Poland’s Jewish Past; Bob Hope Memories


By Masha Leon

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Other than visits to the Polish Consulate in New York, I have not set foot on Polish “soil” since my mother and I fled Nazi-occupied Warsaw in the winter of 1939. Invited to the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, but unable to attend, I asked Michael Berkowicz, vice president of Friends of the Festival, if he would act as my “eyes and ears” at this year’s 13th festival, held from June 28 to July 6.

On July 25 I met with Berkowicz and his wife, Bonnie Srolovitz, an industrial designer and his partner in Presentations Gallery, which specializes in sanctuary design and liturgical furnishings. Among their designs: the sanctuary at the Sutton Place Synagogue and the Holocaust memorials at Young Israel in Great Neck and Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing.

“The recurring theme at the festivals is that Poland is a poorer nation without the Jews,” said Berkowicz, a founding member of the American Guild of Judaic Art and chair of the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture of the American Institute of Architects. “Poland acknowledges the value of the Jewish past… that Jews and Poles lived together for 900 years… that their cultures co-existed… and [now] tries to teach this to present-day Poland.”

“I attended a Sholom Aleichem school in Wroclaw, sponsored by the Polish government,” said Berkowicz, who grew up in postwar Poland. “Yiddish and Jewish history was taught along with secular subjects. There were Jewish boy scouts and Jewish camps…. Ida Kaminska began her Yiddish theater in Wroclaw. What has regrettably not been acknowledged — particularly by American Jews — is the rich Yiddish life in postwar Poland until 1968.” He was referring to the Communist-instigated antisemitic witch-hunt-pogrom that swept the country and led to the flight of the remnant of Poland’s surviving Jewish population.

“The festival was originally designed as a Jewish [event] for Poles to discover what was lost after 1968 — a Poland without Jews…. It has since become an international phenomenon attracting thousands of visitors from around the world,” Berkowicz said. “[American] cantors Benzion Miller and Alberto Mizrahi opened the inaugural concert at the renovated Tempel Synagogue. It was amazing! Similar to New York’s Central Synagogue, [Tempel] has [the original] menorahs on its wrought iron fence. The choir of the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem [conducted by Elli Jaffe] was phenomenal. Imagine, black ties and tzitzit!…. There was a sense of mir zaynen do, we are here!”

In describing the final concert, Berkowicz was transported: “It was outdoors. Ten thousand — 95% non-Jews — on Szeroka Street.… Packed…. No one leaves…. Performers on stage for six hours… It was all covered live by Polish TV! And then there was an energetic Theodore Bikel singing “az der rebbe zingt… kum aher du filozof” (“when the rabbi sings…. come here, philosopher) and “Reysele” by Krakow’s own [Mordechai] Gebirtig. As usual Bikel signed off with ‘If I Were a Rich Man.’”

Asked to comment about the festival on Polish TV, Berkowicz said, “I told them, the festival demonstrates our Jewish impact on Polish culture, that I support it because it allows me to feel proudly Jewish as a Polish Jew in this new Poland.”

* * *

I met Bob Hope (who died on July 27 at 100) when he was a “surprise” guest at the November 7, 1988, “Broadway Tribute to Lee Guber” at the Minskoff Theatre. He joined such stars as Robert Merrill, Eli Wallach, Theodore Bikel, Charles Strouse and Henny Youngman, in acclaiming Broadway producer Guber “a man of the theater with the mind of a philosopher and the heart of a social scientist” who had died in March of that year. The evening’s proceeds were to benefit the YM-YWHA’s Emanu-El Midtown Y and its [then] newly renamed Lee Guber Jewish Repertory Theater.

Arriving backstage on the arm of his wife, the 85-year-old Hope was ambushed by a barrage of photographers’ flashes. He gamely posed for the cameras, chatted with the emcee Kitty Carlisle Hart and, in his USO host mode, ogled, then posed with a bevy of long-legged tap dancers. During a photo-op lull, I told Hope that as a child newly arrived in Montreal in 1942 and though not yet fluent in English, I liked “Road to Morocco.” His snappy comeback: “Maybe that’s why you enjoyed it.”

Greeted by the crowd with a roar, Hope homed in on the [then] imminent election: “I saw a woman on MTV pleading for money — it was Imelda Marcos…. According to Bush, ‘Dukakis’ is Greek for ‘Mondale’.… Nancy bought all that expensive china, but if the Greeks get into the White House, they’ll end up smashing it all.” After Hope took his final bow, Lois Wyse Guber thanked the “UJA and Associated Ys…. Lee would be happy to have his name on a Jewish theater,” she said.

“After all, he produced ‘The World of Sholom Aleichem’ and ‘Rags.’” In the audience were Geraldo Rivera, Peggy Tishman, James Nederlander and Jewish Rep director Ran Avni. Also, wearing a lime-green coat, Barbara Walters, the former Mrs. Lee Guber.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.