Musical Program Tells the Story of Two Jewish Pianists in Nazi Germany

Two Pianos: Playing for Life uses music, live readings and narration to depict the story of two female pianists, who played for all-Jewish audiences after the Nazis had banned Jewish musicians from German public performances. The program premieres on June 9 in Philadelphia at the Mary Louise Curtis Branch of the Settlement Music School.

Romanian-born Anna Burstein and Polish-born Halina Neuman met in Germany in 1926 at the Leipzig Conservatory. Seven years later, by the spring of 1933, Hitler’s new regime was moving to exclude Jews from German life. Doors to orchestras with Jewish conductors were padlocked. Jewish performers and professors were attacked in the press and interrupted by uniformed thugs shouting, “Schweine Jude!” Their concerts and lectures were cancelled “to ensure public safety.” Then, new laws began excluding Jews from government employment, including over 50 city orchestras. Within two years, Jews were legally barred from nearly all aspects of German economic, political and social life.

Anna Burstein’s 1936 Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund card. Levin Family Collection. Reprinted with permission.

The Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture Association) was formed by dismissed Jewish artists, enabling them to continue performing before segregated all-Jewish audiences. It was approved by the Nazis in July 1933, and branches quickly spread from Berlin to over 60 German cities, including Leipzig. Anna Burstein and Halina Neuman played two-piano concerts with the Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund under the Third Reich.

Concert photo of Anna Burstein, c. 1942. Levin/Hoffman Collection. Reprinted with permission.

Years later, in 1938, Burstein came to Philadelphia. She was among the exiles who fled the Third Reich to ultimately enrich their new American home with their talent. For 15 years, she performed at local venues, receiving strong reviews. In 1945, she joined Settlement’s piano faculty, where she taught for nearly four decades.

Halina Neuman. The Hoffman Family Collection. Reprinted with permission.

Neuman did not arrive in this country until 1951, after surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish Home Army uprising, labor and DP camps and post-war refugee stops. Finally, she followed her daughter to the United States, and three months later, gave her first American concert. She retired as a piano professor at Rutgers University.

The live readings in “Two Pianos” are based on first-person interviews with Burstein and Neuman, conducted 40 years ago by Burstein’s daughter and son-in-law, Nora Jean and Michael Levin. The couple spent decades researching, organizing and recapturing the family’s story in full context. Co-producers of “Two Pianos,” the Levins also narrate part of the performance with Neuman’s grandson, Dr. Kenneth Hoffman. Neuman’s grandsons contributed material to the program, as well as to the exhibit set up next to the recital hall, which includes some of the women’s original documents and memorabilia.

The music for the one-hour program will be performed by the acclaimed Russian-born, Wisconsin-based Four Hands piano duo Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro. Having met at Israel’s Jerusalem Conservatory, Varshavski and Shapiro went on to win numerous competitions and have now been playing together for two decades. Showcased on two grand pianos, they will perform excerpts from works played by Burstein and Neuman under and after the Nazis, including selections from Arensky, Brahms, Toch and Chopin. With their artist-in-exile stories echoing those of the characters they portray, Varshavski and Shapiro will also perform live readings based on the first-person interviews of Burstein and Neuman.

“Two Pianos” is being presented by The Jüdische Kulturbund Project, which seeks to keep the legacy of the Kulturbund alive through educational programs and performances like this one. The Project connects examples of Jewish artists living under Nazi rule with artists facing oppression around the world today.

“We are so excited to bring this story to life,” said Gail Prensky, creator, executive producer and project director of The Jüdische Kulturbund Project. “Music sustained these women and fueled their will, not just to survive during the darkest hours of Nazi Germany, but to thrive.”


“Two Pianos: Playing for Life” will premiere at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 9, in Presser Hall at the Settlement Music School’s Mary Louise Curtis Branch, 416 Queen Street, Philadelphia. A discussion, as well as a reception to meet the performers, will follow the program. Admission is free, but reservations are required because seating is limited. For more information, contact co-producer Michael Levin at [email protected] or at 202-828-3212.

Book Chat: Exodus to Shanghai

— by Hannah Lee

Heartbreaking are the testimonies of Jews who sought every avenue of escape from Nazi-controlled Europe, but were foiled at every turn, with diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles. They had limited access to accurate news. They had limited resources to buy their freedom and even the ones with means and the forethought found themselves victims of covetous maneuvers. Nazi regulations forbade bringing most valuables from the country and limited cash to 10 Marks or $10 per person.

First-hand testimonies are found in a book published in July, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt.

More after the jump.
As part of the academic Palgrave Macmillian studies in oral history, Professor Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, China when all other doors had slammed shut. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors.  

Most of the narrators left their homes in the frantic and brief period between the Anschluss (the occupation and annexation) of Austria in March 1938 and the beginning of war in September 1939. They came from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and represent a cross section of all refugees. The book does not cover the odyssey of the religious Jews from Poland, including the entire Mirrer Yeshiva, who spoke Yiddish and dressed differently from the cosmopolitan Berliners and the Viennese.

Desperate and resourceful women found out that a visa to Shanghai could release their men from concentration camps. Assistance came from the philanthropic organizations, Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden in Germany and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York, including tickets to Shanghai for the poorest families.

In the 1930s, Shanghai was the banking center of Asia and “an open port where the Chinese Nationalists and Communists, organized gangsters, Western capitalists, and the Japanese military competed for authority,” wrote Hochstadt. “Extremes of wealth and poverty jostled in the crowded streets.” Upon arrival, the refugees experienced culture shock in the form of the tropical heat, an alien language, and wartime inflation.  

The marvel was that the refugees quickly developed a community in exile, with Jewish institutions and forms of self-governance. The Austrians even created a café life on the streets of their new home. The most ambitious and successful creation was the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, affectionately known as the Kadoorie School. About 600 students enrolled in a curriculum of religious and secular subjects, taught in English by the refugees and modeled after Jewish schools in Germany.

“The remarkable thing about Jewish life in Shanghai until 1943 is that there was no persecution,” wrote Hochstadt. The Japanese already controlled most of the city but, while they were allies of the Nazis, they adopted a completely different policy toward Jews. They finally took action on February 18, 1943, when they forced all “stateless refugees” who’d arrived after 1937 to live within less than a square mile in the neighborhood of Hongkou. However, the February Proclamation showed “the ambivalent nature of the Japanese attitude… the word Jew was not mentioned in the Proclamation ,” and the existing Baghdadi and Russian Jewish communities in Shanghai were spared.

With the end of the war, these refugees again had to find new places to live. Nearly all refugee families wanted to leave Shanghai as soon as possible. “Very few had been able to create a life they wanted to continue in China. Remaining in post-colonial China…meant learning and adopting Chinese culture; only a handful of European Jews accepted that challenge,” wrote Hochstadt.

Illustrative of the enormous difficulties for displaced persons after the war, one of the last groups to leave Shanghai, 106 of them without U.S. visas, were supposed to travel across the Pacific on the “General Gordon,” but the Chinese refused to allow the ship to anchor offshore.  So, on May 1950,

the refugees had to take a train to Tientsin, then board barges in heavy seas to get out to the ship. When they arrived in the United States, they were put on a sealed train and transported across the country to Ellis Island…In June, another boat took them to Bremerhaven [Germany], and they entered DP camps, where they stayed for one more year. Finally they were given visas to the United States in 1951.

By the time of the Chinese Communists’ Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Jewish communities of Shanghai “were just a memory.”

The book gives the history of the slight majority of the Shanghai refugees who came to the United States. Life in the United States meant assimilation, letting go of their German culture. They had to adjust to a new world order. One refugee, Lisbeth Loewenberg, reminisced about her adjustment to stability:

My first job that I found after one week when I walked around, that was with Collier’s magazine. This place took subscriptions, they had salesmen go running around and selling subscriptions to Collier’s and Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, and so on, and I processed these orders. People took subscriptions for one year. I said, “But how do people know that after one year they will still be at that address?” I couldn’t believe in permanence anymore. I was completely shocked that some people took two-year subscriptions. It floored me. But you don’t know where you are going to be tomorrow, was my reaction. And life has actually always seemed to me not permanent.  It’s all just transitory.

Remarkably, these refugees, most of whom had been children or teens during the years in Shanghai, can even look back and say, as did Doris Grey, that they were “the best years” of her life. Another, Gerald Kohbieter, said, “It was a lifesaver. The Chinese were polite people, and they put up with a lot with us…There were some frictions, but all in all, I must say there were good hosts.”

The resilience of youth allowed many of them adapt to, and even profit from their refugee experiences. Lisbeth Loewenberg said,

All the barriers fell. It didn’t make a difference, what does your family do…because everyone was there and started from scratch, nil, nothing, in Shanghai. All things being equal, if all people start under the same adverse conditions, this is where your true ability will show or your true survival instincts or your enterprise…Don’t ever blame the condition, blame yourself.  Because under the most impossible conditions, some people will make it one way or another.

Professor Hochstadt earned his Ph.D. in History from Brown University, taught at Bates College in Maine for 27 years, and is now professor at Illinois College. He has just published another Holocaust oral history, Death and Love in the Holocaust: The Story of Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt (Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine).

Gov. LePage Compares IRS to Gestapo… Again

— by David Streeter

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) today denounced Maine Republican Governor Paul LePage for doubling down on his stunningly inappropriate comments comparing the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo at a fundraiser Thursday morning. NJDC President and CEO David A. Harris said:

Comparing a long-standing federal agency to Hitler’s secret police, especially in the context of providing millions of Americans with much-needed health care insurance is simply absurd. That this is LePage’s second time doing so in the past week is completely unacceptable — even with Monday’s tepid apology. Trivializing the suffering and deaths of millions at the hands of the Gestapo is completely unacceptable, and the governor — indeed any elected official — should know better than this. LePage — who is just the latest in an increasingly long line of Republicans who have crassly invoked the Holocaust for their own political purposes — must give a true apology at once.

More after the jump.

With his comments, LePage joins the ranks of other Republicans such as:

who have shamefully abused the Holocaust to make political points.

Paul Heintz of Seven Days reported:

Following a fundraiser for Vermont Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock Thursday morning, Maine Gov. Paul LePage repeated and elaborated on controversial comments he made over the weekend equating the Internal Revenue Service with the Gestapo.

Standing by Brock’s side at the Sheraton in South Burlington, the Maine governor said, ‘What I am trying to say is the Holocaust was a horrific crime against humanity and, frankly, I would never want to see that repeated. Maybe the IRS is not quite as bad – yet.’

LePage then said, ‘They’re headed in that direction.’

Asked if he had a sense of what the Gestapo did during the second world war, LePage said, ‘Yeah, they killed a lot of people.’ Asked whether the IRS ‘was headed in the direction of killing a lot of people, ‘LePage answered: ‘Yeah.’

LePage’s words went well beyond a controversial comment he made in his weekly radio address over the weekend. Speaking about the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision largely upholding the Affordable Care Act, LePage told his radio audience that, ‘This decision has made America less free. We the people have been told there is no choice. You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo – the IRS.’

Following a national uproar, LePage partially retracted the comment, saying in a statement that it was not his intent to insult anyone and that ‘Clearly, what has happened is that the use of the word Gestapo has clouded my message.’

How the Israel Philharmonic Saved Jews From the Nazis

— by Hannah Lee
I did not hear of this in time to write about it for Yom HaShoah or Yom Ha’Atzmaut, but I didn’t want to sit on it for a whole year.  It was aired on Israel’s Channel 2 in April.  My husband’s maternal uncle, Yaacov Mishori, emeritus principal horn player of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a former member of the orchestra management team, appears on-camera as one of the commentators.  The two video clips together total one hour of viewing; they are in Hebrew with Hebrew subtitles, but some of the people interviewed speak in English.

When you search the origins of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), you get a brief paragraph on Wikipedia:

The IPO was founded by violinist Bronisław Huberman in 1936, at a time when many Jewish musicians were being fired from European orchestras. Its inaugural concert took place in Tel Aviv on December 26, 1936, and was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

However, the full story is much more heartbreaking.  

More after the jump.

Bronislaw Huberman, born in Częstochowa, Poland in 1882, was a child prodigy on the violin.  At the tender age of 14, he performed the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms in the presence of the composer, who cried and was “stunned by the quality of his playing.”  [“Around this time the six-year- old Arthur Rubinstein saw one of Huberman’s concerts.  Rubinstein’s parents invited Huberman back to their house and the two boys struck up what would become a lifetime friendship.”]  

During the ’30s, Huberman sought a way to help his fellow musicians who were facing persecution and murder at the hands of the Nazis.  He devised a plan that used the guise of recruiting musicians for a newly created Palestine Orchestra, funding the effort with his own money.  There were only 72 spots in the orchestra.  He auditioned his musicians, standing with his back to the musicians, because he knew that anyone he did not select would most likely perish during wartime Europe.  The chosen ones were all excellent musicians of high-standing.  Some even defected to the kibbutzim shortly after arriving, allowing Huberman the opportunity to recruit additional Jews.  The languages spoken by the early members of the orchestra were German, Polish, Hungarian, and Russian.  The orchestra later changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and it played “Hatikvah” at the Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948 at the Tel Aviv Museum.

In a similar manner was the welcome offered in American academia, including the creation of the Committee on Social Thought in 1941 at the University of Chicago by the historian John U. Nef, the economist Frank Knight, the anthropologist Robert Redfield, and Robert M. Hutchins, then President of the university.   Lore passed down by the students say that the new department was created to provide a convenient haven for refugees fleeing from wartime Europe.  Over the years, temporary and permanent refugee members of the Committee have included Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, Friederich Hayek, Leszek Kolakowski, Edward Levi, Paul Ricoeur, and Karl J. Weintraub.

The video clips are bracketed by the playing of Brahms in Częstochowa’s synagogue (now a concert hall) by Joshua Bell, an American with Jewish maternal ancestry.  There were dual historical and personal connections, because Bell now plays on a Stradivarius violin called the Gibson ex Huberman (the names of its first two owners), which was made in 1713.  It had been stolen twice in its lifetime: once for three days in 1919 and the second time on February 28, 1936 from the dressing room of Carnegie Hall.  Huberman never saw it again in his lifetime.  The violin only re-surfaced in 1985 with the deathbed confession of the thief, a former nightclub musician named Julian Altman.  Bell was able to buy the violin for just under $4 million dollars, right before it was to be sold to a German industrialist to become part of a collection.   Bell’s maternal grandmother was from Minsk and his maternal grandfather was born in Israel, so Bell mused on the video that “he might have listened to Huberman play.”