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‘She Refused To Be a Victim’


During my July 15 telephone interview with Max Faerberbock, who wrote and directed the riveting new film, “A Woman in Berlin,” starring the amazing Nina Hoss, he mentioned he was a fan of Isaac Bashevis Singer. “I read him when I wake up at night…. His works are filled with tenderness [and] sexual ambiguities.” Like his 1999 film “Aimée & Jaguar,” based on an autobiography of a former wife of a Nazi officer who hid a Jewish friend, the new film is based on an international best-seller (of the same name), by a writer known as only Anonyma. An eyewitness and victim, she describes the 1945 systematic rape of Berlin’s women by the invading Soviet soldiers. The book chronicles her search for an officer who will protect her. “She refused to be a victim,” Faerberbock said. “What happened to these women was something the men [coming back from war] could not understand. Here was a pact of silence. Men did not ask women when they got back…. The Holocaust happened on TV— not to families,” he said, adding, “History is the lie we agree upon.”If a film about rape can be described as having been made realistically yet with sensitivity, then “A Woman in Berlin” is such a film. As a Holocaust survivor who has known of women who made similar pacts in exchange for survival, I found myself teetering between sympathy and an uncomfortable sense of justified revenge at the fate of the unrepentant Nazi sympathizers in the midst of what may have been as many as many as 200,000 Berlin women. In one scene, a Russian soldier rages at the women about what he had witnessed the Nazis do to his family and town folk — and for a moment, the rapes become part of the wider atrocity canvas of World War II retribution.

The film focuses on Berlin women survivors, based on Anonyma’s chronicle. Each has a marital, gender or other relationship issue and adapts to the reality of living with rape as a given. In one of the film’s scenes, one woman asks another, “How often?” shorthand for, “How many Russians raped you?” Thirty-year-old Anonyma (played by Hoss) had been a journalist and photographer who begins to record the day-by-day events. She eventually settles on Andrej (Evgeny Sidikhin, a Russian actor from St.

Petersburg) as her protector, with whom she has an ambivalent — but at times sympathetic — relationship. There is also an Asian character, a Soviet soldier referred to both affectionately and derogatorily as “Mongol” (Victor Zhalsanov) who, in a moment of nostalgia, “throat sings”— a technique common to some Asiatic indigenous populations.

The postwar “contract of silence” about these rapes fascinated Faerberbock. “I wanted to understand all the contradictions of women addicted to heroes, the image of men who could not deal with women who had been raped. Not all the Russians were rapists and killers…. The media took over the responsibility [via] abstract analysis of what happened. But there was no family input. No emotional responsibility.” When I mentioned that it was estimated that some 100,000 children were born of these rapes, Faeberbock’s reaction was, “No one knows, and no one wants to find out,” citing recent press coverage of the plight and social stigma of French-born children of German soldiers who had occupied France during the war.

Apropos “A Woman in Berlin”— the only eyewitness document — which Anonyma wrote between April 20 and July 22, 1945, in Berlin, Faerberbock notes: “Whether she was writing the diary for her husband, Gerd [who returned at the end], it was the women, for the most part, who managed to bravely endure their traumas. It was the men who could not.” Anonyma was never identified — not even after her death. In his notes, Film producer Guenter Rohrbach writes: “This is the last great taboo of the Second World War. Until today, there are no publications, no definitive work, no dependable numbers even from history scholars. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped during thelast weeks of the war, especially in the eastern parts of Germany. Some estimates even speak of 1 or 2 million, but they are far from reliable.… The shame was as large as the pain, even, or especially, where children and husbands were concerned.”

At the end of the interview, we returned to Singer. Having bought — and read— every Singer work he could find, Faerberbock mused: “He was often very close to the truth of life, courageous…. Singer writes beautiful, warmhearted portraits of women as [both] unreliable and strong.”

Faerberbock then recalled how, when he came to Munich at 14, he had “close friendships with three to four Jewish-German kids… I could not go to their homes, and we met in the street. Like the Germans, they did not talk or share. In Hamburg, in 1986, I had a Jewish girlfriend. Of my three friends, two were suicides. I could not understand why this happened.”

“In Munich there was Cafe Europa, a Jewish meeting place. I spent years in the café — the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Being a German was uncomfortable… What happened in the past will echo for a long time. I don’t want to stop memory, it is something that can make you think… and that is what Anonyma wanted [to achieve].”


At Friars Gala: Sir Tom JonesI sings ?What?s New, Pussycat?? Image by Karen Leon

“This joint is jumpin,’” declared Ben Vereen, who, with Lucie Arnaz, Dionne Warwick, actor/comedian Robert Klein and honoree Sir Tom Jones, helped make the June 16 Friars Foundation International Gala and Ball at Cipriani 42nd Street a night to remember. Master of ceremonies Freddie Roman, New York Friars Club dean, was channeling the Borscht Belt. “It’s every Jewish boy’s dream to have a wife who has a job,” he joshed, referring to honoree Leslie Moonves, CBS president and CEO, whose wife, Julie Chen, is co-anchor of CBS’s “The Early Show.”

“I’m reminded of Rodin’s Hands,” Elie Wiesel said as he presented a hand sculpture to Moonves. “You are so close to power,” Wiesel mused. “You are concerned with image. My concern is with the word… I worry before I finish a sentence. Do you worry? How do you sleep nights?” Moonves, “I am humbled to be on the same stage with you.” Then he added: “Our child [Chen is pregnant] will be the first Jewish-Chinese member of the Friars Club.”

Keeping the audience laughing, Roman noted that Jones wore a white outfit with a red sash for the ceremonial dubbing by Queen Elizabeth. This prompted the British monarch to ask, “Why is this knight different from other knights?”

The evening opened with a U.S. Army Color Guard, the national anthem and a special plea for the Wounded Warriors at Bethesda and Walter Reed hospitals. Ambassador Joseph Zappala made a special presentation to Friar of the Year John Catsimatidis, whom Roman identified as someone who owns “all the supermarkets in New York and gives us [Friars] a special deal on tomatoes.” Klein performed his signature musical cantata — “Colonoscopy!” — which he describes as “a Jules Verne experience.” Among those laughing were Dick Cavett, Ernie Anastos, Curtis Sliwa, Frankie Valli and Wiesel’s wife, author Marion Wiesel. The mood stayed mellow, with Vereen averring: “I’ve lived long enough in America to be called Negro, colored, black and now African American. Hell, I’m from Brooklyn!” Roman kept the laughs coming: “Because of George Bush, the son, we may never [again] have a white president in the U.S. Just joking. I bought a $90,000 house in California for $450,000. I asked a bank teller, check my balance, so she pushed me. A woman steals a can of peaches and is taken to court.… The judge gives her six days in jail for each of the six peaches in the can. The husband then said: ‘Your honor, she also took a can of peas.’” Acknowledging “my boss, Les Moonves,” Paul Shaffer, musical director of CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman,” presented Warwick with the Friars Award to be given to honoree Natalie Cole, who was recovering from a kidney transplant.

By way of introduction, Roman declared ”Sir Jones, who swiveled his way into millions of hearts, also recorded in Yiddish. It was ‘What’s New Bubele? It sold 1,200 copies.” Jones, as fit and energetic as he was decades ago, and still in great voice, threw the audience into a frenzy of applause with his rendition of “Most Unusual To Be Loved by You” and his signature song “What’s New Pussycat?” It doesn’t get any better.

During the pre-dinner reception I told Jones: “When the women at the Concord nightclub went crazy and threw their panties and room keys at you onstage, I never joined in.” He looked down at me and smiled: “Why not?” In lieu of a reply, I sang the first stanza of “Men of Harlech,” the Welsh national anthem. He put his arm around me, posed for a photograph, then signed my program.I found out about Moonves’s Ben-Gurion connection in 2005, when he was honored by the American Theatre Wing, and asked him about the origin of his name. “It’s Jewish from the Ukraine,” he said. Then he volunteered: “My great-aunt Paula ,who was married to Ben-Gurion and poured tea for me.” In a biography of David Ben-Gurion, I later read that he had met Paula Munweis, a nurse, in 1915 in New York. They fell in love, and he convinced her to go to Palestine. The bio also quoted several people who visited the Ben-Gurions in Israel. These people noted that Paula always served guests tea “with lemon.”


“Who could believe this happened in Israel?!” ELEM/America president Ann Bialkin said at the organization’s June 17 gala, held at the Jewish Museum. “When ELEM — Youth In Distress in Israel started 27 years ago in America, its founders… could not believe the number of young people who were in court because of criminal acts! At least 300,000 Israeli youth [15% of Israel’s population] is at risk — alienated; vulnerable; victims of drugs, dysfunctional families.” She credited ELEM’s multifaceted outreach programs with “linking them back to family, community and country.” Bialkin noted: “Despite the severe economic crisis, we have raised over $450,000 tonight and heard from Israel that we will receive $1 million for next year from The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews for our van program, which travels all over Israel every night of the week.” Asaf Shariv, Israel’s consul general, offered welcoming greetings. Michael Corriero, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York, and Bialkin’s husband, Ken Bialkin, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP , presented awards to the gala’s honorees: the Honorable Judith Kaye (retired), chief judge of the State of New York, and Phyllis Korff, a Skadden, Arps partner.

Hosted by NBC News’ legal analyst, Dan Abrams, CEO of Abrams Research, the dinner’s three co-chairs were Abrams’s father, Floyd Abrams, of Cahill, Gordon & Reindel LLP, whom late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “the most significant First Amendment lawyer of our age”; Joseph Flom, senior partner at Skadden, Arps, and Bernard Nussbaum, senior litigation partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. From 1993 to 1994, Nussbaum served as counsel to the president of the United States. A supervisor at an ELEM center in Rehovot, Dana Kohn, described the case of one of its clients, “a 15-year-old girl [who fled her home], ended up living with a 60-year-old man with whom she had to sleep.” Then the man “brought more men to sleep with her….The girl called the police and was rescued. Since then, she has undergone treatment, was involved in computer studies but,” Kohn stressed,” the most effective therapeutic Bialkin also alluded to Israel’s historic convulsions as contributing factors to the juvenile distress that ELEM encounters. “When we began to work with the larger problem of alienated youth, dysfunctional families, drugs, incest, school dropouts, living on the street, we began to realize that Israeli youth were not only struggling to mature into proper adulthood, but [that] Israeli children were living in a constant state of siege. Since the moment of its birth and ever since, [Israel] has been subjected to war, vicious acts of hostility and aggression…exploding bombs, shrapnel-filled vests bombs and mortar shells. These were not only maiming, killing and destroying homes, but causing less visible damage — a [ripple effect] impacting on the developing minds of Israeli youth. So many young people in Israel feel powerless, helpless, frightened. They have lost trust in the ability of adults to protect them, and with that loss of trust comes the abandonment of hope and denial of aspirations…. And so ELEM will continue, as it has in the past, to reach out to troubled youth, one by one.”

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