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Celebrating German Unification With Gusto

Among the 800 guests jammed into Central Park’s Boathouse for the October 3 celebration of the 16th year of German Unity were Christo and his flame-haired wife, Jeanne-Claude, whose February 2005 “The Gates” installation in Central Park split New Yorkers into pro and con factions. They told me that their latest “wrap” oevre is “The River Project” in Colorado. After a formal receiving line handshake with Germany’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Thomas Matussek, and his wife, Ursula and Germany’s consul general, Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth and his wife, Lizabeth, guests headed to the buffet table, which were laden with roast suckling pigs, pates, wursts, herring-beet salads, pretzels and assorted cheeses. On a separate dessert table was a huge tureen of raspberry mousse topped by fresh raspberries, chocolate strudel and sublime Linzer tortes plus German wines including palate-tingling Rieslings. And at a discreet distance from treyf edibles was a large table with plastic covered platters of kosher food.

The Hans Wernicke Group jazz ensemble performed an un-strident, deconstructed version of Germany’s national anthem and a recognizable jazz interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Though the melody of Germany’s anthem remains unchanged, the new lyrics reflect the ethos of the 16-year-old unified Germany: “One state united for justice and freedom for the German fatherland.”

Defining Germany’s unification as “a velvet revolution,” Heimsoeth stated, “Germany’s unity, sovereignty… came at a great price.” He expressed gratitude to the United States” and touted the need for “unity… vital to the tradition we both inherited from our Judeo-Christian roots.” Amid the crush, I managed brief chats with Japan’s consul general, Motoatsu Sakurai; the American Jewish Committee’s Shula Bahat and Rebecca Neuwirth; Rabbi Arthur Schneier, senior rabbi of Park East Synagogue, and his wife, Lisabeth; Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See at the United Nations; Lubavitcher Rabbi Yisroel Ber Kaplan and Tennessee-born Rabbi Beryl Epstein of the Chasidic Discovery Center in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights area. According to Kaplan:

“We are one of Brooklyn’s foremost tourist attractions…. Two hundred Reform and Conservative congregations send their confirmation groups on our tours…. They come from all over the 50 states, more than 40 countries and 100 [international] universities…. From Amish to Zion-Coptics. In fact, we had an Amish bishop with a group of teenagers from Lancaster [Pa.] on a tour — the only ones to ever come from the Amish community.”


On September 29 and September 30, 1941, more than 30,000 Jews, along with Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, and others from Kiev and surrounding areas, were killed by the Nazis at a ravine called Babi Yar. In 1961, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko memorialized those victims in his poem “Babi Yar.” This year, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on September 27 —the 65th anniversary of the Babi Yar slaughter — a trim, chisel-faced, gray-haired Yevtushenko posed for photographers, surrounded by some 50 Babi Yar survivors from concentration camps in Vinitz, Odessa, Kiev, Pechora and Nikolayev. They wore yellow stars, and some of the men displayed rows of medals. That evening, Yevtushenko shared the museum’s Edmond J. Safra Hall with husband-wife pianists Misha and Cipa Dichter at the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, which had been performed only once — in 1962 — before the Soviets censored the work.

Following greetings, museum director David Marwell read from the October 7, 1941, Berlin report describing the slaughter of the Jews in a rocky ravine called Babi Yar. “‘…all of the Jews of Kiev were requested…to appear by 8 a.m. on Monday 29 September 1941 at a designated place. These announcements were posted by members of the Ukrainian militia throughout the entire city…. In collaboration with the group staff and two Kommandos of Police Regiment South, Sonderkommando 4a (Special Commando) executed 33,771 Jews on 29-30 September 1941. Money, valuables, underwear and clothing were secured and placed partly at the disposal of the Nazi Party Public Welfare Organization for use by Ethnic Germans, and partly given to city authorities for use by the needy…. The “resettlement measure” carried out against the Jews met with the approval of the population…’ end of quote…. Tonight we remember them,” Marwell said. “Tonight we experience the best of what humankind can create — music and poetry…. Forty-five years ago, when there was no monument at Babi Yar, Yevtushenko — at great risk to his safety and career — created a memorial in words… heard around the world. His words moved many, including Dmitri Shostakovich, through whom the white light of those words were refracted, becoming the rich colors of the music you will hear tonight.” Replacing the sporty suit, which he wore during the pre-concert interview with Russian TV crews, with a plum colored satin shirt, Yevtushenko strode out onstage and asked the audience, “How many of you speak Russian?” A smattering of applause. “How many speak English?” Nearly the entire concert hall audience responded. “I will respect the majority… but [still] will read some in Russian.”

And in that effusive, grandiose, flamboyant uniquely Russian poetic style, he declaimed Babi Yar both in the original and in English, concluding with: “…I am each old man here, shot dead. I am every child here, shot dead…. The ‘Internationale,’ let it thunder when the last antisemite on earth is buried forever. In my blood there is no Jewish blood. But in their callous rage, all antisemites must hate me now as a Jew. For that reason I am a true Russian!”

Asking pardon for “my inevitable Siberian accent,” Yevtushenko then read from another of his works whose content ranges from the amusing to utopian. “….I would like to be born in every foreign country, a passport from each, and throw the foreign officials into a panic….

I don’t want to be reincarnated as Rambo….

The only people I hate are hypocrites — pickled hyenas in heavy syrup….

I don’t want to be in the elite nor in the cowardly horde….

I would like happiness, but not at the expense of the unhappy….

I would like freedom, but not at the expense of the unfree….

I would like to love all the women in the world… and be a woman just once….”

In addition to Shostakovich’s Concertino for Two Pianos in A Minor Op. 94, the Dichters closed the evening with a bravura two-piano rendition of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #13 “Babi Yar,” joined by the 100-strong combined voices of the Riverside Choral Society, The Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir and The Rutgers University Club. The choirs were conducted by Patrick Gardner. The soloist was Bulgarian bass Valentin Peytchinov.

A postscript:

In 1986, I interviewed Yevtushenko in relation to his semi-autobiographical film, “The Kindergarten,” in which he re-creates his 1941 evacuation from Moscow on a Trans-Siberian train taking him to safety beyond the Urals. As a child in 1941, I, too, had traveled aboard the Trans-Siberian en route to Vladivostock. I queried Yevtushenko about a character in the film, an old Jew on the roof of the train. It seemed to me unlikely that in 1941 a Russian Jew would be wearing such an “un-Russian” beard.” He was not after all, part of the Mirer Yeshiva exodus on my train en route to Japan. Yevtushenko then assured me that this was indeed fact and that he had asked a friend of his, a poet, to portray the rabbi. As he was heading for the Safra Hall stage, I presented Yevtushenko with a copy of the 1986 issue of Forward that contained our interview and my review of “The Kindergarten.”


In his October 7 New York Times article — “Her Budapest, From Synagogue to Cafe” — in which he follows journalist-writer Kati Marton’s revisit to the city of her birth, Craig S. Smith mentions her upcoming book, “The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World” (Simon & Shuster).

Among those whom Marton profiled are four who “played critical roles in shaping the nuclear and computer age: Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller and John von Neumann.” Dovetailed with North Korea’s A-bomb rattling, the Times article prompted Forward-reader Betty Levin Zimmerman to send me a copy of a letter that her husband, Herschel Levin (rabbi at Flushing, Queen’s Temple Beth Sholom, 1953-1978) had received from Edward Teller, who has a doctorate in physics from the University of Leipzig. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1908. In 1934, under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee, he lectured at the University of London; he spent a year in Copenhagen with Neils Bohr, the father of quantum atomic theory; in 1942 Teller joined the Manhattan (atom bomb) Project where his work also included the first nuclear reactor. “Hersch was looking to honor a Jewish man or woman for the New Year in the style of Time magazine and had approached Edward Teller,” Zimmerman explained. “This was the reply he got.”

December 13, 1957

Dear Rabbi Levin:

As you know, I am of Jewish origin. I have been brought up in the Jewish religion. However, religion in any formal sense of the word did not play an important part of my life. While I have the deepest respect for religion and, in particular, the Jewish religion, I feel that I should not get involved by any act, statement, or opinion in question of religion. My wife is not of the Jewish religion and my children are not being brought up in the Jewish tradition…Very many of my friends are Jewish. This, together with my family background, amounts to at least a strong component of Jewish culture. In a general sense I am proud to be identified with the Jewish community. In some ways, however, I would imagine that you could select a better candidate. There are many outstanding scientists who are indeed more closely tied to the Jewish religion and to Jewish culture, and it would seem to me that you might find it more proper to mention [one] of those outstanding men.

Sincerely yours,

[signed] Edward Teller

Smith writes: “Ms. Marton’s story ends after World War II, by which time Szilard and Wigner were working for arms control, while von Neumann and Teller (an inspiration for the character Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film) pushed for ever more powerful weapons.”

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