September 23, 2019

Austria honors Bikel

Theodore Meir Bikel and his parents peeked through the drawn curtains of their Vienna apartment watching the street below, where Adolf Hitler, standing in his limousine, slowly rolled by, cheered on by frenzied crowds.

It was March 15, 1938, and Hitler formally announced that Nazi Germany had annexed Austria, changing forever the life of that nation’s Jews, as well as that of 13-year-old Theo.

During an interview at his West Los Angeles home, Bikel was preparing for a trip to Austria to appear, on Nov. 7, on the rostrum of the Austrian Parliament Building before an audience of the country’s highest government and cultural leaders to mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were put to the torch.

Historians generally mark this event as the forerunner, if not the beginning, of the Holocaust.

Bikel was going to accept Austria’s highest honor in the arts and to perform an hour-long concert of mainly Yiddish songs, interspersed with a few numbers in English and German.

For the finale, Bikel planned to sing “The Song of the Partisans,” in Yiddish, asking the distinguished audience to rise as he rendered the powerful words and notes of the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II.

The irony and meaning of the occasion is not lost on Bikel. “The Nazi criminals are gone; I am still here,” he said.

“I think I was created for this occasion,” Bikel said of the Vienna commemoration.

That is saying a lot for a man who, during a 70-year career, has distinguished himself as an actor and folksinger on stage, screen and television, as well as an author, raconteur, union leader, advocate for the arts, and a champion of Soviet Jewry and human rights.

Of his many roles, Bikel said he most cherishes that of folksinger, presenting “the songs of my people, songs of pain and songs of hope.”

Growing up in a strongly Zionist home, he was an only child, named in honor of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. By coincidence, the two men also share the same birthday.

After leaving Vienna, the Bikel family settled in Tel Aviv, while Theo spent two years at an agricultural school, aspiring to the Zionist ideal of working the land. He then joined the Kfar HaMaccabi kibbutz, “but it soon became obvious that my talents lay elsewhere,” he observed wryly.

The kibbutz management came to the same conclusion and sent him to a three-week training course for actors, in Tel Aviv.

After his first taste of the limelight, “there was no turning back,” Bikel said, and he was admitted to the Habima Theatre school.

The man who was to gain international fame as Tevye in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” got his first paying role in the stage play of “Tevye and his Daughters.”

He played the Russian constable who warns the shtetl’s Jews that they better get out before the next pogrom. For his 29-word dialogue, Bikel received the equivalent of $5 per show.

Bikel’s Vienna trip was praised by the White House, through its Jewish liaison, Mathew S. Nosanchuk. “I cannot think of a better emissary to carry a message of hope, perseverance and survival — on behalf of the Jewish people — to Austria, as the world marks these dark days,” Nosanchuk wrote. “You are the living embodiment of Jewish art and culture.”

Interviewed two days before flying to Vienna with his companion Aimee Ginsburg, Bikel, at 89, clearly had no thoughts of retirement — he is currently in the midst of producing and starring in the documentary film “Theodore Bikel in the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem.”

As for his general health, while he hasn’t escaped the aches and pains of advancing age, he firmly proclaims, “I still retain the same mental vigor, the same energy and the same curiosity.”

But just in case, he has already planned the inscription for his tombstone: “He Was the Singer of His People” — in Yiddish.