Bikel’s story seeks to inspire emerging from the darkest of places
If in the past I have ever called a book beautiful, I realize after reading City of Lights that I may have been too profligate with my praise. This work for children may be the realization of that often overused word; it is a very moving story, an excellent way to introduce youngsters to the Holocaust.
It tells the story of the childhood of Theodore Bikel, a prominent actor – known especially for his portrayal of Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof.
Bikel’s “City of Lights” was prewar Vienna, awash in intellectual ferment, in which young Theodore longed to take part; brimming with the good life (a city “of waltzes, of sweet confections”); and home to a prosperous Jewish community of businessmen, doctors and lawyers, and writers, playwrights and artists, to paraphrase author Aimee Ginsburg Bikel, his widow and an Israeli journalist.
His mother and father were assimilated Jews who nonetheless tried to preserve their Jewish identity. His father spoke to him in Yiddish, his mother and Oma (grandmother) often prepared Jewish foods and on the holidays, his father would pray with a voice “as beautiful as Zayde’s [Bikel’s grandfather].”
They also were socialists and Zionists, and his father “would speak about the coming time when they would have their own country, and when all men and women of the world would live in peace, equality and safety, like real brothers and sisters.”
But Vienna also was a cesspool of antisemitism. Bikel sometimes suffered antisemitic taunts from fellow students. He understood that the Viennese “admired the city’s Jews in many ways,” but that “with the admiration there also was envy, and that sometimes envy turned to hate.”
Then, the Nazis invaded Austria, absorbing that country into Germany. Suddenly, the excesses of the hatred of Jews were liberated and let loose on the city’s Jewish community
Almost immediately, the Jews became targets for humiliation and violence.
At his school, a group of older boys came into his classroom and asked the students to point out the Jews among them. When the students betrayed their classmates, the boys dragged Bikel and the others out and beat them.
Their once-friendly neighbors became cold and did nothing to help them.
Then, came Kristallnacht, and the beautiful main synagogue in the city, Stadttempel, where Theodore had often visited, was desecrated and badly damaged.
Finally, the “tyrant,” in the words of the author, was defeated.
Many years later, the boy, now a grandfather, returned to the city of his birth. Once again, there was a Jewish community. He visited his old home and imagined “Papa singing the Sabbath prayers, and smelled Oma’s honey cake fresh from the oven.”
Then, he went to the Stadttempel, the great synagogue of Vienna that he had visited as a youngster. It had been restored, but the replica of the ner tamid, the eternal flame that he remembered from his childhood, was not giving off much light. Suddenly, he realized that the “eternal flame was in his own heart.” Very nice.
However, despite my praise for the book, which is an elaboration of a story written by Theodore Bikel in 2014 and published in Moment Magazine, there is one glaring omission – the fact that the Bikel family received refuge from the Nazis in the soon-to-be Jewish state, then British Mandatory Palestine (the book’s forward does state that the family made it to Tel Aviv).
This is a story about Vienna, but surely there should have been room for a few sentences about the family’s new home.
I must say that the failure to mention the place whose existence saved Bikel and his family and many other Jews, as well, pushes my Zionist buttons and annoys me greatly.
Nevertheless, my irritation must be limited, for Theodore Bikel’s The City of Lights will be a Hanukkah present for two of my grandsons – the ultimate compliment as far as I am concerned.
BIKEL WRITES about finding hope in a synagogue in Vienna after enduring “The Night of Broken Glass.” Pictured: On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 2018, a large Jewish star marks where Viennese synagogues stood before they were destroyed.