Three Israelis turn back clock in Berlin


Alice Agneskirchner is not Jewish. In fact, before deciding to make her latest documentary, “An Apartment in Berlin,” which follows the lives of three young Israelis living in Berlin as they explore the story of a family killed in the Holocaust, Agneskirchner didn’t really know any Jews. Yet, in the film she’s crafted a thought-provoking and often disturbing portrait of life in a land still haunted by genocide, seven decades after World War II ended.

In a recent phone conversation, Agneskirchner spoke of her film and the three Israelis — Eyal, Yael and Yoav — whom she recruited to be at its center. The idea came to Agneskirchner after she heard Israelis speaking Hebrew in a cafe in Berlin one day, which led her to wonder why Israelis would choose to move to a city like Berlin, which had brought the Jewish people so much suffering.

Agneskirchner set out to find Israeli subjects for her film and turned to the Web. “There’s a huge Internet platform [on a] Web page called ‘Israelis in Berlin,’ ” she said. “I think they’ve run it for about five years at least, maybe even longer. … They’re all in Hebrew; I can’t read them.” Undeterred, Agneskirchner got in touch with the site’s administrators to share with them her idea of doing a documentary about Israelis in Berlin. The administrators agreed to help.

“The first time, about 250 people were contacting me,” Agneskirchner said of an ad she ran; she estimates she met with more than 50 Israelis while selecting the subjects for her film.

“You want to have somebody who’s really real — who’s not afraid of being himself, even if you will film him. You don’t want anybody who tries to please you,” Agneskirchner said of her selection criteria. “I wanted to have a big variety.”

“Yoav, it was clear from the moment I met him … he was so different,” Agneskirchner said of the film’s most compelling subject, an Aryan-obsessed Israeli who works as a tour guide for Jews visiting Berlin. “I think pretty much in the first time we met … he told me the story that he would like to have an Aryan girlfriend every night.”

Eyal, the film’s other male subject, was chosen because he was new to Berlin and Agneskirchner wanted to follow someone who was still adjusting to life there. Yael, the third Israeli, who was raised ultra-Orthodox but left her community after divorcing her husband, had not been Agneskirchner’s initial choice for the female subject. But getting the project going took an extended period of time, and the original woman, named Ayelet, moved back to Israel; Agneskirchner recruited Yael through a second round of interviews.

Agneskirchner’s idea was to have the Israeli subjects of the film live together in an apartment for a couple of months — but not just any apartment, one that had been home to a Jewish family killed in the Holocaust. “The research took a long time … not to find the Israelis, that was fairly easy, but to find the apartment,” Agneskirchner said. She eventually chose one, and with it, the history of the Adler family, who worked in the egg trade. Her main challenge, then, became convincing the apartment’s current residents to move out for two months so she could film there. At first the family resisted, but Agneskirchner eventually won them over. 

The film’s three Israeli subjects were initially unaware of Agneskirchner’s central conceit. “They knew it was going to be an apartment, they knew I wanted to do a refurnishing, but everything else they didn’t know,” she said. Only after moving in did they learn that the apartment they were sharing once belonged to a Jewish family who’d been exterminated in the Holocaust.

The film follows the Israelis as they help furnish the Adlers’ apartment with objects similar to what was known, via inventories, to have belonged to the family. The trio learns about the Adlers’ life story and explores the history of Berlin, all while navigating their personal and professional lives in the city.  

The original Berlin apartment of the Adler family, refurnished according to the 1943 Nazi wealth assessment protocol, made prior to the Jewish family’s deportation and deaths.  

One thing that surprised Agneskirchner was how different the political views of her subjects were from one another. In one scene, the three debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It was more or less the first day of shooting. … It was like dogs sniffing at each other. Do we like each other?” 

One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves Yoav, the Aryan-loving Israeli, walking the streets of Berlin wearing an SS uniform from a costume shop. Agneskirchner knew that Yoav wanted to wear the uniform, but she had no idea he’d actually want to go outside in it. “My plan was not going onto the streets. That was his wish, his very high wish. 

“I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen, and if it was really totally legal or not,” Agneskirchner said, given that Germany’s laws against anything Nazi-related are very strict.

In the film, the reactions of people on the street are fascinating, but it’s Yoav’s own words while wearing the uniform that are the most haunting. “And, well, not ‘the Jews,’ but some of them,” he says, “if given the choice to be victim or perpetrator, it seems to me, would know what to choose — perpetrator of course.”

Scenes like that with Yoav made it hard for some of the Adlers’ surviving relatives to watch the film, Agneskirchner said. The Adlers’ niece, who lives in Israel and whom Agneskirchner filmed both in her home and when she came to Berlin to be in the film, “was not too friendly with the three of them,” Agneskirchner said.

Agneskirchner is now an artist-in-residence at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, the former home of Lion Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish intellectual and author who fled the Nazis and settled in Southern California along with his wife, Marta. The Villa is now owned by the German government and is used as a place for German artists to work on projects. Although those projects don’t have to be specifically Jewish, Agneskirchner’s current one is, as well. She’s working on a documentary about the famous 1978 miniseries “Holocaust,” which starred Meryl Streep, James Woods and Michael Moriarty, among others.

“It really changed Germany,” Agneskirchner said of the series. “It was the first so-called TV event. More than half of the German population saw it at that time,” she said. “The word ‘Holocaust’ was not common in German, we wouldn’t use it … we didn’t use it before that.”

It’s certainly surprising to Agneskirchner, who was born in 1960s Munich, that after a long career of doing nothing Jewish, she’s worked on two Jewish projects in a row. “I was editing the film [“An Apartment in Berlin”] with a Jewish editor,” Agneskirchner said, “and she grew up in Munich, like I did. We were of similar age. … We talked about us growing up … there were about 300 Jews living in Munich at that time; she knew all of them, I knew none of them.” 

Although many Jews today, particularly the older generations, still are uncomfortable traveling to Germany, Agneskirchner said she believes the growing presence of Israelis living in Berlin isn’t going away any time soon. “Nobody knows exactly how many are there,” she said. “Some people say there are 50,000 now, and it’s almost an aliyah to Berlin.”

“An Apartment in Berlin” will be screened at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., on Tuesday, March 10, at 7 p.m. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Agneskirchner, moderated by the Jewish Journal’s Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/alice-agneskirchners-an-apartment-in-berlin-registration-15794441600

Novelist Warren Adler back in a New York state of mind


Growing up in Brownsville in the 1930s, Warren Adler would pass a small, 24-hour candy store almost every day on Saratoga Avenue, around the corner from his home. The toughs who hung out there were bad guys who were looked up to by those in the neighborhood as heroes. Only years later would he learn that this was the headquarters of Murder Incorporated, and that many of the Jewish guys drinking egg creams were killers.

Adler, the 80-year-old best-selling author of “The War of the Roses,” recently returned to New York City after being away for 40 years and uses this setting in his latest novel—his 30th book—“Funny Boys” (Overlook Press). He has also just published his fifth collection of short stories, all set in Gotham and written since he has been back, called “New York Echoes” (Stonehouse Press).

Set in 1937, “Funny Boys” is also inspired by another traditional Jewish type: the Catskills comedian. The novel has a laugh track, a running monologue of Borscht Belt humor, as Mickey Fine, the tummler—a hotel’s resident comedian, social director and general merrymaker—gets mixed up with the hit men and thugs who control all sorts of illegal rackets through the Catskill hotels and Sullivan County. Fine is naïve and ambitious, hoping to use the Catskills to launch his career as a comic.

In writing the novel, which was long in the making, Adler interviewed Milton Berle, Red Buttons and other comedians who got their starts in the Catskills. He also researched the lives of Jewish gangsters, and the novel includes appearances by real members of Murder Incorporated, like “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, who got the electric chair in 1941. Here, “Pep,” as he is known in the novel, spends his weekends at Gorlick’s Hotel in the Catskills, along with other members of “the combination,” as the group of Jewish and Italian mobsters referred to themselves.

The tummler’s story gets entangled with the adventures of Miriam Feder, a young Jewish woman known as Mutzie. Having grown up poor in Brownsville, she has dreams of a better life than that of her parents; she loves movies and glamour and even looks a bit like Jean Harlow. Full of hope and innocence, she becomes a gangster girlfriend.

Adler’s a good storyteller, with an ear for the way these Jewish gangland types would have spoken to each other, and also for the rhythms of a good joke. The novel is filled with Yiddish and Yiddishisms.

“In Hollywood, I’m called a relationship writer,” Adler says, in an interview in his Manhattan apartment. “But I’ve also written about espionage. Every book I write is different. Some are very sexy—that’s part of what relationships are about, part of our humanity.”

The stories in “New York Echoes” feature familiar characters—couples seen in elevators of apartment buildings, older women on Central Park benches, a man who begins his day by reading obituaries; some stories look back nostalgically at an earlier New York. He writes of relationships and their mysteries, love, loneliness, aging, Sept. 11.

“I want my writing to be crystal clear, not obscure,” says Adler, whose books have been translated into 30 languages. “I work very hard on being easy to read. I’m not trying to impress with my erudition. I want the story to move. I choose words very carefully.”

“Everything is autobiographical,” he adds, “it’s all hidden there in different ways. Fiction is an amalgamation of life’s experiences and your own imagination, how you see the world around you and what you’ve read before.” He recognizes that his subconscious is also at work, and never goes to sleep without thinking about what he will write the following day.

A descendant of seven generations of rabbis, he often lived with his grandparents during his father’s frequent bouts of unemployment. They were 11 people sharing a single bathroom. He recently went to see Brownsville, and the house still stands on Strauss Street, with the same fruit trees around it. But he says it looks very different.

“I loved my childhood. We had no money. But I was surrounded by love, and a lot of laughter,” he recalls, noting that he wanted to be a novelist from the age of 15.

A few years ago, he served as principal for a day at his old school, P.S. 183, where they found his second-grade report card on file, which indicated that he had reading problems. He later graduated from Brooklyn Tech and New York University and studied writing at The New School, with classmates Mario Puzo and William Styron. His first job was as a copy boy at the Daily News.

During the Korean War, Adler served in Washington with Armed Forces Press Service. He then worked in public relations, serving United Jewish Appeal and Jewish War Veterans and was recruited to handle the Jewish vote in Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, and later headed his own advertising and public relations business. Living in Washington, he was friendly with many American and Israeli officials, and enjoyed taking Yitzchak Rabin to Redskins games. It was Adler who first introduced Golda Meir to Ronald Reagan, at a fundraiser in Los Angeles.

For many years, Adler wrote fiction in the very early mornings before heading to work. In 1974, after he published his first novel, he began writing full time. He also lived in Hollywood for some years, writing scripts, and, most recently, in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where, as he did his writing, he had a full view of the Grand Tetons.

Now, his office overlooks East 56th Street. Above his desk is a large portrait of George Washington, his all-time hero. On the opposite wall, posters advertise two films made from his books, “The War of the Roses”—starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, which, he says, “plays somewhere in the world three or four times a week—and “Random Hearts.” A trilogy of three of his stories, “The Sunset Gang,” ran on Public Television, and his play “Libido” is scheduled to open off-Broadway later this year.

Adler writes two books a year. Not all have been published, and he has about a dozen books in the wings. For him, writing is a calling.

“I have learned over a long lifetime that I did it because I needed to do it. I have been lucky to earn a living doing it. I can’t stop.”

He’s long been interested in electronic publishing and has made all of his previous works available in digital format. He has been blogging for eight years.

While the success of “The War of the Roses” has made him something of an expert on divorce, he has been married to his wife for more than 50 years. Adler belongs to several private clubs and participates in a Great Thinkers Group, where members meet to discuss books on philosophy. He also takes part in a weekly Talmud study group.

“This is where I want to be. I’m really drinking it up. I love this town,” he says. “As long as I can keep writing, I’m a happy man.” 

Warren Adler will autograph copies of his new novel May 27, noon, at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. (on the Sunset Strip), (310) 659-3110. Adler sponsors “The Warren Adler Short Story Contest” every year on the Internet.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week, where this article originally appeared.

Obituaries


Madeleine Adler died April 13 at 83. She is survived by her daughter, Jackie (Doug) Bristol; son, Robert (Maxine); two grandchildren; and sister, Vera Adler. Malinow and Silverman

Mollye Polin Aranoff died April 24 at 96. She is survived by her daughter, Leslie (Robert) Aranoff-Hirschman; grandchildren Halley Hirschman and Stacey (Michael) Woodhart; and great-grandchildren, Kaleigh and Alex Woodhart. Hillside Memorial Park

Abe Aronow died April 22 at 61. He is survived by his brohter, Sam (Elizabeth); and sister, Greta. Mount Sinai

Jane Axel died April 22 at 90. She is survived by her son, Robert (Linda); daughter, Karin (John Hondershot) Honigberg; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Rae Louise Avrutin died April 20 at 92. She is survived by her daughters, Ricki (Ken Draper) and Sherry; brother, Leon Prasow; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Groman

Benjamin Bain died April 18 at 94. He is survived by his daughter, Beverly (Mark) Finkelstein; sons, Norman (Neskat) and Leslie (Linda); six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Shelly Bear died April 14 at 62. She is survived by her daughter, Michelle; son, Michael; and brother, Tony (Christine) Rose. Mount Sinai

George Harvey Blum died April 14 at 92. He is survived by his daughter, Marta (Shahpoor Ashorzadeh) Blum; and son, Matthew. Mount Sinai

Jennie Candiotti died April 25 at 98. She is survived by her son, Ruben; daughter, Molly; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Groman

Miriam Ellis died April 20 at 89. She is survived by her daughter, Jacqueline Dermer; and grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Manuel Fertell died April 17 at 84. He is survived by his son, Eliot. Malinow and Silverman

Zelda Siteman Freeberger died April 26 at 93; she is survived by her daughter, Michelle Siteman Shwartz; son, Frank; three grandchildren; nieces; and nephews. Malinow and Silverman

Frances Freeman died April 23 at 97. She is survived by her sons, Michael and Alan (Alice); three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Miles Gardner died April 18 at 76. He is survived by his wife, Beverly; children, Jonathan (Lori), Audrey (William Schumacher) and Jeffrey (Nancy); and three grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Gustave “Gus” Hermes died April 24 at 77. He is survived by his daughters, Rhonda Lipnicki, Rosalin (Marty) Mandelberg and Tamar (Matt Earl Beesley); son, Russell (Kat) Rosen; seven grandchildren; and brother, Jerry. Mount Sinai

Sadie Ruth Jaro died April 19 at 94. She is survived by her sons, Robert (Laurie) and Larry (Sara); daughter, Barbara (Gershon) Waintraub; four grandchildren; and great-grandchild. Mount Sinai

Lillian Kaiser died April 23 at 96. She is survived by her son, Ronald; and by grandchildren, Jennifer and Daniel. Mount Sinai

Charlene Kaplan died April 22 at 70. She is survived by her friends. Groman

Estelle Klein died April 14 at 99. She is survived by her son, Laurence (Betsy); daughters, Barbara (Ronald Mitchell) and Judy; 10 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Beulah Kraveitz died April 23 at 94. She is survived by her son, Mark; and two grandchildren. Groman

Michael Kreinman died April 23 at 76. He is survived by his wife, Lynn; daughters, Diana (Jonathan) Rodgers and Karen (William Basore); grandson, Bram Elijah Rodgers; nieces; and nephews. Malinow and Silverman

Estelle Kreitzer died April 28 at 86. She is survived by her son, Philip. Malinow and Silverman

Dr. Irvin Jack Leven died April 13 at 83. He is survived by his wife, Evelyn; sons, Paul (Saralyn)and Steven (Susan); five grandchildren; and sister, Phyllis Heft. Eden

Dr. Eileen Levine died April 15 at 57. She is survived by her husband, Michael. Malinow and Silverman

David Massoth died April 13 at 86. He is survived by his wife, Roberta; daughters, Donna (Leo) Santiago and Susan (Gil) Abrams; son, Richard (Lise LaFlamme); six grandchildren; sisters, Lillian (Warren) Neidenberg and Leanna Berlin; and brother-in-law, Jack Berlin. Malinow and Silverman

Shirley Mastin died April 24 at 86. She is survived by her daughter, Helene Cohen. Malinow and Silverman

Edward Merkow died April 15 at 75. He is survived by his daughter, Jan (David) Fryman; sons, Michael (Elena), Todd (Lisa) and Eric (Dawn); eight grandchildren; and sister, Esther Shapiro. Malinow and Silverman

Esther Meshul died April 26 at 94. She is survived by her husband, Sol; daughters, Myna (Rabbi Uri) Herscher and Renee (Tom Klitcher); son, Cary (Roxanne Sylvester); six grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; sister, Sylvia Greene; and brothers, Bernard Kliska and Beie. Mount Sinai

Freda Mesnik died April 12 at 93. She is survived by her son, Stuart (Barbara); six grandchildren; and great-grandchild. Mount Sinai

Carol Nash died April 16 at 86. She is survived by her sons, Anthony and Robert. Malinow and Silverman

Sylvia Novak died April 19 at 84. She is survived by her sons, Jonathan and David (Isabelle); and grandson, Yitzhak (Aviva). Mount Sinai

Marilyn Orzeck died April 22 at 74. She is survived by her daughter, Elise; son, Toren (Jill); grandson, Alexander; sister, Sally (Sheldon) Goldman; and brother, Harold (Elaine) Adelman. Mount Sinai

Grusha Paterson-Mills died April 15 at 97. She is survived by her husband, Alvin Mills; daughter, Judy (Dr Emanuel) Baker; son, Richard Marcus; stepsons, Robert and Steven Mills; stepdaughters, Maria Mills, Elaine (Eric) Eaydian and Janette (William) Grigg; grandchildren, David (Marissa) Marcus and Ellen Cuningham; five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Ivan Phillips died April 12 at 89. He is survived by his daughter, Shirlee (Ken) Frost; sons, Randy (Beth) and Gary (Vicki); and grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Betty Polachek died April 28 at 91. She is survived by her son, Michael (Jane); daughter, Joanne (Colin) Lennard; eight grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Sylvia Prager died April 20 at 98. She is survived by her daughter, Karen Strauss. Malinow and Silverman

Estelle Rosenberg died April 25 at 87. She is survived by her son, Mark (Sona); and two grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Richard Rosett died April 19 at 65. He is survived by his wife, Sharon; daughter, Ilene (David) Tucker; son, Michael (Mya); and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Finding Our Place


My daughter and I were driving through Koreatown again. Five years had passed since the first Rodney King verdict, since the riots, since the day we’d first driven these same streets, with their smoldering buildings and the militia standing guard. She noted every new building and every lot that remained vacant.

“It couldn’t all have been about Rodney King,” she said, noticing that the street signs change from Korean to Spanish.

Of course not. At 15, she’s better able to understand the concept of precipitating causes. But if I can explain the lack of justice, jobs and hope that led to the worst rioting in Los Angeles history, I have a harder time clarifying what has happened since. Anger, bitterness and ethnic separation have only increased.

What part has the Jewish community played in all this? For most of us, the riots have become part of the background, soon to be joined by fires, earthquakes and even O.J. We have moved on. Like the jacaranda tree, blooming again this spring, our sense of civic life has returned. A few weeks ago, I joined a crowd at the downtown library to hear a theatrical reading. New members are flooding to Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, even before the new religious school opens on the Westside in the fall. The beauty of Southern California once again seems overpowering, and we are glad to be here.

In the early post-riot days, people spoke casually about two revolutionary ideas: purchasing guns and moving out of town. A kind of wild-west ecstasy overtook us, in which the future was perceived as either siege or isolation. We hatched dark plots for our own salvation. The new movie “Volcano” strikes me as arriving a bit too late to completely capture this barricaded anti-Los Angeles mentality. By now, one natural disaster can’t shake us.

Instead, I am struck these days by how people are settling in. Book clubs and gardening are the big business now. At Passover this year, friends brought over their home-grown irises and roses and debated over which was the more beautiful. Dueling pistils at dawn.

When I consider what has happened to the Jewish community since Los Angeles erupted five years ago, it is the sense of retrenchment, joined by detachment, that I see. We are here to stay, but not many of us are sure what, in the matter of civic activism, our role should be.

Jewish activists took a beating in the post-riot analysis. Though we were not to blame for the riots, and (unlike the Watts fires 27 years before) were not a target of the civic rage, a verbal berating nevertheless came our way. We were criticized for our isolation, arrogance and self-absorption. And, in those first months after April 1992, we redoubled our efforts, joining task forces, building bridges, joining an endless number of coalitions. Still, we were accused of turning inward, and took the blame for the breakdown in the black-Jewish dialogue, as well as for the stillborn connections with Latinos or Asians.

But looking back now, I wonder if we Jews haven’t made ourselves too liable. We cannot create dialogue on our own. We cannot sit alone at a table and concoct jobs or a political agenda where there are no coalitions. So, while certainly we cannot be satisfied with the moribund status of politics, education and civic leadership in this city, it’s time to acknowledge that at least we stayed the course. In times of upheaval, there is value in merely staying put.

I realize that this is not the common interpretation of what’s occurred. Most commentators look at the Jewish demographic shift from the city to Ventura as an escape from Los Angeles. They accuse us of fleeing the riots, racial chaos and municipal disintegration. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, in particular, is even now accused of leaving town, although its membership had left Koreatown a decade before it broke ground on its Westside campus at Olympic and Barrington.

But if the riots were the final straw, we have to see that this westward and northern shift is a statement not of despair but of hope.

I know something about fleeing. When I graduated college, I joined half my class in a move across the country, from the East Coast to the West. Part rebellion, part pioneering effort, that 1970s shift instinctively recognized that New York was finished and that Los Angeles was the true land of opportunity. We left behind our families and history and made haste for something new.

The same motivations do not apply to today’s young families. For one thing, they’re moving only 40 miles away. And if they’re moving out for cheaper housing and better schools, they’re still staying as close to home as they can get.

A young lawyer recently told me that his dream, once he got married, was to buy his grandmother’s home. If he couldn’t afford that, he’d probably do the next best thing and move to Agoura.

Agoura and its booming neighbors, Westlake and Thousand Oaks, are attractive to Jewish couples who want what Los Angeles has to offer — a strong cultural base and a lot of open space. Rather than rejecting their families and their personal histories, they are voting to extend it, putting down roots and staying involved. And they’re bringing Jewish life with them. Heschel West Jewish day school has expanded so fast that it will soon be seeking permanent quarters and plans to build a high school as well.

This move west reminds me of New York after World War II, when the grandparents stayed in the city while young families moved to Long Island and Westchester. It was arguably the healthiest period of Jewish-community development in the 20th century.

Have these Jews opted out of civic life? There is no evidence for it. Jews still dominate the political, cultural and even the economic scene wherever they move. Where there is a board, we are on it. Where there is no leader…as the Talmud said, we are the leaders. Every ethnic group capable of leaving the inner city has done so. Only the Jewish community sees mobility as having a dark side. I am not sure we deserve the rap — not yet.

Los Angeles deserves better than what the past five years have given us. But there is a future here, and we are part of it.


Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address us wvoice@aol.com.