Bikel’s story seeks to in­spire emerg­ing from the dark­est of places

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • AARON LEIBEL

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.

(Leon­hard Foeger/Reuters)

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Israel

© PressReader. All rights reserved.