Rabbi Diaries: Chocolate Drinking in Eighteenth Century


IMG_3712The diary of Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai (known as the HIDA who lived from 1724– 1806) may be the first document to identify the personal chocolate use of a rabbi. Azulai mentions chocolate at least ten times and reports widespread chocolate drinking among the Jews of Europe.

Selected to be a messenger from Israel to European Jewish communities due to his erudition, the HIDA, of Sephardi descent, was born and educated in Jerusalem . He published over 60 works of Jewish law and prayer, plus his travel diaries. Some consider him to be the greatest Sephardi scholar since Joseph Karo, author of the authoritative Jewish code known as the Shulchan Aruch. During his travels he drank chocolate, ate chocolate, and was gifted chocolate. On a very mountainous journey in a snow storm from Cuneo, Italy, to Nice, France, he confessed that he had become so ravenous that he “had some raw chocolate and I ate about a litre.” That was unusual then since chocolate was primarily a beverage and not produced as an edible. In Amsterdam the HIDA celebrated a bris with chocolate and sweets in 1777. After services in Montpellier, France, he drank chocolate with the synagogue’s main benefactor and other members. His hosts entertained him with chocolate in Italy, France and the Netherlands. Here are his chocolate diary entries:

5516/1755 25 Teveth from Nice to Cuneo.  Over snowy mountains, very hard trip…“ Mercifuly I had some raw chocolate and I ate but a litre…”

5534/1774, Iyar 20, just before Shavuot, Livorno, Italy. “And they brought me gifts: S. Leon, coffee and chocolate.”

5537/1776 Shevat 21, Trieste, Italy. Meeting with leaders of the council. “But the first and prime force in everything was S. Marco who sent me a large vessel full of coffee and chocolate … ”

5537/1776 Montpellier, France. Thursday. “I went to the synagogue established by the deceased Melinde and his widow supports the synagogue. They conduct themselves according to the rites of the Four Congregations [Carpentras, Avignon, Lisle and Cavaillon]. After prayers I drank chocolate with the said widow together with some of the Yehidim.”

5538/Heshvan 16 1778, France. “Later I went to drink chocolate with S. Samuel Astruc; then I went to dine at the home of … ”

5538/Kislev New Moon 1777, Sunday, Vayetse. “ … in the morning I drank chocolate at the home of S. Judah and Haim bar-Mordecai who are called by the name of Lange.” 

5538/Teveth 6 5538 1777, Monday. “I drank chocolate with Solomon Ravel.”

5538/1777-8 Teveth 27, Amsterdam. “The eve of Monday; we found in the village of Dragehave a Jewish householder living there with his family. On each holy Sabbath a minyan came there to pray and they had a Sefer Torah. We stayed there some three hours and they regaled us with chocolate and other delicacies.”

5538/1777-8 Amsterdam, Adar 27. “Thursday I went to visit some gentiles with S. ibn Dana: Britano, Pibelsman, Carlo Vernandi. They did me much honor, especially Pibelsman who gave me two pounds of home-made chocolate.”

5538/1777-8 Amsterdam Iyar 6. “Next morning, an hour before mid-day, I went to the circumcision [of the son of S. Moses ben Isaac Israel Soasso] where I found all the Parnessim, his friends. They made me stay for the meal which consisted of    and various sweetmeats. I did not wash hands for eating the bread but only ate some sweetmeats and chocolate.” 

The  European Jewish communities of the mid-eighteenth century enjoyed their chocolate, especially when entertaining a scholar and emissary from the Holy Land. Azulai was fortunate to have been sustained and warmed by that hospitable chocolate in his arduous travels and meetings. His hosts modeled a delicious welcome for rabbis.

Hida photo

Young Manhattanite’s diary of old is new again


In New York, even our trash is full of treasure.

One fall morning in 2003, Lily Koppel left her Riverside Drive apartment building, a bit late for work at The New York Times, and was struck by the sight of a large dumpster outside the entranceway. Piled high were about 50 old steamer trunks plastered with vintage labels of stylish hotels and cruise lines. When her curiosity drove her to climb right into the dumpster, passersby didn’t seem to notice, but her doorman warned her to get down. But she instead tried prying open the trunks, and soon was excavating a flapper outfit, beaded evening purses, a psychoanalyst’s files, matchboxes from Schrafft’s, a gold tube of lipstick in “Bachelor’s Carnation,” an official Mah Jongg card — clues to life among a certain set in the 1920s and 30s.

Koppel pulled out what she could, called The Times to send a photographer and then tried contacting the New York Historical Society, aware that trash collectors would soon be coming for this unburied treasure. Then she climbed back in and hunted some more.

She learned that her building was expanding its bike room and had cleaned out an area where these trunks, whose owners had moved on, had sat unopened for decades. Amid the chaos, a building porter told her that he had found a young girl’s diary and gave her the small book with its crackling leather cover and chrome lock. None of her scavenged items affected her like the diary; the young girl’s voice transported her to another era, yet was strangely familiar.

The diary sat on Koppel’s night table for several years, and she’d read it often. The diarist, whose name, Florence Wolfson, was inscribed inside, received the book on her 14th birthday, and wrote a few lines in it every day from 1929 to 1934. To Koppel, Wolfson seemed more sophisticated than her years, overflowing with passion, daring and intense feelings; full of literary ambition and craving adventure and romance. This potent whiff of another life reminded the young Chicago-born reporter of her own experiences in getting to know New York. Both women were painters as well as writers who felt the need to create beauty while trying to carve out their own paths.

“I felt like we almost could have been the same person, separated by 75 years,” Koppel says in an interview.

The only clues Koppel had to the identity of her doppelganger was a newspaper clipping tucked inside announcing that Wolfson had won a state scholarship at age 15. Through an encounter with a private investigator who contacted Koppel after a story of hers appeared in The Times, she was able to trace the writer, through birth records and telephone books, to her winter residence in Florida. Three years after she first climbed into the dumpster, Koppel called Florence Wolfson Howitt and told her that she thought she had some things that belonged to her. Howitt was astounded that this reporter had tracked her down and that she had the red leather diary she had long forgotten about.

After they met, Koppel wrote a story about the diary for The Times, which generated much attention, including calls from literary agents and editors who suggested that Koppel write a book. Working with the diary entries and long interviews with Howitt, Koppel has crafted a textured and intimate coming-of-age story and a very uptown portrait of Jewish life, “The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal” (Harper).

Some of the diarist’s entries have the feel of a writer with the expectation of a future reader — that she wrote these sometimes-cryptic notes to herself but also hoped to share her dreams and inner life.

Florence’s prose “possessed the literary equivalent of perfect pitch,” Koppel writes.

The book presents a meeting of selves between the young Florence and the woman she would become. The daughter of immigrant parents — her father became a prominent doctor, her mother a sought-after dressmaker, the beautiful and independent Florence went to lunch and tea at Schrafft’s and dancing at the El Morocco and the Hotel Pennsylvania. She rode horseback in Central Park, summered in the Catskills (her arrival at the Spring Lake Hotel caused a stir, as though a movie star had arrived), wandered for hours at the Metropolitan Museum, attended Hunter College, where she served as editor-in-chief of the prestigious publication, “The Echo,” and hosted a literary salon in her parents’ apartment. After receiving her master’s degree, she sailed to Europe, where she had a romance with an Italian count, among others.

While she rebelled against her parents’ expectations — they wanted her to marry a nice Jewish doctor — she did end up fulfilling many of their wishes. In fact, she eloped with her husband just as he finished dental school. They first met when she was 13 and on summer vacation in the Catskills, where he was working. His father, a rabbi, came from her mother’s village in Europe. Their first kiss is mentioned in the diary.

“Florence’s metropolis was a vast theater, like one of the lost wonders of the world. It was alive with writers, painters, playwrights and jazz. Ideas and art mattered. People rushed to the city because the mere thought of it burned a hole in their souls. My New York seemed out of tune, on its way to become a strip mall filled with Paris Hilton look-alikes,” Koppel writes.

When Koppel first visited Florence in her Westport, Conn., home, she found her “unexpectedly glamorous.” Florence greeted her and soon sat down to reread her words, pausing to read out loud lines like “Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven — I feel like a ripe apricot — I’m dizzy with the exotic.”

“You’ve brought back my life,” Florence told Koppel, and then wondered how she had led an ordinary life, rather than the creative endeavors she imagined.

These days, the two women get together every few weeks and have done appearances together in connection with the book, including the “Today” show. Koppel now sees Florence as a best friend, confidant, guide, the Jewish grandmother she never had.

Koppel asks, “How often do you get to know someone as a young woman and then meet them at 90?”

When I met Koppel in her lower Manhattan loft — she left the Upper West Side several years ago — she quoted lines from the diary with ease. A reclaimed trunk from the dumpster serves as a coffee table and two others are piled against a wall. She brings out the actual diary, a hand-sized book whose leather cover is peeling, its brass lock still in place. The pages — with five entries for each of five years on each page — speak of adventures, and now, represent a deep connection between two writers.

The diarist has outlived all the friends and lovers in the pages. Her husband died two years ago.

Florence wrote a lot for magazines early in her marriage and contributed the foreword to the book. There, she answers the question that immediately arises for readers: How does she feel, at 92, about having her intimate thoughts, once under lock and key, exposed to the public?

“Young Florence would have agreed that this is a positive. She would have said, ‘Go for it.’ It has been fun, it has added zest to my life, it has brought back some of the passions of my youth and made me feel more alive than I have in years. I am probably one of the most excited old women in the world.”

In a telephone interview, she said that when she first saw the diary again, she could hardly believe that she wrote it. Now, she really appreciates the respect she is garnering.

Before I left Koppel’s apartment, she pulled out a tangerine bouclé coat with a flared skirt and a single Bakelite button, its Bergdorf Goodman label still intact, and slips it on. This vintage find from the dumpster looks brand new and fits as though it were made for her.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Books: Wartime memoir a lesson in finding family treasures


“Every Day Lasts A Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence From Poland,” edited by Christopher R. Browing, Richard S. Hollander and Nechama Tec (Cambridge University Press, $28).

Over the past several years, a new genre of original Jewish documentation has emerged in closets and attics of Holocaust survivors. The documentation has all the authority of the diaries and notes that were written in situ, within the ghettos, within hiding, even within concentration camps and elsewhere during the Holocaust.

It is imperative that we understand the situation in which this new source of documentation has emerged, because we can do something important to facilitate new discoveries.

Children cleaning out their parents’ homes or apartments, on the occasion of their moving to warmer climates, into assisted living, downsizing or shortly after their deaths have come across a hidden pile of letters in a shoe box or a jewelry box or on a top shelf. Written in a language they do not understand, the collection is probably most often discarded as somehow unimportant, part of the clutter of a long life in which much was collected and too little discarded. But from time to time children have an inkling that something important is before them, something precious to their parents, but something too difficult to read and to share.

I remember one such moment in my own life. My sister and I were sitting shiva for our 92-year-old mother, and no one was in the house visiting, so we started to go through some things; we began to think as to how we would dismantle a lifetime. By chance, we started with a top shelf and discovered my parents’ correspondence when they were first married and my father was off in World War II. My mother had saved the letters she received from her new husband, and he in turn had saved the letters he had received from his bride. After the war, their letters were joined and saved; and thus we had a treasure trove of material giving us insights into our parents, their relationship, the war and the home front. The material is of great importance to their children, their grandchildren and, someday, will be of importance to their great-grandchildren, most too young to read, let alone to understand. But my parents were not survivors; their intimate correspondence was not the stuff of history.

Twice in the past couple of years, this newly revealed documentation has consisted of letters written during the war by Jews living in ghettos and even in slave labor camps and has resulted in important books and exhibitions.

“Sala’s Story,” a collection of letters written by friends and family to Sala Garncarz while she was in prison camps, where she could receive mail and where she dared to hide them and preserve them, was made into an exhibition and a marvelous book. This correspondence depicts the life of Garncarz’s parents and sister in the Sosnowiec ghetto and provides original letters by Alina Gartner, one of four women hung at Auschwitz in January 1945 for smuggling dynamite to the Sonderkommando — the men who worked in the vicinity of the gas chambers at Birkenau. Believing that she was about to die, at the age of 67, Sala told her daughter about these letters, and Ann Kirschner had them translated and wrote an extensive commentary that makes disparate letters into a coherent picture of life in the ghettos — daily life, the type of details that parents share with children and sisters share with sisters. The result is an extraordinary portrait. One feels invited into the privacy of a family, into the anguish of their daily existence.

A second collection of letters has just now emerged. Richard Hollander has published the letters sent by his grandmother and aunts to his father, Joseph, who after a harrowing escape from Europe was in legal limbo in the United States. Richard discovered these letters shortly after both his parents were killed in a car crash. They were bound carefully together in a leather case and stored in an attic where suitcases were kept. He not only discovered the letters but encountered his father’s story. Joseph was not admitted to the United States as a refugee and was considered an enemy alien. His case was a cause celebre of American policy and the gates of refuge that were closed to those Jews fleeing Hitler’s conquest. Unaware of his most compromised circumstances and believing that he was the successful and confident worldly man in the United States that he had been in Poland, Joseph’s sisters and mother pleaded with him to save them as their situation was deteriorating day by day. He, in turn, could not burden them with his problems, which were minor in comparison. The letters are a poignant portrait of daily life in Cracow, of unique authority and power, which describe conditions almost week by week and the initiative taken by Jews seeking to ameliorate their situation.

David Marwell has commented that “just because Jews were powerless does not mean that they were passive.”

And the Hollanders were hardly passive. They understood the extraordinary danger of their situation and pleaded with their brother to get them out before it was too late. They did not understand what was about to happen, but they did understand that their situation was desperate and bound to get worse.

Hollander’s work is preceded by two marvelous essays by two of the most distinguished Holocaust scholars of this generation.

Christopher Browning, the brilliant historian who is the natural heir to Raul Hilberg as a student of the perpetrators and their documents, has used his formidable interpretive skills to understand the conditions of their victims. The result not only contextualizes the letters, but is an original essay on life within the ghetto. He understands so well that there were at least two perspectives, two histories that need be understood and juxtaposed: the history of the killers and what they did to their victims, how they shaped the situation in which the Jews had to live, try to survive, endure and/or die; and the situation of the Jews who tried to make do and continue life in a situation not of their creation and committed to their destruction. In the intersection between these two histories, the most complete history of the Holocaust is to be found. Browning brings his skill for understanding documents and his flair for understanding the human situation that gave rise to these documents to both the introduction and the annotation of the letters.

Also included is a second, but certainly not secondary, introduction, “Through the Eyes of the Oppressed,” by Nechma Tec, an outstanding scholar of resistance whose work will soon be seen in the forthcoming film on the Bielski brothers. Tec, a survivor and a student of women’s experience during the Holocaust, enables the reader to grasp the situation that gave rise to these precious letters.

Books: Czech teen’s words and art put a face on the Holocaust for me


I attended grades one through eight at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles during a time of great unrest in our country — the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., police brutality against war protesters during the Chicano Moratorium. Yet one of my strongest memories is reading excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary.

I remember being moved by the words of that remarkable little Jewish girl with large eyes who hid from the Nazis for two years. I also remember the horror of learning that the Nazis eventually found Anne and her family and that she died in a typhus epidemic that ran through the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s diary spoke to this Los Angeles classroom across the decades, across an ocean, across cultures, across religions.

And that little Chicano boy never could have imagined that someday he would grow up and fall in love with a Jewish woman, marry in a temple, convert to Judaism and send his son to a Jewish day school for eight years.

But what did Anne Frank’s story offer me and my classmates at that time? The nuns who set the curriculum knew. While it is pretty near impossible to comprehend the annihilation of millions, Anne Frank offered us a face, one child to whom we could relate. And of course, the questions came. Who would want to kill this little girl? Will it happen again? Could it happen to us?
Atlantic Monthly Press now brings us the English translation of “The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942,” which, as with Anne Frank’s diary, puts a face on the Holocaust through the words and artwork of a precocious teenager. Simply put, this book should be read by everyone.

Ginz was a Czech Jew, born in 1928, who died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz at the age of 16. His diary had been lost for 60 years but resurfaced in 2003. Ginz’s younger sister, Chava Pressburger, edited her brother’s diary entries, which were translated from the Czech by Elena Lappin. They cover the 11 months before his deportation from Prague to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Also included are poems, an excerpt from one of Ginz’s unfinished novels, articles from Vedem (a weekly magazine Petr started in Theresienstadt), as well as linocuts, sketches and watercolor paintings. There is little doubt that if Ginz had survived, he would have developed into an accomplished writer and artist.

Ginz’s entries recount the daily routine of a teenager attending school and spending time with friends and family. But interspersed among the quotidian details are observations that illustrate the tightening Nazi noose: “In the morning I did my homework. Otherwise nothing special. Actually, a lot is happening, but it is not even visible. What is quite ordinary now would certainly cause upset in a normal time. For example, Jews don’t have fruit, geese, and any poultry, cheese, onions, garlic, and many other things. Tobacco ration cards are forbidden to prisoners, madmen, and Jews.”

And there are poems with lines such as these: “Today it’s clear to everyone / who is a Jew and who’s an Aryan, / because you’ll know Jews near and far / by their black and yellow star.”

Yet, despite all this, Ginz loved to play pranks and possessed a wicked sense of humor, as shown by this observation written on April 20, 1942: “Every building has to hang out a swastika flag, except for the Jews, of course, who are not allowed this pleasure.”

Aside from his writings, Ginz’s artwork is noteworthy for its detail and sophistication. There is an eerie 1943 watercolor titled, “Ghetto Dwellings,” that captures a foreboding atmosphere difficult to replicate in words.

Ginz had a particular love for the linocut, which requires great control over the tools needed to carve images into small pieces of linoleum, a process similar to making woodcuts. In one of his Vedem articles, Ginz describes this art form: “As the entire linocut technique shows, a linocut is the expression of a person who does not make compromises. It is either black or white. There is no grey transition.”

In another Vedem piece, Ginz explains that even in the squalor and deprivation of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, creativity can thrive: “The seed of a creative idea does not die in mud and scum. Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in the darkness.” Ginz proved this to be true as he founded a magazine and continued to write and create artwork while in the camp.

Also included in this book are photographs of Ginz and his family. There is one from February 1933 of Petr and Chava holding hands, walking toward the camera, both dressed in thick coats, knitted caps and scarves to protect them from the Prague winter. The 5-year-old Petr has a determined look in his eyes, lips tight with purpose, as he leads his younger sister along the city street. His face is the face of all children whose lives were cut short by the Nazis. And it is a face that implores us to remember two essential words: Never again.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books of fiction including, “Devil Talk: Stories” (Bilingual Press). His book reviews have appeared in the El Paso Times, The Multicultural Review, La Bloga, The Elegant Variation and elsewhere. He makes his home in the San Fernando Valley. His Web site is

Diary writer Hillman says sharing story is ‘my duty’


Like Anne Frank, Laura Hillman received a diary as a gift on her 13th birthday in Nazi Germany. In it, she scribbled her girlish poems and observations, including her love of the lilac tree that stood in front of her house in Aurich.

“The tree bloomed every May, around the time of Mama’s birthday, and Papa would sing songs of love and lilacs to her,” the survivor said in a conversation in her Los Alamitos home, where a vase of the flowers graced a table.

Hillman (neé Hannelore Wolff) left the tree behind, along with her diary, when she was deported to the Lublin ghetto on her mother’s birthday, May 8, 1942. It was not until several years ago that she completed her Holocaust memoir, “I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree” (Atheneum, 2005), which reads like a teenager’s journal of life in eight labor and concentration camps. The lyrical, brutally honest book recreates her youthful musings — echoing the most famous of the Holocaust diarists, Anne Frank.

Next week, 83-year-old Hillman will read excerpts from her memoir and poetry during a newly re-imagined staging of Grigori Frid’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” by Long Beach Opera (see main story.) She will personify “what Anne might have become if she had survived,” said Andreas Mitisek, the opera’s artistic and general director.

In the two-person piece, the survivor will sit at a desk and, in her speaking voice, engage in a kind of parallel dialogue with the soprano portraying Anne. After the opera’s Anne sings about her father’s dread of life in hiding, Hillman will describe the harsher fate that befell her own father (her family received an urn containing his ashes in a box postmarked, “Buchenwald”).

Hillman later was made to rake dirt over rotting corpses in mass graves, shovel salt in Polish mines, witness her 15-year-old brother succumb to a vicious beating and endure a brutal rape by an SS officer. She also met and fell in love with her future husband, Bernhard Hillman, a fellow prisoner in the Budzyn camp, and was saved from Birkenau by Oskar Schindler, who had placed her on his famous “list.” Throughout the nightmare, she was sustained by a promise — essentially a marriage proposal — from Hillman: If she survived, he would plant her a lilac tree to remind her of her childhood home.

In the opera, Hillman will recount how, like Anne, she discerned possibilities for love and hope during unimaginable times. Yet she found it too painful to document her own Holocaust experiences — except in poems — for decades after the war. Only when her husband lay dying of heart disease in the mid-1980s did she begin to write down memories en masse: “I wondered why Dick had to suffer so much, after all he had been through, and the details came flooding back.”

A division of Simon & Schuster eventually bought her book, which was featured in a Newsweek story about the plethora of such memoirs being published to meet the needs of Holocaust curricula in 25 states. While Anne’s 1947 “Diary of a Young Girl” remains an icon of the genre, newer books like Hillman’s appeal because they are “genuinely good” and “don’t sugarcoat the truth,” Newsweek said.

The survivor gave many readings, but was initially hesitant when Mitisek called about the opera several months ago.

“When I speak too often, I become very anxious, breathing is difficult, and my blood pressure rises,” she explained. Although she said she is ordinarily optimistic, “after each appearance, I’m so completely drained that I sleep — then I take my car and drive somewhere, anywhere, to get away from the memories.”

Even so, she said she agreed to appear in the opera because “it’s my duty. It doesn’t matter if it hurts, because I was lucky enough to survive, while so many others perished.”

Novel Tears Down a Sacred Shrine


“The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank: A Novel” by Ellen Feldman (W. W. Norton & Company, $23.95).

One of the more surprising moments in recent music history comes midway through the celebrated 1998 indie rock album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” by the band Neutral Milk Hotel. Hiding in an otherwise understated tune are some startling lyrics:

I know they buried her body with others.

Her sister and mother and five hundred families.

And will she remember me fifty years later?

I wish I could save her with some sort of time machine….

It is, as many a hipster could tell you, an album about Anne Frank. Its singer and lyricist was a shaggy-headed 27-year-old named Jeff Magnum. As far removed as his native Louisiana was from Amsterdam, his songs give the unmistakable impression that he is a man in love with a 15-year-old girl who had been murdered more than five decades earlier.

Magnum was hardly the first to wish he could save her. Because of the hold that “The Diary of a Young Girl” has long had on a certain subset of American youth, generations of readers and writers have attempted to revive her with their imaginations. The most notable performance of this shadow play came a quarter-century ago in Philip Roth’s strange little novel, “The Ghost Writer.” Setting his story late in the 1950s, Roth is able, through the figure of Nathan Zuckerman, to encounter a mysterious young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Anne Frank. She becomes for him the answer to all his ambivalence as a postwar Jew in America. He imagines marrying her, the Jewish martyr nonpareil, and writing home with proof that he is no self-hater: “Dear Folks: Anne is pregnant, and happier, she says, than she ever thought possible again.” It is vintage Roth in its skewering of pieties; who else would dare impregnate the ghost of a murdered child to show how perverse the sacralization of memory can be?

In the latest literary reappearance of Anne Frank’s diary, Ellen Feldman, in her new novel, “The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank,” imagines that a boy who shared Anne’s hiding place somehow managed to survive. As she explains in an author’s note, on a visit to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, she heard that young Peter van Pels was the only inhabitant of the secret annex whose fate is unknown. Of the eight people who hid there together, only Otto Frank is known to have lived to see the liberation of the camps; the dates and places of six of the others’ deaths appeared soon after the war in the records of the Red Cross. It’s very likely that Peter died on a forced march in 1945, but officially he remains the kind of question mark that begs for a story. What became of Peter, Feldman realized, could make for compelling, speculative fiction.

It could also make for gimmicky, sentimental, cult-of-holy-memory fiction, but Feldman manages to avoid such pitfalls. She does so, in a deceptively straightforward way, by allowing her salvaged character to tell his own story, proceeding from a few parameters set by the diary. If they made it out of the annex, Peter once told Anne, he would reinvent himself entirely.

“He said life would have been easier if he’d been Christian or could become one after the war,” Anne wrote.

From there, Feldman follows Peter as he leaves his past behind. Sent to Auschwitz along with the Franks and his parents, he survives to see the limbo of the displaced persons camps and then boards a boat to America. But his survival is only the start of the story.

The moment he sets foot in New York, he carries out the plan hatched in the annex: He ceases to be a Jew.

As Feldman tells it, Peter’s fictional life from then on might have followed the path of many passing stories: swift success, endless lies, a house in the suburbs — if not for the one overshadowing fact that the author leaves in place: the diary itself, dropped into the narrative like a bomb that quietly explodes one evening while he is in his big suburban home. His wife, a Jew who believes she is married to a non-Jew, selects as bedtime reading the recently released book full of all the memories he has kept from her.

At first he tries to ignore it, forgetting the diary just as he has forgotten the events it describes. But as Anne’s words become not just a book but also a cultural phenomenon — the play, the film, the sudden ubiquity of a girl he thought lost — Peter’s hidden past becomes the elephant in every room he enters. When at last he reads the words he had watched Anne write, he is overcome by them.

“When I was not reading it, I was thinking of it…” he says. “I was trapped in that book as I had been trapped in that house.”

The inevitable reckoning between Feldman’s speculation and the reality that inspired it begins when Peter hears of the liberties that were taken in the diary’s various adaptations. In one of the historical and scholarly epigraphs at the start of each chapter, we learn that the playwrights and producers of the dramatic production of Anne’s story, faced with a “sagging second act,” decided to invent conflict where there had been none. They made Peter’s father into a thief, a stealer of bread from the mouths of children. While he had done his best to forget his parents and their fate, this outright rewriting of history is too much for him to bear. It is against this backdrop that Peter van Pels, the boy who died in real life, sets out to confront Otto Frank, the man who, here and in history, survived to tell the tale.

Such seamless weaving of fact and fiction gives “The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank” tension to spare, making it a story of unexpected suspense — no small feat, given that the crimes that drive the plot occurred long before the action opens. It’s a page-turner motivated not by the usual whodunit but more meaningfully by questions: When will he speak? Will the revisers of history get away with it? How will the man who knows the truth admit it, knowing the cost?

The novel’s most effective moments come when Peter tries to make sense of what happened to the story of his life in hiding when it became not just his memory but the world’s. When he goes to see the Anne Frank film, he is at first put off by the invented details but then cannot help but be moved by the film, despite knowing how much of it is untrue. Particularly untrue, he finds, is the moral of the story, the words from the diary with which the movie ends. “In spite of everything,” the actress playing Anne says, “I still believe people are good at heart.”

With the credits rolling and that hopeful message hanging in the air, Feldman allows Peter a soliloquy of restrained disgust: “That was what the audience wanted. The triumph of the human spirit, as my wife called it. The reassurance that in spite of everything, of people going to their deaths by the millions merely for the accident of their birth, of other people willing and eager to pry gold fillings from their mouths before they shoveled them into ovens, of ghoulish experiments on unanesthetized individuals in the interest of medical science, of an entire people’s bloodthirsty complicity to cleanse the world of another entire people, despite all that, human beings are good at heart.”

By tearing down the shrine of simple hope and sacred memory that has been made of Anne Frank, Feldman has created a fiction that makes the facts of her story real again.

Though one selling point of this book surely will be the promise of a kind of reanimated Anne offered by the likes of Roth and Magnum, she is rarely mentioned directly. This is to Feldman’s credit. Her project is harder work, and she pulls it off.

Rather than bringing Anne back to life, the author brings her back to death. A half-century after a found diary made a murder victim into an icon, Feldman succeeds in acknowledging the role the story has played in the world, while allowing — finally — the girl who wrote it to rest.

This article appears courtesy The Forward.
Peter Manseau is co-author of “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible”(The Free Press, 2004). His next book, “Vows,” will be published in the fall.

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7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, March 26

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels makes an effort at inclusiveness with its new exhibit, “Passion/Passover: Artists of Faith Interpret Their Holy Days.” On view through the month of April, the show features works by seven Jewish and seven Christian artists, including Barbara Drucker, Laurie Gross and the Rev. Michael Tang. Drucker’s contribution is a “Song of Songs”-inspired piece, while Gross’ incorporates the tallit into a work called, “Miriam and the Women.”

6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.), 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (Sat.), 7 a.m.-6 p.m. (Sun.). 555 W. Temple St., Los Angeles. (213) 680-5224. www.olacathedral.org.

Sunday, March 27

Anne Frank would have been 75 years old this year, had she lived. Celebrate her words and her memory through the play written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” on stage now through April 17 at the Chance Theater.

8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 2 p.m. (Sun.). $17-$20. 5552 E. Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. (714) 777-3033.

Monday, March 28

Newly released on DVD is the documentary, “Shanghai Ghetto.” Martin Landau narrates the film about the Jews of Shanghai, who escaped Nazi persecution in the Japanese-controlled city, one of the only places that would allow them to enter.

$26.95. www.docurama.com.

Tuesday, March 29

George Washington gets his mug on a dollar, but what did Martha ever get for her troubles? Cokie Roberts corrects the oversight in her book, “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation,” which becomes the topic of conversation when she visits the Skirball this evening. A book signing follows.

7:30 p.m. $5-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.

Wednesday, March 30

American icon photographer and icon in her own right, Annie Leibovitz, displays her stills of musicians at Fahey/Klein Gallery’s “American Music” exhibition. Images of Willie Nelson, Beck and Michael Stipe are just some you’ll see.

10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). 148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-2250.

Thursday, March 31

Catch the new Murray Mednick trifecta beginning tonight at Electric Lodge. The first two of his four-part series, “The Gary Plays,” premiere tonight, with the third premiering tomorrow. They follow Gary, a poor former actor dealing with his son’s murder. Stay tuned for news on part four….

8 p.m. (both premieres). $20 (one evening), $30 (both evenings). 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. (310) 823-0710.

Friday, April 1

The first Israeli feature to be screened at Sundance, “Nina’s Tragedies,” premiered in 2004 – then took another year to make it into L.A. and New York theaters. But the wait may well be worth it. The film about a 13-year-old boy’s crush on his beautiful and recently widowed Aunt Nina, and about the other quirky characters that surround him, opens today in Laemmle theaters.

Laemmle Sunset 5, Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena. www.laemmle.com.

Mother Weathers Terror’s ‘Storm’


"Storm of Terror: A Hebron Mother’s Diary," by June Leavitt (Ivan R. Dee, $22.50).

Either excoriated as illegal conquerors or praised as pioneers, Jews living in the territories conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War are never portrayed neutrally. The very name of where they live depends on the political bent of the writer: to critics they live in "the West Bank in the Occupied Territories," and proponents historically term it "Judea and Samaria." But at the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian controversy, settlers themselves rarely tell their own stories in print. With "Storm of Terror," June Leavitt has filled that gap.

Leavitt is an American Jewish woman who grew up in secular upper-middle-class Long Island, left for the University of Wisconsin with a trunk full of new mix n’ match clothes, then found herself floundering in the drug culture. Today she is an ultra-Orthodox mother of five who lives with her husband and children in the Jewish enclave of Kiryat Arba in the Palestinian-controlled city of Hebron.

"Storm" is the intensely personal diary of her life during the first year and a half of the second intifada, which erupted on Sept. 29, 2000. Apart from emotional references to biblical patriarchs, the book is not a political polemic; Leavitt, passionately convinced of the Jews’ historic right to live in the entire biblical Israel (including Palestinian-occupied territories), feels no need to justify her a priori position.

Rather, she tells the story of how it feels to live through the trauma of violence and death that strikes her neighbors and friends daily. She relates chronologically the relentless terrorist incidents in which settlers have been attacked in fields, cars, busses and in their own beds. In each case, Leavitt writes not of some anonymous victim, but of acquaintances in her tightknit community whom she meets in the streets, in the grocery and in her children’s schools: "We are burying another of our dead…. Orphans. Orphans everywhere."

When right-wing Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi was assassinated in 2001, it was not some remote politician Leavitt lost but a close family friend who years earlier had himself joined her hospital vigil after rock throwers assaulted her husband causing head injuries.

The real power of the narrative is its honesty, as when Leavitt agonizes about watching her own children on the firing line: "Miriam said that at school her friends are busy writing their own eulogies…. Whoever says they are not frightened is telling a lie."

Leavitt also struggles to juggle among her children’s differing viewpoints. Her eldest daughter Estie, a soldier, was stationed in her hometown to quell settlers advancing towards violent Arab demonstrators. One of the settlers was Estie’s younger sister, Miriam:

"Get out of here before I smash you with this!"

Estie pushed the settlers back with the butt end of her rifle.

Miriam cried, "Why are you on their side? Why are you going to let the Arabs kill us?"

"Traitor!" other settlers screamed at Estie.

A woman soldier grabbed Miriam’s arm. Miriam resisted. When the soldier raised her arm to hit Miriam, Estie screamed, "Don’t touch her! She’s my sister!"

Leavitt’s son became intensely devout as a reaction to friends’ deaths. And her 13-year-old daughter was often so terrified that Leavitt spent nights rocking her. In the new reality of the intifada, normalcy is nowhere. Even a simple mother-daughter conversation about planning the daughter’s future is not immune: "Both Estie and I are trying to ignore the screaming, the whistling of the mobs, the gunfire, the grenades, the street battles between the army and the Arabs," she writes.

Leavitt lost her mother at a young age, and her father and brother turned their backs on her when she moved her children into the dangers of "the West Bank."

Leavitt continues to search for the meaning that brought her and her husband first to become devoutly religious and then ardent Zionists. As a child of the ’60s she used yoga, bioenergy healing, meditation and even tarot cards in her quest for equanimity in the midst of horror.

Leavitt is candidly on the extreme fringe of the Israeli political spectrum. Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994, had been her family doctor. Her comment on the causes for the crime?

"So many friends had died in his arms. Many of us think it was that event which broke our neighbor, Dr. Goldstein."

Leavitt describes, with almost utopian nostalgia, the friendships between her children and nearby Arab families before the peace process "put up barbed wire between us and the Arabs."

"Storm" will not cause any reader to change sides. But its powerful style and even more powerful emotions will engage anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy to race through its pages. Leavitt reveals herself not only as a determined ideologue but as a complex, struggling human being.

New Aspects of Anne


Let’s say it right up front: The four-hour television miniseries "Anne Frank" is the most powerful film on the Holocaust in recent memory, not excepting the fabled "Schindler’s List."

The conclusion comes as a surprise, not least to this reviewer. Who would have thought that a commercial network could create such a film, shorn of false sentimentality, on an icon as thoroughly explored and exploited as Anne Frank, the most famous diarist of World War II?

The second surprise is how much we didn’t know about Anne’s life, even after all the books, plays, movies and documentaries. For Anne’s life didn’t begin in June 1942, when she went into hiding and started her diary, and it didn’t end in August 1944, when her "secret annex" was discovered.

"Anne Frank" airs from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. May 20 and 21. Because of the concentration camp scenes, the film may not be suitable for younger children.

The telefilm is not based on the diary — due to copyright disputes, not a single line from her writing is used — but on the thoroughly researched 1998 biography of Anne by German writer Melissa Muller.

We first meet Anne in 1939 as a precocious 9-year-old schoolgirl of whom her father observes, "God knows everything, but Anne knows everything better." We see her last, emaciated, her clothes filthy and torn, ridden with lice and typhus, just before her death in March 1945 in Bergen-Belsen, weeks before the camp’s liberation.

Those familiar only with the original "Diary of a Young Girl" — which has sold 25 million copies in 55 languages — and its feel-good assertion that "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart," will be shaken by the ABC production.

The rough edges of daily life in the warehouse hiding place, especially Anne’s views of her parents’ loveless marriage, which had been expurgated by Otto Frank, are explored in the film, as they are in the latest revised edition of the diary.

But the film’s wrenching impact hits hardest in the last hour, after the eight occupants of the secret annex are arrested, transferred to a Dutch transit camp, then sent by sealed box cars to Auschwitz, and, for Anne, her sister Margot and their mother, to the final destination of Bergen-Belsen.

There are horrifying scenes at the camps, where the women are stripped naked, their hair shorn and their wedding rings wrenched from their fingers. Even the most blasé viewer of past Holocaust movies and documentaries will be shaken by the depiction of routine life at Bergen-Belsen: the fierce struggles for a piece of bread or pair of socks, and, especially, the day-by-day decline of Anne, as she sinks into an abyss of filth, disease and hopelessness.

The impressive cast is headed by Hannah Taylor Gordon, a 14-year-old Londoner who has never had a formal acting lesson. Gordon, who is not Jewish, bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Anne Frank and portrays her from age 9 to 15, from happy schoolgirl to scarecrow Bergen-Belsen inmate, with astonishing fidelity.

Veteran actor Ben Kingsley plays Otto Frank, Anne’s father, in a restrained performance, and pays Gordon the ultimate compliment by judging her the best leading lady he has encountered in a long professional career.

Others sharing the hiding place and Anne’s ultimate fate are Brenda Blethyn, Tatjana Blacher, Joachim Krol, Jessica Manley, Nick Audsley and Jan Niklas. Lili Taylor is Miep Gies, the Franks’ lifeline to the outside world.

Rumanian-born Robert Dornhelm, who lost most of his relatives in the Holocaust, directs, and Kirk Ellis wrote the superb screenplay.

The only regret is that viewers will not be able to watch "Anne Frank" without commercial interruptions. However, in a gesture not to be underestimated in a money-driven medium, ABC has decided to keep the film’s final hour free of commercials.

Let’s Review


Phobia: 1. A compulsive or persistent fear of any specified type of object, stimulus or situation. 2. An exaggerated or persistent dread of or aversion to.

Sitting in the front row of the McCadden Theater in Hollywood was my personal pit of snakes. I would rather be buried alive, in the dark, on top of a skyscraper covered with mice than be reviewed. But there he was, a theater critic from Backstage West trade paper, perched right in the front row to review my one-woman show.

Listen, I know that one person’s pit of snakes is another person’s bouquet of roses. I don’t know why this is my greatest fear, but I know that I have pretty much lived my life to avoid it. When I started doing my show in San Francisco, I moved before it would have to be reviewed. The thought of someone coming to see my show, a piece made up of my most personal insights and stories, and judging it, is the worst thing I can imagine.

Now there’s nothing to do but wait for the review to come out on Thursday. Wait and do what I always do at times like this. Keep a journal.

Monday

After the show on Saturday, when I verified that the odd man sitting in the front row was indeed a critic, I sat in my boyfriend’s pick-up truck in the theater parking lot and began to have a meltdown, the likes of which I have scarcely experienced.

“I feel like I’m dying,” I said, staring out the window.

I have got to figure this out. This feeling of dread isn’t about a review for my stupid little show that’s only open for one more week. This is about something much deeper, my fear of being unloved, laughed at, thought a loser. My fear that I am nothing unless someone else says so. This seems like a stupid way to live and I’ve got less than a week to figure out how to change. I’m on a spiritual deadline.

“You’ve got to have your own barometer,” said my director, Joe, when I ran back into the theater hoping for some reassurance. “You will get bad reviews and great reviews and it doesn’t matter. Only you can know if your work is good.”

“But I have no barometer. I can only rely on what other people say. That’s just the way I am,” I explained.

“Well, it’s going to be a long week for you,” Joe said. But he wasn’t talking to me. He was talking to my boyfriend, who was leaning politely against the door.

On another quest for comfort, I tell the story to my friend Anne, sobbing over the phone. “I wish I could take a pill that would make me not care what anyone thought of me,” I say. “I wish there was a pill like that.”

“There is,” she hesitates. “It’s called God.”

I don’t believe in God but this sure would be a handy time to find the Lord. Still, I’m starting to wonder. How could the universe possibly hand me my worst fear, complete with evil, grimacing reviewer, and have there be no reason for it?

Whatever happens to me in the next week will change me. It may be for the better, or I may just have to leave town for awhile with a case of Southern Comfort and a carton of Merits.

Tuesday

I arrive at the office of my therapist and shove aside some stuffed animals to make myself real comfortable on the couch. My head was about to be shrunken to the size of a pea.

According to my therapist, when I saw the critic and kept going, I had what they call “a breakthrough.” She also says that this overwhelming need for approval comes from growing up with a depressed mother who wasn’t so into hugs and hand-holding. According to my trusty mental health care professional, all of this was set in motion when I was an infant. Babies who aren’t cuddled and held, gazed at by their mothers, fear that they may literally die. Well, I can pretty much feed myself now, but that desperate need for a loving gaze continues.

I went to the dentist for a long overdue teeth cleaning. I joined a gym. I stopped by Jiffy Lube for an oil change. A feeling of calm began to creep into me.

This doesn’t matter, I thought. Some people will like what I do, others won’t. That has always been the case. “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but everybody does not love Teresa. And that’s going to have to do.

Did I have an epiphany? Or did I just have no choice?

Wednesday

When I have a battle with my personal demons, it’s very much like a World Wrestling Federation match. We both know what’s going to happen. They come in, all glitz and flashy costumes, but all the moves have been choreographed and we both know exactly how it’s going to go. Usually nobody gets hurt.

Today, though, I’m not so sure. All that therapy is beginning to seem like a bunch of crap. I pick a fight with my boyfriend in an Italian deli.

“Why are you yelling at me?” he asks.

I have no idea. I go to the computer store and finally put a down payment on that laptop I’ve been wanting. I can’t stop thinking about tomorrow, when the review will hit the stands.

You know how everyone says you should be in the moment? A really good way to practice this is to have something in your immediate future that you dread beyond belief. All day, I force myself to remember that it’s only now. I constantly shove myself back into the present.

Thursday

I’m pretty sure that nothing this critic says will be worse than the anxiety of waiting.

My boyfriend calls and offers to pick up the review and read it to me over the phone. I figure it will be easiest coming from him. But I can’t wait. I go to the newsstand, my head a fog and my stomach burning. Backstage West won’t be there until 4 p.m. I literally can’t stop my face from smiling. I feel like I’ve gotten a stay of execution. I go get my nails done. I sit in a coffee shop and drink chamomile tea. I fill my car with gas, in case I need to make a hasty getaway. About 50 times during the day, I can’t believe how silly this all is. When I finally get the call, it’s the weirdest of all possible outcomes. The review is really just a capsule description of my show. It doesn’t say much, except that “what pain there is in young, single life, Strasser mines it well.” Not exactly a rave but it doesn’t matter. It’s over.

Saturday

It’s the final night of my show and I’m as confident as Michael Jordan playing one-on-one with Ed Koch. It’s the best performance I’ve ever had. I’ve been judged and I’ve survived.

Relief: 1. The removal or lightening of something oppressive, painful or distressing.


Teresa Strasser writes her column on singles life every other week.

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