Wishing for Cultural Ties To Keep U.S., French Allied


By Masha Leon

Published April 04, 2003, issue of April 04, 2003.
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French champagne and canapés greeted arrivals at the March 19 “Sounds French: A Festival of New Music from France” reception at the Fifth Avenue headquarters of the French Embassy’s Cultural Services. The evening celebrated the month-long series of performances of works by French composers at New York City concert halls.

“In view of the unfortunate tensions between the United States and France,” began Nicholas Firth, chairman of BMG Music Publishing Worldwide-Bertelsmann and the evening’s sponsor, “We hope this has not affected our love of music.” Ostensibly not, judging by the assemblage that included American composers George Perle and Elliott Carter, as well as Vera Stern, Morley Safer, Schuyler Chapin and Vartan Gregorian, who awaited the arrival of the guests of honor: maestros Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux and Mstislav Rostropovich.

“This is for me the first opportunity as French ambassador to the United States to meet with the artistic and cultural community of New York,” said Jean-David Levitte. “The French and American people are linked by one of the richest and most intense relationships, particularly in the arts and culture… which we have a duty to preserve and nurture, whatever the circumstances.”

“Our friendship,” he continued, “is rooted in history — French citizens [participated] in the early days of your [revolution for] independence… American troops have saved France twice, and we will never forget…. Let’s use … economic and cultural links…to rebuild what may have been damaged between our two people.”

After I touted the Forward’s yikhus to Levitte, he affably put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know, I am Jewish myself.”

* * *

Since I experienced the early days of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, William Shulman, director of the Holocaust Resource Center and Archives at Queensborough Community College, invited me to the American Museum of the Moving Image to share my “Warsaw experiences” with the audience at a March 10 screening of Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist.”

I opted not to revisit my recollections of the September 1939 bombing of Warsaw — the city in flames, the assault by Germans troops, the hunger and brutality. Escaping from Warsaw before the ghetto walls went up, I was spared what Wladyslaw Szpilman (whom Adrian Brody portrays in the film) witnessed and endured. Instead, I expressed my admiration for Polanski’s meticulous attention to historical and visual authenticity that brought back childhood memories: the archival film clips of a bustling Marszalkowska Street (Warsaw’s Fifth Avenue), where my mother and I shopped, and a view of the Saski Ogrod (the Saxon Gardens), where I used to play. Polanski filmed the opening chapter of “The Pianist” in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw across the Vistula River that was not destroyed by the Germans and where the Soviet army dallied as it watched the Nazis put down the doomed 1944 Polish uprising. I recognized the streets because my aunt Civia lived in Praga. She, her husband and eight months old daughter perished in the Warsaw ghetto. Polanski enlisted Dr. Marek Edelman as one of his consultants. Edelman, a Bundist resistance leader in the 1943 ghetto uprising, had been a frequent visitor to our home in Warsaw. I told the audience, “I have never gone back. The memory of pre-war Warsaw is so vivid, I am afraid that it might be wiped away.”

Among those touting the center at the event, sponsored by film distributor Focus Features, were Harriet Novet, public affairs vice president of Time Warner Cable (which hosted the reception); Michael Nussbaum, associate publisher of the Queens Tribune, and Eduardo Marti, president of QCC. The center was established in 1983 and serves as the international office of the Association of Holocaust Organizations. Marti vowed that he would try to ensure that the “center be endowed in perpetuity.” Marti, a refugee from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, confided to me, “Like you, I cannot return to Cuba.”

* * *

I actually applauded my TV screen when “Nowhere in Africa” won an Oscar as best foreign-language film. Based on Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel, it languidly re-creates the “adventures” of a well-to-do Jewish family that fled the Nazis and spent the war years on primitive outback farms in Kenya.

I called the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre’s treasure, Mina Bern, who had spent time in Ugandan jungles and in Kenya. How she got from Bialystok to Russia to Tehran, landing in Uganda’s Buenoro forest in 1941 is a “long story,” she said, adding by way of an explanation that the Soviets “sent me and my baby, Renia, to Uganda in a vilder velt (a wild world), to create a colony, grobn di erd (dig in the ground). We were surrounded by natives in a little straw hut. Every night [they] would burn the huts, and we were left without a straw roof over our heads.”

Eventually she was allowed to leave to perform in Nairobi — although she was forced to leave her 3-year-old daughter behind as a “hostage.” Bern recalled: “Along the train route we would be met by Jewish women… who gave out food and drink. A Mrs. Dorfman from Germany, who worked for refugee welfare, petitioned the government to allow me to stay in Nairobi. I got a job.

“I didn’t speak any English, just a little Swahili,” said the impish Bern. “So how many people in the Yiddish theater spent time in a Ugandan jungle forest?”

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