Deneuve Shines at French Institute’s ‘Star’ Soirée

By Masha Leon

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
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A luminous Catherine Deneuve, star attraction at the March 10 “La Nuit des Étoiles” (“The Night of Stars”) benefit dinner for the French Institute/Alliance Française at Restaurant Daniel, sought sanctuary from the paparazzi by retreating to a banquette, where we chatted briefly about her 1980 film, “The Last Metro.” In it she portrays an actress in Nazi-occupied Paris who risks her life by hiding her Jewish husband beneath the theater upon whose stage she performs nightly for German officers. Apropos, I mentioned actor-director Claude Berri, who re-created his own “hidden” experience in his acclaimed film, “The Two of Us,” and that, as a child, my husband’s Paris-born cousin, Dr. Guy Dorf, also escaped deportation by being hidden by French peasants.

Champagne sippers included dinner co-chair Michèle Gerber Klein; Consul general of France in New York, François Delattre; Alliance Française president Marie-Monique Steckel; TV personality Charlie Rose; New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnik (whose Purim shpiel at the Jewish Museum’s 2001 Purim Ball cast Donald Trump as Ahasuerus, and portrayed Queen Esther as an Erin Brockovich savior of the Jewish people). Also on hand was master chef Jacques Pépin, head of The French Culinary Institute (Pépin teaches a course at Boston University). He told me that his colleague, “Prof. Elie Wiesel, was instrumental in getting [Wiesel’s] longtime friend, [Francois] Mitterand, to deliver the commencement address at B. U…. [President] Bush, the father and [Michael] Dukakis were also there.”

A few weeks earlier, at the “Étoile’s” pre-dinner launch at the Doubles club in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, the guest crush included Sharon Bush; Forbes editor Jill Brooke with her husband, Gary Goldstein, and Elaine Sargent (a relative of painter John Singer Sargent, whose infamous “Madame X” now hangs at the Met). Steckel told me during our chat that she had spent five years on Ronald Lauder’s personal staff as senior adviser on the “foundation’s Jewish Renaissance Project in Warsaw to reconstruct Prózna Streets 7 and 9… the only streets that survived [the razing] of the ghetto.” Prózna was not far from where I had lived as a child in prewar and early Nazi-occupied Warsaw.

I asked Vladka Meed (who had been a courier between the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto’s 1943 uprising and the Polish underground) if she knew of the restoration. Meed knew nothing of it, but told me that Prózna had been in “the Little Ghetto” from which Zofia Nowogrodski (wife of Emanuel Nowogrodski, my father’s boss and editor of Di Folks-zeitung was deported in one of the ghetto’s final liquidations.

I called the Lauder Foundation for more details. A fax from Glenn Williamson, managing director, Amber Real Estate LLC, clarified that Jewish Renaissance Foundation Inc. “has formed a joint venture with Warimpex Finanz und Beteiligungs AG, an Austrian investment and development firm, for the redevelopment of two historic properties in the center of Warsaw… Prózna 7 and Prózna 9 were originally constructed as upscale apartments in the late 1800’s during the Belle Epoque period… [and] will be combined and redeveloped into a small luxury hotel. Their historic facades… rooms… will be… restored…. [Jewish Renaissance Foundation]… will also open a Judaica center in Prózna 7 that will promote awareness of the history of the surrounding neighborhood and Jewish life in Warsaw.”

Who, I wondered, owned Prózna 7 and 9 before September 1, 1939?

* * *

An intimate concert by pianist Yefim Bronfman and violinist Sarah Chang, held February 27 at Christie’s, for the benefit of the Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, was also dedicated to the memory of Mechtild Sawallisch and in honor of Maestro Wolfgang Sawallisch. The center, located outside of Tel Aviv, is the largest medical care research facility in the State of Israel and the entire Middle East, serving 850,000 outpatients and 125,000 inpatients annually.

Commenting on the Sawallisch-Sheba connection, Mordechai Shani, a professor who is the center’s director general emeritus, explained: “My two loves — apart from family — are medicine and music, [which] heal the spirit and allow us to transform the quality of our lives.… The Sawallisches came to Israel more than a decade ago from Munich, where the maestro served as conductor of the Munich Opera. They came to… love Sheba in the company of another of Sheba’s friends, the late Lea Rabin.… After he became the conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, [both] remained true friends and advocates for Sheba.”

* * *

Last Thursday, I returned for a second “tasting” of the Folksbiene’s revival of the Zalmen Mlotek-Moishe Rosenfeld-produced musical, “On Second Avenue.” Evocative and fun, it was smooth as silk. I went backstage to show “Second Avenue” headliner Mike Burstyn a photo of us taken in 1981, when he starred in “Barnum.” I schmuessed with cast members Robert Abelson and Joanne Borts (both of whom starred in the original 1987 production), and told them about the time, a few years ago, that I was invited by my longtime friend, Penny Butler, to speak about the Yiddish theater to a ladies auxiliary group at her Catholic church in Queens. “Trust me, they’ll love it,” she assured me.

Following a generic benediction by the priest, I began with Abraham Goldfaden, father of the Yiddish theater; the evolution of Second Avenue; the emergence of Yiddish art theater, and a few chuckle-eliciting anecdotes.

Not only did the Irish faces in the room smile, but a few of the women also had tears in their eyes! I was perplexed. Over coffee, several told me that they had grown up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where their fathers, brothers and uncles had been policemen who were given tickets to the shows. They remembered Maurice Schwartz, Tomashefsky, Paul Muni, the Adlers, Molly Picon and “that funny little man, schoolnik something [Menashe Skulnik].” They even recalled some of the plots! Which proves it: You don’t have to be Irish to love Yiddish theater. So if you haven’t been, go already.

by Masha Leon






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