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Poland’s Jewish Past; Bob Hope Memories

Other than visits to the Polish Consulate in New York, I have not set foot on Polish “soil” since my mother and I fled Nazi-occupied Warsaw in the winter of 1939. Invited to the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, but unable to attend, I asked Michael Berkowicz, vice president of Friends of the Festival, if he would act as my “eyes and ears” at this year’s 13th festival, held from June 28 to July 6.

On July 25 I met with Berkowicz and his wife, Bonnie Srolovitz, an industrial designer and his partner in Presentations Gallery, which specializes in sanctuary design and liturgical furnishings. Among their designs: the sanctuary at the Sutton Place Synagogue and the Holocaust memorials at Young Israel in Great Neck and Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing.

“The recurring theme at the festivals is that Poland is a poorer nation without the Jews,” said Berkowicz, a founding member of the American Guild of Judaic Art and chair of the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture of the American Institute of Architects. “Poland acknowledges the value of the Jewish past… that Jews and Poles lived together for 900 years… that their cultures co-existed… and [now] tries to teach this to present-day Poland.”

“I attended a Sholom Aleichem school in Wroclaw, sponsored by the Polish government,” said Berkowicz, who grew up in postwar Poland. “Yiddish and Jewish history was taught along with secular subjects. There were Jewish boy scouts and Jewish camps…. Ida Kaminska began her Yiddish theater in Wroclaw. What has regrettably not been acknowledged — particularly by American Jews — is the rich Yiddish life in postwar Poland until 1968.” He was referring to the Communist-instigated antisemitic witch-hunt-pogrom that swept the country and led to the flight of the remnant of Poland’s surviving Jewish population.

“The festival was originally designed as a Jewish [event] for Poles to discover what was lost after 1968 — a Poland without Jews…. It has since become an international phenomenon attracting thousands of visitors from around the world,” Berkowicz said. “[American] cantors Benzion Miller and Alberto Mizrahi opened the inaugural concert at the renovated Tempel Synagogue. It was amazing! Similar to New York’s Central Synagogue, [Tempel] has [the original] menorahs on its wrought iron fence. The choir of the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem [conducted by Elli Jaffe] was phenomenal. Imagine, black ties and tzitzit!…. There was a sense of mir zaynen do, we are here!”

In describing the final concert, Berkowicz was transported: “It was outdoors. Ten thousand — 95% non-Jews — on Szeroka Street.… Packed…. No one leaves…. Performers on stage for six hours… It was all covered live by Polish TV! And then there was an energetic Theodore Bikel singing “az der rebbe zingt… kum aher du filozof” (“when the rabbi sings…. come here, philosopher) and “Reysele” by Krakow’s own [Mordechai] Gebirtig. As usual Bikel signed off with ‘If I Were a Rich Man.’”

Asked to comment about the festival on Polish TV, Berkowicz said, “I told them, the festival demonstrates our Jewish impact on Polish culture, that I support it because it allows me to feel proudly Jewish as a Polish Jew in this new Poland.”

* * *|

I met Bob Hope (who died on July 27 at 100) when he was a “surprise” guest at the November 7, 1988, “Broadway Tribute to Lee Guber” at the Minskoff Theatre. He joined such stars as Robert Merrill, Eli Wallach, Theodore Bikel, Charles Strouse and Henny Youngman, in acclaiming Broadway producer Guber “a man of the theater with the mind of a philosopher and the heart of a social scientist” who had died in March of that year. The evening’s proceeds were to benefit the YM-YWHA’s Emanu-El Midtown Y and its [then] newly renamed Lee Guber Jewish Repertory Theater.

Arriving backstage on the arm of his wife, the 85-year-old Hope was ambushed by a barrage of photographers’ flashes. He gamely posed for the cameras, chatted with the emcee Kitty Carlisle Hart and, in his USO host mode, ogled, then posed with a bevy of long-legged tap dancers. During a photo-op lull, I told Hope that as a child newly arrived in Montreal in 1942 and though not yet fluent in English, I liked “Road to Morocco.” His snappy comeback: “Maybe that’s why you enjoyed it.”

Greeted by the crowd with a roar, Hope homed in on the [then] imminent election: “I saw a woman on MTV pleading for money — it was Imelda Marcos…. According to Bush, ‘Dukakis’ is Greek for ‘Mondale’.… Nancy bought all that expensive china, but if the Greeks get into the White House, they’ll end up smashing it all.” After Hope took his final bow, Lois Wyse Guber thanked the “UJA and Associated Ys…. Lee would be happy to have his name on a Jewish theater,” she said.

“After all, he produced ‘The World of Sholom Aleichem’ and ‘Rags.’” In the audience were Geraldo Rivera, Peggy Tishman, James Nederlander and Jewish Rep director Ran Avni. Also, wearing a lime-green coat, Barbara Walters, the former Mrs. Lee Guber.

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