Lost in Translation: ‘The Ghost Is Eager, But the Meat Is Tender’

The March 15 reception for the Institute of International Education’s launch of its Ruth Gruber Chair of the Scholar Rescue Fund was hosted by Patti Kenner at her Park Avenue home. Recapping the institute’s rescue work in the 1930s, Scholar Fund chairman Henry Jarecki said that out of 8,000 applicants, they were only able to rescue 330, including Martin Buber, Thomas Mann, Kurt Weill, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Hajo Holborn, a historian who fled Nazi Germany. Holborn settled at Yale University, where his daughter, Hanna Holborn Gray — the evening’s keynote speaker — became its first female provost in 1974.

Gray, president emeritus of the University of Chicago, described the émigré experience as living “in two worlds.” Growing up, she said, “only German was spoken” at home. This resulted in linguistic mangling, in which a statement such as “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” was transformed into, “The ghost is eager, but the meat is tender.” Arriving at Oxford in 1950 on an IIE-administered Fulbright, Gray thought she’d rediscover her Europeanness. “What I discovered,” she said, “was how truly American I was!”

Gruber, a renowned author and photojournalist, referred to the fund, which will support two scholars a year in perpetuity, as “a mitzvah honor.”

“We are saving lives. What is more important?” posited the 93-year-old Gruber, who in 1944 shepherded 1,000 World War II refugees to safe haven in Oswego, N.Y.

When she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Germany in 1931 (where she became the then-youngest person to have earned a doctorate in the world), Gruber hitchhiked “by truck” from Wisconsin to break the news to her parents in New York. “My mother thought ‘she must be pregnant’… My parents offered me $2000 not to go.… When I left for Cologne to live with a Jewish family, my mother said, ‘I wish you were pregnant!’” Describing Hitler’s rantings at Nazi rallies, Gruber recalled: “He spoke in a hysterical voice about the Jews… [and] America. The most important lesson I learned in Germany is how you can become a dictator legally.… You see it in Iran, in Haiti. You can be elected and [then] become another Hitler or Stalin.”

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Salve! Kalimera! Zdrastye! Bonjour!Konichiwa! Sholom aleichem!” were the greetings I exchanged with a dapper, cane-wielding Sir Peter Ustinov when we met four years ago at New York’s St. Regis Hotel. The multilingual international stage and film star, playwright, author, humanitarian, raconteur and, at times, stand-up comic, died of heart failure in Switzerland on March 28 at age 82.

Ustinov’s Jewish roots surfaced during our peripatetic conversation. “Thanks to a professor from Haifa University, I discovered a mysterious section of antecedents,” he said with mock gravitas. “My great-grandfather was a Christianized Jew from Poland who married an Ethiopian princess.… When I was attending Westminster School, at the next desk sat the son of Nazi foreign minister [from 1938 to 1945] Joachim von Ribbentrop, who always wore a red swastika pin in his jacket. My father, a journalist, was the London representative of a German news agency through 1939. [He] did not want me to know [I had Jewish roots].” When I asked Ustinov his reaction to discovering his Jewish DNA, he replied: “I have always said that ethnically, in Yugoslav terms, I’m absolutely filthy and very proud of it and attribute my success to my mongrel roots. I regard my Jewish blood as just another ingredient in the cocktail.”

In a Texan drawl (which Ustinov claimed “is my favorite accent”), he chatted about his 1998 film, “Stiff Upper Lips,” which parodied such British Merchant-Ivory films as “Howards End” and “A Room with a View.” “Lips” opens with a spoof of “Chariots of Fire.” Sporting a humongous Star of David around his neck, a runner races around the perimeter of a British university quadrangle as a black-robed don, looking down from a window, sneers: “We should never have let the Jews in.” Ustinov confided that the film’s director and co-writer, Gary Sinyor, is a Sephardic Jew who also produced “‘one of the most riotous British ‘Jewish’ films, ‘Leon the Pig Farmer.’”

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The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s haymish 71st “Gala Cultural Passover Seder,” held on March 28 at the Roosevelt Hotel, was enhanced by the participation of a delightful children’s ensemble — alumni of the W.C. shuls — and performances by Adrienne Cooper, Joanne Borts, Mina Bern, Shifra Lerer, Maria Krupoves and David Rogow.

The honorees were Mikhl Baran, a Yiddish scholar, and Judith Helfand, an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Baran, an educator and professor of Jewish studies at Queens College, was born in Oshmiany, near Vilna. In 1941, he escaped to the forest and later fought the Nazis as a soldier in the Soviet army. Baran has left his imprint on thousands of young people — including my daughters, Karen (who taught art) and Nina (who taught Israeli folk dancing) — at Camp Kinder Ring, where he was the longtime Jewish culture director. Helfand shines her cinematic spotlight on chemical exposure and heedless corporate behavior showcased in her films “Blue Vinyl” and “A Healthy Baby Girl.”

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Lost in Translation: ‘The Ghost Is Eager, But the Meat Is Tender’

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