“I’m stunned by the role of the Holocaust in popular culture,” Erin Einhorn told me when I called her in New York to discuss her new book, The Pages in Between: A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home. “Like using the word ‘Gestapo’ for someone who tries to take away your cell phone at a museum.”
Indeed, with her 21st-century, third-generation point of view, Einhorn is able to give Pages an intellectual rigor many-similar-sounding books have lacked. As a journalist, Einhorn has a healthy skepticism about eye-witness accounts; she’s forever seeking factual foundations, however inconvenient their truths may turn out to be.
Her family’s story, first revealed to the public in two acclaimed episodes of NPR’s This American Life, is as dramatic as can be. Just before they are transported from the Polish ghetto of Bedzin, the parents of a Jewish baby named Irena Frydrych entrust her to a Polish woman named Honorata Skowronska. Irena has strawberry hair and blue eyes, and using the instincts and skills she’s learned working the black market, Honorata stays one step ahead of the Nazis. Irena survives, as does her father, Beresh, and after liberation he spirits her off to America where she grows into a suburban Jewish wife and mother named “Irene.”
But after locking horns with Irene throughout adolescence, Einhorn decides to dig deeper into her mother’s past. Early in her quest, Einhorn finds a ghetto ID photo of her grandmother, Sura Leah Rozenblum, buried in the archives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Sura Leah was barely 23 years old when she died (presumably in Auschwitz), and this is the first photo anyone in Einhorn’s family has ever seen, Irene included. Certain now that more treasures await her in Polish archives, Einhorn is soon on her way to Krakow, a city suddenly flourishing anew as a result of its starring role in Stephen Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List.
Einhorn told me publishers were reluctant to issue “yet another Holocaust book,” but she prevailed: “This is an American story,” she told me. “We all come from somewhere, and my book shows what happens when you go back and really try to find out about your past.”
Einhorn’s appearance is the first program Spertus has planned for the suburbs since beginning its collaborative relationship with Nextbook last fall, so get yourself to the Skokie Theatre Music Foundation (7924 N. Lincoln Ave.) on Thursday, Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. to show your support for Nextbook, Spertus, and this important new Jewish-American author.
For complete program details, visit www.spertus.edu.
Congregation Kol-Ami will host UIUC Shakespeare scholar Michael Shapiro on Feb. 4 for a lecture titled “Everything Shakespeare did not know about the Jews of Venice.” The character of Shylock has fascinated Jews for centuries now. Shylock appears in a play, The Merchant of Venice, that’s basically a romantic comedy, and yet his dark complexity dominates every production. When director Michael Radford came to Chicago in 2004 to promote his new film version, he told me he was absolutely convinced that Shakespeare meant us to see Shylock as a Sephardic Jew, and yet he cast Al Pacino in the part, leading some critics to assume that Shylock was a native Yiddish speaker!
Shakespeare himself had little, if any, first-hand knowledge of either Venice as a city or Jews as a People (although he may have known some Conversos), so Professor Shapiro intends to fill in the gaps for us. Where did the first Jews in Venice come from? What lead to the establishment of the Venice Ghetto? How was the loan business managed? How did Jews, in general, interact with their Christian neighbors?
Congregation Kol-Ami is located in Water Tower Place. The lecture will begin at 7 PM. For more information, visit www.kol-ami.com. To read my interview with director Michael Radford, visit: www.films42.com/columns/shylock.asp.
TZIVI’S CD COLLECTION
I received a wonderful Chanukah gift last year, a two-disc set of “new Klezmer” called Stempenyu’s Dream. After listening to it several times, entranced, I called composer Steven Greenman at home in Cleveland to learn more.
“I was born in December 1966, so the whole Fiddler on the Roof thing was really big then, and when the movie came out, my parents bought the record, and I kept asking them to play it over and over again. I wanted to play violin because of that,” said the 42-year-old musician. “I've gone quite a ways away from Broadway since, but that was my start.”
“Stempenyu was a famous Jewish violinist from Berdichev, Ukraine. Sholem Aleichem wrote a story about him. Stempenyu composed and played his own pieces. I intend to create a Jewish soulful spiritual connection—to compose and play Jewish music just like he did, to share my ethnicity, my ancestry, my pride in the old Yiddish culture that was really special and important.”
“I've written so much stuff that's just terrible and really banal, but I've also written stuff that's special and unique, and now I want to share it with everybody. I've gone to nursing homes where I've played some of these pieces, and people were blown away, but one of my colleagues, a year or two ago, he told me that he was walking in the New York subway, and he heard a young girl playing one of my tunes on the violin, like it was the Jewish Hey Jude.”
To read the rest of my chat with Steve, visit my website: www.films42.com/fiddler/StevenGreenman.asp.
Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center is currently participating in a nationwide retrospective of films by famed Egyptian director Youssef Chahine who died last year at the age of 82. Of the six films in the Siskel series, I’ve already seen three: The Land (1969), The Sparrow (1972), and Alexandria…Why? (1978).
Alexandria…Why? is set in 1942. The entire city of Alexandria is watching huge armies fight over El Alamein (barely 65 miles away), and as Erwin Rommel’s troops come ever closer, sympathies become increasingly polarized. Some are loyalty to the British, while others support the Germans (if only to drive the British away). One of the primary characters is a Jewish woman in love with a radical nationalist. Terrified of the Nazis, her father orders her to pack and leave with him for South Africa. The cross-cultural clash is fascinating, and Chahine is equally sympathetic to every point of view.
There are no Jewish characters in either The Sparrow or The Land but everything I saw in these two films cast light on complaints about governmental corruption and ineptitude. Made decades ago, Chahine’s films still resonate and their current relevance is beyond dispute. It takes a great artist like Chahine to reveal deep cultural truths beneath our nightly news reports.
The series concludes on Feb.2, so there’s still time to catch one of these fine films if you act fast. For more information, visit www.siskelfilmcenter.com.
Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Visit www.juf.org for online copies of previous columns. For more reviews of films with Jewish themes, visit: www.films42.com/columns.asp. Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.