Among the 3,000 champagne-sipping guests crowded into New York City’s French Consulate for the July 14 Bastille Day celebration — hosted by consul general François Delattre and his wife, Sophie L’Hélias-Delattre — were Rabbi Arthur Schneier and his wife, Elisabeth; concert pianist Charlotte White (whose grandfather and father were avid readers of the Yiddish Forward), founder of Salon de Virtuosi; artist Maria Cooper (daughter of Gary Cooper), whose husband is pianist Byron Janis; and Marianne Pearl, widow of journalist Daniel Pearl.
A little more than a week earlier, Delattre hosted an intimate lunch at the consulate in New York in honor of author Marek Halter, to tout the second volume of his Canaan Trilogy, the novel “Zipporah, Wife of Moses” (Crown). The first was “Sarah” (Robert Lafont, Paris, 2003; Crown, 2004, in the USA); the third, “Lilah,” is due in 2006. Born in Poland in 1936, Halter escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, landed in Uzbekistan and, with his parents, immigrated to France in 1950. According to the book flap, Halter, an activist and founder of the International Committee for a Negotiated Peace Agreement in the Near East, “played a crucial role in the organization of the first official meetings between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Since our first encounter in 1987, whenever we meet, Halter embraces me with a bear hug and I greet him with “Vos makht a yid?” (“How goes a Jew?”). During the pre-lunch chitchat, Halter explained that the intent of the trilogy was to give voice to, and to flesh out, the lives of “the women in the Bible who were [just] written about.” Whereas the book jacket of the American edition of “Zipporah” shows a reproduction of a voluptuous “Woman of Algiers” (1871, oil on canvas by John Hodgson, 1851-1885), the jacket of the book sold in England sports the head of a modern, close-cropped African beauty. The publisher’s representative explained that the covers differed because the “African” image might land the book in the “ethnic” sections of some American bookstores. Halter informed that the biblical Hebrew word kush identifies Zipporah as an African. The book’s flyleaf states, “Because of Zipporah — the outsider, the black-skinned woman — Moses becomes a defender of the oppressed and a liberator of the enslaved.” I joshed: “How about Yvonne De Carlo?” referring to Cecil B. De Mille’s Zipporah in his 1956 “The Ten Commandments.”
With its champagne and its red and white wines, the luncheon sparked a round of historical reflection. Each guest — including Newsweek International’s senior editor, Andrew Nagorski — was asked to self-introduce. When I mentioned that I was “a Sugihara survivor,” (referring to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul general in 1940 in Lithuania, who saved 6,000 Jews by issuing 2,139 visas to Japan against his government’s orders), Halter said, “I made a documentary about Sugihara!” Halter then recalled that, as a member of Uzbekistan’s Young Pioneers in (white shirt, red tie), he had been chosen to travel to Moscow, where he presented flowers to Comrade Stalin (a glick hot im getrofn! [what luck!]). He has a fond memory of Stalin patting his head and calling him a “good boy,” which made Halter a hero back in Uzbekistan. I, too, had been a Young Pioneer in Soviet-occupied Vilna in 1940. I told Halter that I was made to sing, in Yiddish and Russian, about how Stalin was “taller than the mountains and deeper than the oceans.” But after school, I waited with my mother outside of Lukishki prison, where my father, arrested by Stalin’s NKVD, organized a hunger strike with his then cellmate, Menachem Begin. My father nearly died twice in prison in Uzbekistan.
The discussion turned to the Battle of Moscow and the millions of casualties on both sides, prompting Halter to hold forth on the “lesser of two evils” — Hitler vs. Stalin. Halter noted that while Hitler spelled out his intentions in “Mein Kampf,” no such written work guided the Soviets, whom he lauded for nurturing so many artists, intellectuals, scientists and musicians. “At what cost?” I interrupted. “Six million Ukrainians starved to death, millions sent to gulags; the destruction of Yiddish culture.” (I said this in partial reference to the Soviet-Yiddish writers murdered on August 12, 1952.) Dessert helped lower the temperature: poached peach with peppermint and rose. As we parted, I offered Halter the universal Yiddish send-off: “Zay gezunt” (“Be well.”)
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The anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima brought back the still vivid memory of my 1994 trip to Japan. My daughter, Karen, and I were invited to join the Unlikely Liberators mission, sponsored by the Holocaust Oral History Project Out of San Francisco, to honor the memory of Sugihara at the Hill of Humanity, a mountaintop monument near his hometown, Yaotsu. The group included 14 Japanese-American Nisei veterans of the 552nd Field Artillery Battalion who helped liberate Dachau, one of whose members helped rescue Solly Ganor (on tour with us) when she was but minutes from death. As an 11-year-old, Ganor, an avid stamp collector, had met Sugihara, a fellow stamp collector, in Kovno. In 1940, to celebrate Hanukkah, the Ganor family invited Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko, to their home, where he met other Jewish refugees from Poland. This may have contributed to his decision to issue those lifesaving visas.
As the mission veered toward the Hiroshima leg of its trip, late one night, at the Hotel Nagoya Castle, Karen and I, along with mission member Harry Fukuhara and Noby Yoshimura (whose brainchild this mission was), were schmuessing over $19 platters of bagels and lox. The usually upbeat Yoshimura — whose cap proclaimed the 552nd’s slogan, “Go for Broke” — turned morose. “Why,” he lamented, did America drop the bomb on Hiroshima, “knowing that so many Japanese Americans had their family roots there?” It seemed to be a condemnation not of the bombing per se, but of the chosen target. Hiroshima had been their families’ shtetl, whence many Japanese emigrated to California and Hawaii. It was their Kiev, Odessa, Vilna. “And now, there is no one to ask,” he said, appearing more sad than embittered. After coming to America in the 1920s, half of Fukuhara’s family returned to Japan where his mother, sister and other family members died in the Hiroshima blast. Fukuhara (who had been with the American military intelligence for 40 years and retired as a full colonel) was with an American intelligence group that captured the Japanese unit with which his brother, Frank, (also on our trip), fought.