Remembering The Ghetto

By Masha Leon

Published November 17, 2006, issue of November 17, 2006.
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NEW GENERATIONS BEING TAUGHT TO REMEMBER THE HOLOCAUST

No sooner does Ruth Westheimer arrive at a function, when photographers, guests and VIPs make a beeline for the munchkin-size psychosexual therapist best known worldwide as “Dr. Ruth.” Always effusive about her latest book (she’s written 31), film documentary or lecture, on October 25 at the American Friends of Ghetto Fighters’ Museum gala at the Pierre, a somber Westheimer — who in the late 1930s landed in Switzerland, thanks to the Kindertransport program — recalled: “I waved goodbye to my mother and grandmother in Frankfurt… a memory that haunts me to this day.” Westheimer stated: “We say we shall never forget the Holocaust.…Young Jews need to be reminded that the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum is a way to honor… and remember those who did not make it.”

Housed on Kibbutz Lohamei Ha-Geta’ot (“Ghetto Fighters”), a Western Galilee farm commune founded by uprising survivors, the museum celebrates 60 years of far-reaching educational initiatives that include the International Book-Sharing Project and Internet-based program, which brings together American and Israeli children in the discussion of Holocaust literature. In 1996, the Center for Humanistic Education was founded, offering a universalist approach to Holocaust education. Its fundamental philosophy is that dealing with the Holocaust through multicultural dialogue can lead to a deeper understanding of humanistic and democratic values — to moral and civic responsibility. A week before last summer’s Israel-Lebanon war erupted, the center held a three-day seminar that brought together Israeli Jewish, Arab Muslims, Christian and Druze students. The gala’s guest speaker was Manar Fawakhry, an Arab-Israeli who is a graduate and a staff member of the center.

Ambassador Dan Gillerman, permanent representative of Israel to the United Nations, contrasted the dark past when “I had to don my flack jacket and helmet to go into that buildingon First Avenue” with the seismic change in 2005 when the General Assembly “adopted an Israeli-initiated resolution” designating January 27 International Holocaust Day. “Two months later, in January 2006, the General Assembly held its first commemoration of the Holocaust in the same hall, filled with over 3,000 people and Holocaust survivors singing Yiddish songs… and I realized we had won!” Gillerman continued: “To honor and celebrate victory over evil worlds is no longer enough…. Sixty-one years later… we are hearing sounds reminiscent of the 1930s. A head of state denying the Holocaust while preparing the next one. The world and Europe have to realize that we must seize this moment…[because of] the war in Lebanon with all its pain… the world finally realized that the real threat is Iran…. Moderate Arab states finally realize Israel is not the threat, but Iran….We’ve changed the rules of the game… the pattern of behavior in our neighborhood.” Alluding to the evening’s 26th annual dinner theme — ”Yesterday & Tomorrow” — Gillerman concluded: “Yesterday [is] history; Tomorrow [is] mystery; Today is a gift [and] that’s why they call it the present.” The Korczak Teaching Awards — in memory of Warsaw’s Polish Jewish educator, Dr. Janusz Korczak, who accompanied the children of his orphanage to their death at Treblinka — were presented to Kelli Green, Edison Junior High School, Ohio; Linda Cohen and Patti Lovell, Glen Oak High School, Ohio; Terrie Baumgartner, Tuslaw Middle School, Ohio; Donna Mertes and Susan Schmader, Our Lady of Peace School, Ohio, and Mary Vazquez, Millburn Middle School, New Jersey. In her acceptance speech, Vazquez cited the 6 million Jews “and 5 million others who were victims of a murderous machine called Nazism. But the Holocaust is not the only chapter in history that includes genocide… Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, the Crusades… 2,000 years of tragedy…. I am not Janusz Korczak. I probably will never be in a position to sacrifice my life with my students. But I can honor his memory by being a vital connection between the sorrowful past and the joy of tomorrow…. I would like to honor all Holocaust survivors who are in attendance… you are our conscience of yesterday. And my students who are present this evening — you are our promise of tomorrow.”

The Honorary Korczak Award was presented to philanthropists and community leaders William and Jerry Ungar. Holocaust survivor and recipient of the Ellis Island Congressional medal of Honor, William Ungar — a former president of Temple Israel of Great Neck and author of an autobiography “Destined To Live” — and Jerry (who, it was noted in the journal, “worked clandestinely for the Haganah in New York before and after the birth of Israel”), are proud of their 17 grandchildren. Among the Institutions the Ungars have supported are the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City and the Solomon Schechter Day School in Queens.


YIDDISH PIRATES DROP ANCHOR IN BIG APPLE

Wherever they may be, Gilbert & Solomon — sorry! — Gilbert & Sullivan are no doubt kvelling at the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene production of “Di Yam Gazlonim,” Al Grand’s ingenious Yiddish reworking of G&S’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” Grand transforms Frederick, the orphan lad mistakenly apprenticed to pirates in the G&S original, into Fayvl, a heder yingl adopted by buccaneers with clandestine yeshiva pedigrees. Like G&S’s original plot, Grant’s version, is equally farblondzhet — convoluted.

At the November 8 matinee, busloads of Jewish community center members, Yiddish speakers, wannabe Yiddish speakers, longtime and recent Russian émigrés — all grateful for the excellent English and Russian supertitles — filled the Manhattan JCC auditorium. Thanks to the upbeat word-of-mouth plus that morning’s New York Times “thumbs up!” review by Lawrence Van Gelder, there was not an empty seat in the house. Next to me sat a mashgiakh from Actors Equity, checking to see if everything was kosher according union regulations. Seems it was his first taste of Yiddish theater, so I tried to wedge in as much trivia about America’s Yiddish theater history, Yiddish actors’ union and Folksbiene lore as I could during the intermission twixt Acts I and II.

Kudos to director Allen Lewis Rickman and to Folksbiene executive director Zalmen Mlotek for his musical direction. Hip, hip hurrah! for the costumes, sets and enthusiastic cast which seemed to be having as much fun as the audience. Standouts include Stephen Mo Hanan as Der Groyser General/the major general; Steve Sterner as Der Groyser Gazlen, i.e., the pirates’ capo di capos; Jacob Feldman as Fayvl, and Dani Marcus as Malke/Mabel, the major general’s daughter who falls for Fayvl. The insanely funny trio of policemen mugging it up in “Ven Der Soyne Vayzt Di Shverd” /“When the Foeman Bares His Steel…tarantara tarnatara…” are silent films’ Keystone Kops clones.

As I picked up my ticket, a lady asked box office treasurer Mike Grey, “How long is the show?” He replied, “It’s four hours and twenty minutes. But if you laugh, it’s a little longer.” She bought the ticket. The post-curtain laughter and applause lasted an additional 10 minutes. Backstage I asked Mlotek why so short a run? “We miscalculated.” He shook his head, adding that it will be re-staged at a later date. While waiting for the “Gazlonim/Pirates” to re-dock in New York harbor, there are Folksbiene free readings at various CUNY locations of Sholem Aleichem’s Dos Groyse Gevins (“The Lottery”) through the end of November, as well as a December-full of Yiddish

fun-for-all ages events. Just check out www.folksbiene.org.


WEIZMANN INSTITUTE — A TAPESTRY OF EXCELLENCE

Adding a touch of glamour to the cerebral American Committee for the Weizmann Institute’s October 29 “In Celebration of Science” gala, was Congregation Rodeph Shalom’s Cantor Rebecca Garfein (a statuesque blonde in a strapless black gown), who artfully performed America’s and Israel’s national anthems. As in past years, the gala was launched with a procession of distinguished guests. This year’s roster of 23 “brainiacs” who mounted the Waldorf-Astoria’s ballroom stage included Nobelists and researchers in cancer, biophysics, physiology, chemistry, neurology, microbiology and other disciplines — men and women whose research and teaching continues to transform lives worldwide.

“Without knowing it, Weizmann was helpful for me and Israel at the U.N,” keynote speaker Dan Gillerman said. “That we are not a one-issue mission [nor] a one-issue country… [but] a country that has contributed more to mankind…than most member states of the U.N….The torch which I carry is the Weizmann Institute. Such a tapestry of excellence has made the world a better place and helps us illustrate what Israel is all about.” Referring to James Wolfensohn, the evening’s Distinguished Service Award honoree, Gillerman said, “[He] is a man I regard as a hero, a role model and mentor.” Introduced by Gershon Kekst, Weizmann’s past chairman of the board of governors, Wolfensohn recalled: “My father, when he was 20, worked in Israel for Chaim Weizmann…The Weizmann Institute brings to our world a sense of quality replicated in so few places around the world…. A group of people who transcend politics… for the betterment of the world and the human race…. Our world of 6 billion will grow to [a world of] 9 billion [and among] institutes of research, institutes of science that bring solutions to problems that face us, Weizmann is certainly such a place, a glowing emblem of Israel.”

During the reception, I had asked Wolfensohn if he had a prepared speech, since his past presentations were somewhat lengthy. Wolfensohn — who from l995 to 2005 had served as the ninth president of World Bank and since April has been chairman of Citigroup international advisory board — smiled and replied, “They’ve only given me three minutes!” But, what he said about Weizmann was timeless.






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