Later their families came here, and I was appointed their guide.” She looked up as though recalling that time. “I was with them day and night for a week. I took them everywhere. It was so sad. After they returned to Israel, they sent me this in appreciation. I wear it all the time, day and night.”

* * *

On December 19, Paul LeClerc, president and CEO of The New York Public Library, hosted a reception honoring Ruth Gruber on the occasion of her donation to the library of three letters she had received from Virginia Woolf in 1935-36, following the publication of Gruber’s 1932 doctoral dissertation on Woolf. The dissertation made headlines designating Gruber, at 20, as “the youngest Ph.D. in the world.” The book/thesis — which Gruber wrote in 1931-32 as a student at Cologne University — was just reissued as “Virginia Woolf: The Will To Create as a Woman” (Carroll & Graf), with an updated introduction.

Gruber called me, excited about the handwritten fan letter she had received from Cynthia Ozick. “Dear and esteemed Ruth! Intrepid and extraordinary Ruth! Of all your life’s amazements, who would have predicted… your writing a feminist study of Virginia Woolf decades before this became de rigueur among academics…. The new book… knocked me out.…To have been in Germany then!” Ozick cites a letter that Nigel Nicolson (son of Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackvlle-West, and editor of Woolf’s letters and diaries) sent Gruber in 1989: “As for Virginia being ‘quite pleased’ with your pamphlet about her, I was referring to her diary of 31 May 1935…. It’s one of the things I deplore about Virginia, her cattiness, contempt for almost everyone who were not her friends, and occasional touch of antisemitism…. But it’s almost heresy to suggest these things to the Virginia Woolf Society in the USA to whom she is Joan of Arc and Mother Teresa combined.”

Author of 17 books, Gruber is currently completing the third volume of her memoirs, “In Spite of Time: How To Live at 93.” Her books include “Destination Palestine: The Story of the Haganah Ship Exodus 1947” (Current Books, 1948); “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America” (Putnam, 1983); “Israel Today: Land of Many Nations” (Hill and Wang, 1958), and “Inside of Time: My Journey From Alaska to Israel” (Carroll & Graf, 2002). What stamina! What talent!

* * *

Though I’m handy with a needle, when it comes to exacting alterations, I head to dressmaker Nelly Kosmidis Lozeski. She was born in Eastern Europe’s Crimea. Her father was sent to the gulag, and she was taken back to Greece as an infant when her family returned home. As two people who are politically savvy and well read, she and I discussed politics, religion and the latest “red carpet” fashion gaffes. “Shh, listen!” she said when I came to her workshop a few weeks ago. “It’s ‘Gimpel the Fool’…. I listen to this at least once a month since I got this tape years ago,” she said. “I always cry at the end.” As Saul Bellow’s translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story of the luckless schlemiel from Frampol rolled on, I told her, “I knew the author, he was a family friend… and the voice on the tape sounds familiar.” The tape identified it as Joseph Wiseman. “He’s a famous actor!” I exclaimed. “In the first James Bond movie, ‘Dr. No,’ he played the title character.” I called Wiseman’s wife, dancer-choreographer Pearl Lang, and told her of my “Greek dressmaker crying at Joe’s reading of Singer’s story.” A pause. “Joe is in the hospital recovering from a serious fall,” Lang said. “Now I have a wonderful story to tell him.… Maybe it will help him get better faster.”

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