In Retrospect, a Busy Week (11 cents)

It didn’t seem that busy at the time, but there were three books, three films, a concert, a play, a musical, a snow storm, a book sale, two evening meetings, and a study session – – –

Three Books, all somewhat related. As we all know, many Jews had a rough time during the mid-20th century. I read of three, whose experiences were very different, but read together give you a good idea of the turmoil that enveloped so much of the Jewish world. First, I read a brief memoir, dictated by the late father of a friend, whom I am not going to name, who with his family was caught in their Polish home by the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, and who, as a teenager with his parents, was arrested and shortly found themselves facing a large iron gate with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” engraved above them. His mother was immediately selected out, and presumably sent to the gas chambers. He and his father, although placed in different groups, made it through the selection process, although his father disappeared from his group some time later and was presumably murdered, one way or the other. Our friend’s father lasted in Auschwitz and in work details sometimes connected with other camps, through the war years. His dictated story, not the work of a professional writer, gives one a taste of the terrible concentration camp world of the Nazis, and of how difficult it is to recollect and set down the memories of those experiences.

The experience of Yale professor Peter Gay (born Peter Frohlich) was very different. Gay grew up not in Poland, but in Berlin, the heart of the Nazi world. His life under Nazism started not in 1939, but in 1933, when Hitler became German chancellor. About the same age as the father of our friend, he found it possible to cope with life in Nazi Germany (sometimes even passing for German due to his physical characteristics) until Kristallnacht in the fall of 1938. He still attended school, and his father’s business (sales to stores of china and glassware) actually prospered, although restrictions on Jews abounded. He was, in a sense lucky. After the destruction of so many Jewish businesses and even more increased anti Jewish fervor, it was clear that the family had to leave and, after a few false starts, they made it, first to Cuba and then to the United States.

Yes, the German Jews were often the lucky ones – they had time to plan their exits, they had the ability to rely on relatives abroad, and although they were unable to take with them much of material value, they brought with them high degrees of education and the ability to assimilate into a broader society, something that Polish Jews in smaller towns were much more unfamiliar with.

Peter Gay did not have to live through the horrors and tortures of World War II; he left before the attack on Poland and the closing of the borders. Yet his experience was also representative of the Jews of Europe during the twentieth century, and it left its psychological mark on him.

The third book was “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” by Lucette Lagnado, about her childhood in Jewish Cairo. Cairo was spared any fighting in World War II, thanks to the German defeat at El Alamein, but the seemingly somewhat idyllic life of the Jewish community in the Egyptian capital was affected by the war, and more so by the creation of the state of Israel, the abdication of King Farouk and the entry on to the scene of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Wars with Israel in the late 1940s and mid-1950s, riots in the early 1950s, and additional pressures in the 1960s caused by the increasing insularity of Islamic Egypt led to the emigration of virtually the entire community, no longer accepted or able to make a living in Cairo or Alexandria.

The author’s father, depicted as a solo entrepreneur, man about town in Cairo, was a defeated man by the time he emigrated first to Paris and the to New York. His own story is a tragic one, but the story of the Egyptian Jews, not often told, is a fascinating one.

I’d recommend Peter Gay’s “My German Question” and “The Man in the Sharkskin Suit”. If you are interested in other tales of Berlin’s Jews during those days, you may want to look at Peter Wyden’s “Stella” or Daniel Silvers “Refuge in Hell”. If you are interested in Egyptian Jews when there were such folks, also look at Andre Aciman’s “Out From Egypt”.

Well, the books took a long time. Let’s do the rest more quickly.

Three films. Well, I already wrote about “Menachem and Fred”, so that shortens things. One down, two to go.

“Antonia’s Line”, a Dutch/Belgian film, won the 1995 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. We saw it on VHS, although I assume you can get it on DVD as well. It’s an odd one, and I am told a feminist movie, although I wasn’t offended by any anti-male sentiment. Antonia returns with her daughter to her village in Holland after the war, and they start farming and becoming a part of this strange, rustic community. The movie traces the lives of Antonia, her mother, her daughter, her granddaughter and her great granddaughter, and Antonia’s attempts to humanize her village, to relate to the various eccentrics and misfits and treat them with kindness. Times of hardship and cruelty are balanced with a sense of beauty and the continuing rhythm of a saga that will never end, not even with the death of Antonia. It’s a singular and odd film, but one worth watching.

I would not say the same for “Halfouine”, a French/Tunisian coming of age film, set in Tunis in the 1960s. The 12 year old central character is played by the nephew of the director. Enough said.

A concert. The Tuesday concert at Epiphany Church featured members of a chamber music group, the Sage Chamber Players. Only two pieces were on the program. The first, Beethoven’s Eyeglass Duet for viola and cello, was very pleasant and played very nicely. The second, Brahms’ Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A Minor, was played wonderfully and is a chamber piece with which I had no previous familiarity (or at least no memory), but which is a wonderful piece to hear.

A play. Itamar Moses’ “The Four of Us” at Theater J, the obviously autobiographical two character play about the author and his friend Benjamin (in real life, Jonathan Safran Foer), and how Moses reacts to Foer’s success in marketing his first book. A series of sketches (the two at music camp as adolescents, in Prague for a summer break from school, in New York and here and there), all very clever and very funny. Can the play be faulted? Only a bit. There is a little unnecessary explicit sexual material, and as one critic said – this is a good two hour play, with a wonderful 90 minute play inside.

The musical. “Oliver” by the Har Shalom Players. Very nicely done for an amateur synagogue production. All of the music was good – the orchestra was first rate, and most of the voices (particularly the males: Fagin, Mr. Bumble, and Oliver) were the best. The acting could improve; the sound quality made it hard to follow some of the lines. But this is a show that is dependent on its many good and memorable songs, and they were all there.

Now, a race to the finish. (1) Who needed almost 7″ of snow this weekend? (2) There were a good number of nice books for sale at the Chevy Chase library at bargain basement prices, but they were all taken the first night (Friends’ night), so by the time the non-Friends got there, there was relatively little to be happy about (unless you like hardcover fiction that you have never heard of). (3) Highlights of the meetings: watching a friend’s slides of his trip to Israel (the meeting was that of a local support group for an Israeli university) and learning a little more about Jewish funeral practices (the meeting was of a group devoted to just that topic comprised of representatives of various congregations). (4) The study group session was interesting as always, as we trace the history of the State of Israel. This topic was David Ben-Gurion himself (unfortunately, he was unable to be present.)

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