Sondheim Knows How to Book ‘Em

Some people begin collecting because they’ve coveted certain objects for as long as they can remember. Others collect as an investment. And, of course, there are poseurs who hire prestige dealers to buy them trendy art because they want to be viewed as taste mavens.

Harry Sondheim, a retired criminal prosecutor for the L.A. County D.A.’s office, started to collect Judaica for none of those reasons. He was traveling in Holland when he simply noticed an artifact that appealed to him: “They had a museum, Der Weg, which means the Weighing House. They had an artist named Bicart. I bought some postcards with depictions of Jewish ceremonies on them. You can’t buy those postcards any longer.”

Reflecting his legal training, Sondheim answers questions methodically. Even his decision to focus on rare books, as opposed to art, shows a judicious attitude.

“It’s pretty hard to falsify a book,” he said, adding, “they’re not as likely to be stolen. If you have a thief in the house, they’re more likely to steal a silver menorah.”

Maybe it matters, too, that Sondheim attended the University of Chicago in the era when that institution still featured the Great Books courses.

Sondheim will be speaking at the 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair’s “Collecting Your Roots” panel on Sunday, Feb. 19.

He especially likes rare manuscripts that include illustrations or, as he says, “depictions” of Jewish ceremonies and customs.

Sondheim has never taken a vacation specifically to collect books, but has purchased manuscripts at synagogues, museums and bookstores around the world, including Germany, where he can trace his genealogy back to around 1760. His family fled Germany in 1938, several months before Kristallnacht. The tomes he favors are typically printed in German, their existence all the more remarkable because of the Nazis’ program of burning Jewish books.

The best deal he ever got was a work by Arthur Szyk, a Polish Jewish artist from the first half of the 20th century who specialized in political caricatures and miniature painting. Given Sondheim’s background in the law, it is not surprising that he bought the “Statut of Kalisz.” The book is Szyk’s interpretation of a 13th-century manuscript that has been called the “Jewish Magna Carta,” a decree by which a Polish king gave Jews civil rights. Szyk illustrated the manuscript while also relating the statute to some other events in Jewish history.

“One page shows different occupations a Jew might have had, weaving, baking, a cobbler,” Sondheim said. “I acquired that at a reasonable price, around $17,000. Someone else’s copy was recently auctioned off for $64,000.”

Sondheim does not use eBay though he’ll search through an auction house’s Web site, which he calls “the equivalent of having their catalog.”

Collecting, he says, is “a sort of continuum. There are pictures of chuppahs from hundreds of years ago, and you have chuppahs today. You live the present through the past.”

The 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair will be held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, from Friday, Feb. 17 through Sunday, Feb. 19. Harry Sondheim will speak at the “Collecting Your Roots” panel, a free seminar, on Sunday at 2 p.m. For information, call (800) 454-6401.


Removing Theology

"Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" by David N. Myers (Princeton University Press, $29.95).

It is a rare exception to find a scholarly volume penned by an academic that speaks with such a resoundingly relevant message to the popular community at large. Professor David N. Myers’ "Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" is one of those pleasant exceptions.

What does it mean to "resist history"? What is "historicism," and why would there be "discontents" toward historicism in German Jewish thought, or in any intellectual society? Myers refers to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as having been opposed "to the kind of historical thinking that reduced human experience to a long series of disconnected moments." In Jewish terms, "historicism and its discontents" means that when a Jew enters a synagogue on Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), the day that is traditionally fixed as a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the rabbi tells his congregants that "today’s mourning includes the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, plus the expulsion from Spain in 1492, plus the Holocaust," and that all of these tragedies are linked as part of God’s "Divine plan for the Jewish people," the traditionalist (anti-historicist) takes solace in knowing that "in every generation, they seek to destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from them."

The historicist in the congregation understands that while it is religiously enticing to view these tragedies as part of a larger "divine picture," the proper academic understanding of these events involves studying each one as an independent event, each with its own unique set of social, political and economic circumstances, void of any theological implications. To a traditionalist, the rabbi’s interpretation of Tisha B’Av is deeply inspirational, while the historian’s explanations would seem cold and void of any spiritual message. To the historicist, the rabbi’s interpretation is theology, not history, and a proper academic analysis of the various "Tisha B’Av tragedies" would ultimately make more sense to the rational mind.

Myers writes of four German Jewish intellectuals who each, in his own unique way, resisted the strong wave of historicism that was capturing the minds of intellectual German Jews during the 19th century. Philosophers Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosensweig, political leader Leo Strauss and Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Breuer were each passionate opponents of historicism.

I write a review of Myers’ book not as a professional historian with the academic qualifications of adequately critiquing the particulars of his arguments, but as a community rabbi and educator who is continuously challenged with the tension of maintaining Judaism’s traditional theological beliefs in the face of modern academic and scientific research. I write this review as a teacher of Torah who faces the challenge of merging the midrashic wisdom of Rashi with the modern insights of academic Bible scholars and archaeologists. Within my mind, the rational historicist prevails, but within my soul, I hear the voices of Cohen, Rosensweig, Strauss and Breuer.

By examining the lives and writings of these four particular thinkers, whose styles, philosophies and religious orientations are so diverse, Myers demonstrates that the tension between historicism and anti-historicism crosses all denominational and political lines. The fact that three of the four are not Orthodox (Cohen, Rosensweig and Strauss) shatters the conveniently prevalent myth that this tension is limited to a struggle between Orthodox and liberal Jews. Thanks to Myers’ book, we now understand that this tension is not between opposite poles of Jewish theology, rather it is between those who wish to view Jewish history through spiritual lenses — e.g., Max Dimont’s book "Jews, God and History" (Mentor Books, 1994) — versus those who wish to study Jewish history through the less than spiritual lenses of sociology, politics, economics and archaeology.

As a recent manifestation of this tension, Myers cites Rabbi David Wolpe’s now-famous sermon about the historicity of the exodus. Wolpe’s sermon, delivered from his Sinai Temple pulpit on Passover 2001, and the controversy that it generated, serve as a lucid reminder that the tension between historicism and its discontents is alive and well within current Jewish circles.

Like all scholarly volumes, Myers’ book is a challenging read but, in this case, one that is well worth the effort. The intricacies of scholarly lingo are softened by the author’s bold admission in his introduction that his interest in this subject is not a matter of dispassionate scholarly concern, but a reflection of his own personal tensions of living within "the academy and the shul," so to speak.

Myers’ book brilliantly addresses the tension that many Jews — scholar, rabbi, educator and lay person alike — face every day. This is therefore an important read for all of us, as it will continue to help facilitate the important dialogue on how we honestly live with and address these theological tensions within our congregations and classrooms, and within our minds and souls.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Great Music

One was a U.S. resident from the beginning of his long life to its end, creating music as American in its sound and subject matter as “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The other, after making his mark in Germany, fled his homeland through France and spent his final, tragically few years adding to the glory of the American musical theater at its height.

Both Aaron Copland and Kurt Weill were born in 1900 — Weill the son of a cantor, Copland the son of a synagogue president — and both will be celebrated when the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) opens its seventh season Sunday, beginning a series of concerts tracing the 20th century Jewish experience through music.

The Dec. 3 program is in keeping with the symphony’s mandate to bring lesser-known but important Jewish works to Los Angeles audiences. In a story on National Public Radio a few years ago, reporter Johanna Cooper compared LAJS artistic director Noreen Green to “a persistent, driven musical archeologist, tirelessly digging through libraries.” Green has traveled through Europe, Russia, Israel, and the United States in search of lost or little-known gems of Jewish music.

The symphony’s second concert in March will focus on film music by Jewish composers, and an April event will present uplifting music inspired by the Shoah.

Copland is best known for ballets on American themes such as “Appalachian Spring” and “Rodeo,” for anthems including “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and for the eloquent scores of several films, including “Our Town” and “Of Mice and Men.”

The Dec. 3 concert will feature Copland’s “Music for the Theater”; two of his settings of “Old American Songs,” “Simple Gifts” and “Zion’s Walls”; and his first significant chamber work, “Vitebsk: Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano.”

Though Copland, who died 10 years ago at age 90, didn’t often work with Jewish themes, he brought them front and center in “Vitebsk,” in which he uses sounds that echo the intonations of synagogue chant and folk melodies such as the hora. He wrote of the piece, “It was my intention to reflect the harshness and drama of Jewish life in White Russia.”

The second half of the concert presents excerpts from Weill’s monumental work “The Eternal Road,” its first West Coast concert performance in 50 years. Written after Weill’s celebrated collaboration with playwright Bertolt Brecht, the most famous product of which was “The Threepenny Opera,” and before Weill penned the music for Broadway classics like “Knickerbocker Holiday,” “Lady in the Dark,” and “Lost in the Stars,” the opera premiered in 1937.

“The Eternal Road” depicts a Jewish community in Europe on the eve of a pogrom. Hoping to inspire strength in his frightened congregation, the town’s rabbi recounts the biblical stories in which Jews overcame adversity and demonstrated their faith in God. These stories are interspersed with episodes showing the lives and concerns of various people in the town. The opera, which was written as life worsened for German Jews and which premiered, with eerie prescience, a year before Kristallnacht, nevertheless ends on a hopeful note.

The 3 1/2-hour opera, which incorporates traditional Hebrew melodies as well as notable German music, opened in New York to public and critical acclaim; Green calls it “awesome — Kurt Weill at his best.” The sheer size of the production precluded a profitable run, however, and it sank into oblivion until it received a splashy, full-scale revival last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Green saw the Brooklyn performance and hopes to mount a full production in Los Angeles at some point. For now, the local audience will have the hour and 15 minutes that Green has prepared, focusing on the Bible stories.

“Getting permission to do excerpts was interesting,” Green told The Journal. “Weill left very specific instructions on what could be cut and what couldn’t.”

Veteran actor Dick Van Patten (“Eight Is Enough”), who at age 8 appeared in the original Broadway production of “The Eternal Road,” will narrate the excerpts on Dec. 3.

“It’s very moving to find something that I thought was forgotten and that I never forgot,” said Van Patten, who made room for Sunday’s performance between film roles. “My father told me when I was eight, ‘It’s the best play you’ll ever be in,’ and 25 years later, he still said it. It’s a great play, and I’m thrilled to be part of it.”

“It’s truly a privilege to be singing this music,” said Evan Kent, cantor at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park and one of the soloists in “The Eternal Road,” which he called “hauntingly beautiful in that it expresses the impending horror of the Third Reich without explicitly stating it.”

Although the juxtaposition of Bible stories and the jaunty strains of Berlin cabaret music may seem a bit strange, Kent said, Weill, whose life was cut short by a heart attack in 1950, succeeded in showing how relevant the stories are.

“The names of the patriarchs and matriarchs are a part of our daily liturgy,” Kent said. “To be telling their stories through contemporary music makes their lives, their foibles and their personal challenges from God that much more profound.”

See “7 Days in the Arts,” for ticket information.

Through a Child’s Eyes

All the time Deborah Oppenheimer was growing up, her grandparents remained silent, one-dimensional portraits in a silver frame in the living room. “They were always there but never referred to,” says Oppenheimer, who is in her 40’s and the executive producer of “Norm” and “The Drew Carey Show.” “I knew virtually nothing about them.”

Her elegant, refined mother, Sylva Avramovici Oppenheimer, rarely told stories about her family. Viennese waltzes filled the air at Oppenheimer’s Valley Stream, N.Y., home; the German meals were served on German porcelain, but there was scarcely a memento of Sylva’s childhood in Chemnitz, Germany.”I tried a few times to ask questions, but she would start crying, then I would start crying, and I’d retreat because I didn’t want to cause her pain,” the producer says. “I could sense this veil of sadness that enveloped her. Her grief was vast and deep.”

All Oppenheimer knew was that just after her 11th birthday, Sylva had packed a tiny suitcase and boarded a train alone for an uncertain future among strangers. Her journey was part of the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that took some 10,000 children from Nazi-occupied Europe to safety in England. Sending her off was a desperate act of love by desperate parents, Oppenheimer knew. Sylva never saw them again. After the war, she read their names on a posted list of Jews who had perished in the death camps.

While Oppenheimer did not push her mother to relive painful memories, she hoped one day to make a documentary about the Kindertransport, perhaps when her television career was over. Then events intervened to remind her that the proverbial clock was ticking.

In 1990, during a routine physical exam, doctors found a spot on Sylva’s lung; when she died of cancer three years later, at the age of 65, her past seemed to die with her.

Then came a startling discovery: A cache of letters, hidden in a drawer, that had been mailed every day by Oppenheimer’s grandparents to her mother in England. Written on tissue-thin paper in delicate fountain pen, the letters made Oppenheimer’s family come alive for the first time. “No one, not even my father, had known that the letters existed,” says the TV executive, who is also the producer of the feature-length documentary “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” which opens today in Los Angeles.

The letters included family gossip, nicknames, terms of endearment and attempts at parenting from afar. “It was thrilling to realize my mother had been so deeply loved,” says Oppenheimer, who learned of the Kindertransport’s 60th and last reunion in June 1999 and realized time was running out. “My mother’s death gave me permission to explore the subject without fear of hurting her,” she adds, ruefully.

Oppenheimer approached filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris of “The Long Way Home,” the Oscar-winning documentary about the aftermath of the Shoah, only to find he was reluctant to begin another Holocaust film. “I think there’s a certain amount of what I’d call, Holocaust exhaust-ion,” the 55-year-old USC film professor told The Journal. “If you embark upon a film in that arena, you’d better have a fresh perspective.”He was persuaded, finally, by the chance to write and direct a movie that was as much about the resilience of children as the Shoah, a preoccupation of Harris’ since learning how his Hungarian grandfather arrived alone in the U.S. at the age of 12. “The draw, for me, was telling the story from a child’s point of view,” adds the director, whose five children’s novels are all written from a 12-year-old’s perspective.

As research, Harris and Oppenheimer read dozens of unpublished memoirs; watched Melissa Hacker’s 1995 docu-mentary, “My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports”; scoured the archives of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation; secured the cooperation of the U.S. Holo-caust Memorial Museum to view the rarest of vintage footage and artifacts. Armed with a distri-bution deal from Warner Bros., where Oppenheimer’s sitcoms are a tremendous commercial success, they set off to conduct 23 interviews with Kinder and their foster parents and rescuers in England and on the East Coast.

One woman quietly recalled how no one attended her 8th birthday party in Quakenbrueck, Germany, “the first compre-hending for a child that you are ostracized.” A Kind described being forced to work as a maid by her English guardians; a man recounted how he could not relate to his birth parents after the war; a Berlin Kindertransport organizer lamented losing his own wife and 3-year-old in Auschwitz.

The rescuer, who was gravely ill, died just five weeks after the interview. “It was as if once he had finished, he could let go,” says Oppenheimer, for whom the film was an emotional journey.

While making the movie, she discovered fragments of her mother’s story, which began at Hackney Hostel in London and continued at Cockley Cley Hall, a 5,000-acre estate near Norfolk. A Kind who had shared a bed with her mother described life in the gamekeeper’s residence, a fairy-tale-like thatched cottage with a tiny window and a mattress stuffed with twigs and leaves the girls had to knead before they slept. The woman mentioned the notched candle they kept at bedside to ration their reading; the pegs on the wall where they hung their ribbons and dresses; the harsh Jewish matron who punished the girls by withholding letters from their parents.

In summer 1999, Oppenheimer attended the reunion at Cockley Cley, where Kinder walked her down corridors, up back staircases, and into the dormitory-style bedrooms where they had silently cried themselves to sleep at night.

The producer also made her way to Chemnitz, an industrial town near Dresden, where she visited her family’s hosiery factory and the “Jewish house” where her grandparents had been confined after their home was confiscated. Across the street, she wandered the padlocked, decaying old train terminal, where Sylva had set off on the Kindertransport and her parents had boarded cattle cars to the camps.

In another part of town, Oppenheimer stood in her mother’s childhood apartment, by then a doctor’s office with a worn tile foyer; while she found nary a trace of her family’s living quarters, she comforted herself by looking out the window at the view her family surely had enjoyed. She imagined her mother playing in the garden and noted the same rhododendrons and geraniums that Sylva had planted in the backyard in Valley Stream. “I felt amazement that I was retracing the path of my mother’s life, but true sadness that I was doing it without her,” Oppenheimer says.

The film, she explains, has been a way to keep her mother present and to achieve closure since her death. “Ironically, I had to lose my mother to learn her story,” she says.

“Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” opens Sept. 15 in Los Angeles. There is also an accompanying book of the same title (Bloomsbury, $27.50); a CD soundtrack from Chapter III Records (available in stores Sept. 26); and a display of Kindertransport artifacts, most collected for the film, to appear at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Sept. 8-24 (for information, call (202) 488-0400).

Whose Money?

Since 1996, Jewish groups and their lawyers have gone to the mat with the likes of the Germans, the Swiss and the French, extracting $9 billion in restitution for the evil wrought in Europe by Nazi forces and their collaborators.

While the entire process is gradually winding down, a few more battles loom: with the Austrian government, with museums holding looted art-work and with the U.S. companies whose wartime German subsidiaries profited from slave labor.

But the clash that promises to be particularly wrenching will actually pit Jew against Jew: what to do with the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in “residual” funds, those without direct heirs or claimants.

On Sept. 11, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) will formally announce the creation of a foundation – tentatively named the Foundation for the Jewish People – that will determine the spending priorities.The foundation was actually established in June in Jerusalem, but the WJC chose to announce it at a gala event in New York to honor the politicians who have played a key role in restitution, including President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The foundation board will be made up of representatives of various Jewish organizations, Holocaust survivor groups and the Israeli government. Among the ideas floated are funding Jewish and Holocaust education, restoring Jewish communities in Europe or building Holocaust museums and memorials, said Elan Steinberg, WJC’s executive director.

“The Nazis sought to wipe out not only the Jewish people but Jewish communities and Judaism itself,” Steinberg said.

“Obviously, this has been 50 years too slow,” he added. “But I think the issue we have to address, are now forced to address, is to ensure that how these residual assets are used reflects the best interests of the Jewish people as a whole.”

Many Holocaust survivors vehemently disagree.

While they support the general need for education, commemoration, documentation and research, they believe there are more pressing needs: health care for the 250,000 survivors worldwide, including 130,000 in the United States. An estimated 1,000 survivors die each month.

“Yes, money should be spent for Jewish education and culture, but that is the obligation of klal Yisrael – of all Jews,” said Roman Kent, a survivor who serves as chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and vice-president of the Claims Conference.

“But to me, this money has one specific purpose,” Kent said. “All of it should go to the survivors. As long as there are still survivors who are old and sick and needy, they are the first obligation.”

The $9 billion figure is a bit misleading, and most of it is already spoken for, according to the WJC’s Steinberg.

Per an agreement reached with Germany in July, $5.2 billion will go to some 1.25 million forced and slave laborers. In real terms, Jewish laborers will receive 30 percent of the sum, with 140,000 slave laborers collecting up to $7,500 apiece.

Of the $1.25 billion from the Swiss banks, $200 million went into a humanitarian fund for the 250,000 Jewish survivors around the world. Lump-sum payments ranged from $500 to $1,400. In the United States, nearly $30 million was allocated to more than 60,000 survivors, or $502 apiece.

According to Steinberg, France has committed to $700 million; Holland, $400 million; German insurers, $350 million-plus; various settlements for stolen artwork amount to $200 million; Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali, $150 million; Norway, about $70 million; and Great Britain, roughly $50 million.In addition, in negotiations with the Claims Conference in the 1950s, Germany agreed to pay annual pensions to some 85,000 survivors. That total has run to nearly $50 billion and about $500 million a year.The Claims Conference is also responsible for selling off unclaimed property from the former East Germany, which now generates close to $80 million per year.

Twenty percent is allo-cated for Holocaust-related research and documentation, while 80 percent goes for social welfare programs for survivors in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. This includes home care assistance for 18,000 survivors in all three regions and 3 million hot meals and 800,000 food packages per year in the former Soviet Union, said Gideon Taylor, the conference’s executive vice-president.

“We’ve been able to make a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Taylor said. “The question is, how do we use the limited resources available from restitution to help the neediest survivors all around the world? It’s what our allocations process grapples with: balancing resources with competing needs.”

Taylor concedes that not everyone will come away satisfied.

But what lies at the heart of this intracommunal debate are two contentious issues: Who are the rightful heirs to all that was lost in Europe, and who has the right to decide how the money should be spent?

Holocaust survivors and their advocates say the stolen property and assets lost did not in fact belong to “the Jewish people as a whole” but to European Jewish communities and individuals. Furthermore, they say, it is the survivors, and they alone, who are entitled to decide the spending priorities, not the groups that negotiated on their behalf.

“We’re not going to be around forever,” said Joe Sachs, co-chairman of the Florida Survivors Coa-lition. “Let’s give these people their due. Just a little justice. A little peace of mind from their health care problems in their last few years.”

Piggybacking on Jewish Suffering

Max (Clive Owen, left) and Horst (Lothaire Bluteau) in”Bent.”

What a peculiar piece of work is “Bent.” The film version ofMartin Sherman’s play, first presented on the London stage in 1979,and later on Broadway, has taken almost 20 years to come to thescreen. It’s not difficult to see why. Not only is it turgid stuff,with a paucity of unfilmable ideas, but in an industry that sometimesseems to specialize in specious history, it will be hard to matchthis one for irresponsibility.

The chief character, Max (Clive Owen), a playboy, a main player inthe decadent gay night life of 1930s Berlin, has the misfortune ofpicking up a soldier in a cabaret-style nightclub owned by thetransvestite Greta. (The scene, incidentally, is a dreadful pasticheof every depiction of German decadence, from Christopher Isherwood to”The Damned.”) Max’s one-night stand turns out to be a chum of NaziCommander Ernst Roehm, and the evening of their tryst was the nightof the Long Knives, when Hitler purged open homosexuals from hisregime. Max’s entertainment for the evening meets a bloody end, andMax and his steady boyfriend, the cabaret dancer Rudy, take to thewoods, hotly pursued by the SS and their dog packs.

Once in the concentration camp, Max chooses to pass as a Jew,donning the yellow star instead of the pink triangle of thehomosexual prisoner; Jews get better treatment than gays, who are,according to this tale, the lowest of the low.

The argument is ludicrous. It is bad art and even worse history.That it deserves to be pilloried is obvious to anyone who cares todraw the line between fact and fiction. That it will probably not beis testament to our politically correct times.

Almost 20 years ago, when Sherman’s dubious metaphor — he wastrying to make some sort of statement about the perils to gayself-respect of remaining in the closet, at a time and in a placemuch different to ours — was being attacked in the English press,the playwright who is both gay and Jewish, and, therefore, accordingto him, incapable of being offensive to Jewish sensibilities,insisted that the criticism was misplaced. Only the plight of theJews, he said, was a strong enough image in our consciousness to makeaudiences aware of the degree of gay suffering. Arguing that the playneeded to be judged by political rather than aesthetic standards,some of the gay press, though by no means all, agreed.

Historian Barry Davis, in a review for the London-based magazineGay Left, decried what he called “the mercantilism of compassion” –the dangerous game of who suffered most.

“Whatever Sherman’s intention,” he wrote, “he appears to diminishthe suffering of one persecuted group to highlight the suffering ofanother.”

Davis, among others, was at pains to correct Sherman’s skeweredhistory, pointing out that while homosexuals were often sent toconcentration camps, they rarely ended up in death camps, at leastfor the sin of being gay. The Nazis did not exterminate gays as theydid Jews and Gypsies.

In the absence of records, estimates of the number of gays killedunder the Third Reich range anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000, butthere is no way to assess how many of those were killed because theywere gay, or how many were Jews who also happened to be gay. Gaysreturning from the camps after the war, surprisingly, were notreluctant to discuss the reasons for their incarceration.

It was a crime, punishable by death, to be homosexual in the SS.But in the German population at large, preventative detention, notdeath, was the punishment for the “crime” of being gay.

Ironically, to today’s radical right — the militias, theNeo-Nazis — Jews and homosexuals are one and the same, but in moresophisticated circles, to equate being gay with being Jewish issentimental at best and nonsense at worst.

A homosexual in the face of Nazi persecution could choose to stayin the closet. In the film, Greta, the transvestite nightclub owner(played by Mick Jagger), simply burns her wardrobe and becomesGeorge, a respectable German burgher. A Jew had no such option.

British historian Davis believes that Sherman may have based hisplay on the writings of Bruno Bettleheim in “Survival and OtherEssays,” in which the author described a camp where gays were indeedthe lowest of the low. But it was not a death camp. Those were earlydays in the war against the Jews, and Bettleheim had escaped toAmerica by the time the mass exterminations began.

In the England of the 1970s, long before we had lesbian love onprime-time sitcoms and red ribbons on every lapel, Martin Sherman maywell have felt persecuted, not least in a Jewish community that couldfind little role for an openly gay man. We hope times have changed.

Piggybacking the woes of one group onto the suffering of anotheris always tempting — witness the overheated rhetoric of some of theearly radical feminists who would have had us believe they had it ashard as the passengers in the slave ships — but it is a dangerousbusiness that can come back to bite those who avail themselves of it.

Homosexuality was rife among the SA and the SS in a culture thathad its roots in the German male-bonding ethos, the Mannebund. Andthere is little doubt that many of the female guards in the campswere lesbians.

“The trouble with creating instant victims,” says Davis, “is thatyou have to do your sums, and, in this case, there were probably moregays among the oppressors than there were gays oppressed.”

This double-edged sword was demonstrated graphically at aninternational gay and lesbian convention not long ago in Israel. On avisit to Yad Vashem, delegates were spat upon by demonstrators, oneof whom yelled, “My uncle was raped by homosexual guards in thecamp.”

It would indeed be a tragedy if Sherman’s work were to set Jewsand gays against each other in a juvenile and ridiculous “Hitlerhated me more” argument.

Happily, “Bent” is such a poor film that, with any luck, few willsee it.

Sally Ogle Davis writes about entertainment from Ventura.

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