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Saluting One Who Challenged the ‘Ultimate Taboo’

Eric Breindel, the late chief editorial writer for the New York Post, was honored with the first American Jewish Historical Society Kenneth J. Bialkin Citigroup Public Service Award at a December 17 “In Memoriam (1955-1998)” tribute at the Center for Jewish History. It was established “in recognition of [AJHS chairman] Bialkin’s 16 years as a member of Citigroup’s Board of Directors.” Charles Prince, Citigroup’s CEO, lauded Bialkin as “someone who makes a difference … who has passion for public discourse … and Jewish tradition.”

Following greetings by AJHS executive director Michael Feldberg, Breindel’s successor at the Post, Eric Fettman, launched “A Conversation with Friends” with former mayor Ed Koch, Henry Kissinger and Elie Wiesel reminiscing. “Eric … articulated … uncomfortable truths,” said Fettman. “He [challenged] … the ultimate American taboo … that it is not permissible to call a communist a communist … without inviting the label ‘red-baiting’ … Topics closest to his heart [were] the Holocaust … Black-Jewish relations … and Israel …. Eric believed that a world without the State of Israel for the Jews was unimaginable.”

Koch recalled that Eric, one of his Congressional interns, “was one of the best writers in the office.” Kissinger described Breindel as “modest and profound … Eric fought against totalitarianism.” Wiesel remembered meeting Breindel “before he became famous…I agreed with Eric … that ‘facts are important to journalists, but truth is more important to editorial writers.’”

Fettman informed: “Breindel’s father [Joseph] left Poland just before World War II. His mother Sonia [who accepted the award] was born in France. She spent the war in detention in Switzerland … From his mother he learned that seemingly safe havens were unsafe for Jews … that the wartime roles of France and Switzerland were … fictions … that collaboration, not resistance, defined French World War II history” and that Switzerland’s “neutrality…helped prolong the war.”

In his inimitable no khokhmes style, Koch posited: “Why do you think that the communist left has been so successful over the years … [that] it is impossible to ask someone ‘Weren’t you a communist? Didn’t you support Stalin?’ like you’d ask ‘Weren’t you a Nazi?’” Fettman responded: “It’s the legacy of Joe McCarthy…The left has not always recognized that there were two forms of totalitarianism in the 20th century…. Eric felt these were two sides of the same coin.”

“I don’t resent people who used to be communists,” said Wiesel, “But I don’t think they should become spokesmen for morality…They should go to a monastery for 10 years and think about what they have done.”

“Israel should be at the top agenda of the American Jews [who] are more concerned about environment and pollution than Israel,” said Koch. “And, though I don’t agree with a single domestic position of president Bush, I’m voting for Bush without question!”

* * *|

The January 3 performance of the Theatre for a New Audience production of “The Last Letter” at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, starring Kathleen Chalfant, launched the first post-performance Saturday Symposia. It was moderated by New Audience founder Jeffrey Horowitz with Chalfant and Robert Michels, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University.

Taken verbatim from Vasily Grossman’s novel, “Life and Fate,” this letter by Anna Semyonovna (based on Grossman’s mother, Yekaterina Savelievna), is written to her son — the “Jewish physicist Viktor Shtrum” — before her death in a mass execution. Grossman (1905-1964) used his hometown of Berdichev, Ukraine (where 30,000 Jews were slaughtered and buried in mass graves in 1941) as a model for what occurred in much of Eastern Europe. For me it was “home” territory — my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were slaughtered in three actions in 1942-1943 in Byten, Belarus and lie in a 2,200-soul mass grave outside the shtetl.

Chalfant, yellow star on black dress, and in a facile, controlled recitation, reveals the progression of the misfortunes of the town’s Jews to ultimate disaster. She is surprised at betrayal by neighbors, yet writes that in the ghetto she “no longer felt an unfortunate human being.” But the rage, panic and anger that pervades most nonfiction letters and memoirs by World War II victims is absent.

The post-performance comments by the panelists and audience were disheartening. As for the villagers’ behavior, Chalfant said, “People will go along with anything evil so long as not to disagree with those in power.” Does she/Semyonovna mean the Soviets or Germans? (In the letter Semyonovna writes, “I forgot under the Soviet regime that I was a Jew.”) Horowitz asked, “Are we all complicit?” But complicit in what? Michels cited the dynamics of group action: “Why people lose identity … there’s security and comfort in not having to make your own decisions … released from responsibility, [it] enables riots … you join with the mission of the group in doing ‘God’s work.’” I left the theater angered by the panelists’ and audience’s willingness to universalize the Holocaust as a model of man’s capacity for evil rather than seeing the Shoah as a uniquely Jewish catastrophe.

CONVERSATION WITH FRIENDS: Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel and Ed Koch (left) discussed the legacy of the late Eric Breindel, who was honored with the first AJHS Kenneth J. Bialkin Citigroup Public Service Award. Bialkin (far right) was lauded by Citigroup CEO Charles Prince.

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