Recalling a Screen Legend’s Legacy

By Masha Leon

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.
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Images of stunning, flame-haired Hollywood “love goddess” Rita Hayworth were projected onto a huge translucent globe suspended above the ballroom of The Waldorf-Astoria for the November 1 Alzheimer’s Association Rita Hayworth “Meet Me at the Stork Club” Gala (so titled because “Rita made a point of meeting everyone there,” the program noted). The walkway to dinner was transformed into a canopied replica of the entrance to New York City’s storied Stork Club. When Hayworth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1981, her daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, became her full-time caregiver. Since Hayworth’s death in 1987, the princess, who founded and serves as general chair of the galas, has helped raise $41 million for research. Rolex underwrote this year’s gala.

The glitzy black-tie crowd included Joan Collins, Denise Rich, Ivana Trump, Cornelia Bregman, Marty Richards, Ron Silver, Allison and Howard Lutnick, and Judith Ripka (who hosted a kickoff for the gala at her Madison Avenue jewelry shop). Also in attendance were chairs Somers Farkas, Muffie Potter Aston, Claudia Cohen and Nurit Kahane Haase.

Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association, informed that though the disease now 4.5 million sufferers, “as many as 16 million baby boomers face the possibility of living with Alzheimer’s.” The association, which makes help available in 140 languages, thus far has raised more than $185 million in grants to 1,400 research projects to explore causes, prevention and treatment. The gala honored fashion designer Dennis Basso (whose mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), and chairman and CEO of MetLife Inc. Robert Benmosche (whose mother died of the disease). To date, MetLife has provided $15 million for Alzheimer’s research, awareness and outreach.

Since his name is articulated as “ben-mo-shay, I asked MetLife’s CEO if he is French or Sephardic. He is neither. “My grandparents are from Lithuania,” he said. “So you’re a Litvak?” I asked. He nodded. Later he told me his family’s amazing history: His great-grandfather, Moshe Kreiskol, “was the first Jew to serve in the tsar’s army in the 1830s…. He was allowed to be a Jew and was known as ‘Moshe the Jew’… fought in the Crimean War and earned a pension…. He met Sarah, a widow with three children. Since the firstborn son of a Russian soldier must serve in the army, when they had a son they fled to Egypt, where my grandfather was born.” The family’s odyssey includes Laukuva-Vainutas in Lithuania, where his grandfather, Rabbi Yechiel Licht, was born. His grandmother’s family (Krinsky-Kahan) hails from Knyszyn-Trzcianne near Bialystok. They moved on to England (1880) and then to the United States (1894), where his grandfather served as a rabbi in Norfolk, Va.; Brooklyn and Boston. “Remember,” he told me at the end of our chat, “If you live to 85, you have a one-in-two chance of getting Alzheimer’s.”

* * *

The November 5 Yeshiva University Women’s Organization 60th annual Opera Benefit at Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater was a celebration in three acts. Act 1 was New York City Opera’s delicious production of Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” YUWO’s national chairman of the board, Dinah Pinczower, recalled that it was the “late Esther Wouk, mother of award-winning novelist Herman Wouk, who started the opera [benefit] in 1945. Back then it was held in the old Metropolitan Opera House.”

Act 2 brought the presentation of the Keter Torah Award to Diane Wassner for her work in helping to provide food, clothing and textbooks to needy Y.U. students. The Advancement of Jewish Education for Women and Holocaust Studies Award was presented to Holocaust survivor and philanthropist Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. “It’s 60 years since the end of World War II,” Heller said. She described how she and her family were forced into hiding for nearly two-and-a-half years “where we [often] remained in a crouching position [and were saved] thanks to the kindness of our Christian rescuers…. I came to America — a country that has been good to me — 45 years ago, and for the first time in my life I felt free to express my Jewish identity…. I believe there is a reason I survived the Holocaust.” She said that she wrote her book, “Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs” (Devora Publishing), “so that my children and grandchildren would know of the horrors I endured and the unwavering courage of my rescuers…. It is not enough to remember how 6 million died; we must also remember how they lived — as Jews.”

Finally, Act 3 was an après opera feast topped off with an array of sinful desserts.

* * *

In 1944, Italian importer Giorgio Perlasca became a self-appointed charge d’affaires of Spain in Budapest. He issued protective passes to Hungarian Jews. Working with Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, Friedrich Born of the International Red Cross and Angelo Rotta of the Vatican, these passes, plus his stewardship of “safe houses” flying the Spanish flag, saved an estimated 3,500 Hungarian Jews. Gábor Horváth, Hungary’s consul general in New York, and Antonio Bandini, consul general of Italy in New York, lauded Perlasca at a special November 3 memorial service held at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El. Rabbi Andre Ungar, former spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel in Woodcliffe Lake, N.J., said that Perlasca was a lamed vovnik, one of the 36 righteous men who keep the world in balance. David Saranga, Israel’s consul general in New York for media and public affairs, recalled that when he was consul in Madrid he met Jaime Vándor, Israel’s then honorary consul to Barcelona, who had been rescued by Perlasca. Turning to Perlasca’s grandson Ricardo onstage, Saranga conveyed “[Vándor’s] deepest gratitude to the Perlasca family.” Perlasca responded: “[My grandfather] did not think that what he did was unusual and something for which he needed to be compensated.” The Perlasca story might have remained unknown, “hidden in a drawer,” said the grandson, had not “some Jewish women from Germany and Hungary [whom Perlasca saved] looked for and found him.”






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