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!– Princeton, arts, Holocaust, music,
Author: Elaine Strauss. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February
2, 2000. All rights reserved.
From Norway, Voices of the Holocaust
Immediacy is the touchstone for actress Bente Kahan
in shaping the play "Voices from Theresienstadt." The drama
with music deals with five women who meet at Theresienstadt, a
ghetto established by the Nazis near Prague, Czechoslovakia. It
poetry and music created by the inmates of Theresienstadt and draws
on interviews with its survivors. Kahan performs the work she
with Norwegian stage director Ellen Foyn Bruun. The actress travels
from her home in Norway to give a free performance at Rutgers’
Music Center in New Brunswick on Tuesday, February 8, at 8 p.m.
"The material is direct and genuine," says Kahan in a
interview from her home in Oslo. "There is no make-up on it,"
she adds, translating a Norwegian idiom. "It’s raw poetry. It’s
clean. There’s no nostalgia. It gives insight into Terezin [the camp’s
Czech name] and the problems of dealing with simple day-to-day matters
in that antechamber to Hell."
"The picture of life in Terezin in the play is one seen through
women’s eyes," Kahan says. "War and the Holocaust are usually
presented through men’s eyes. But here women and children are the
main thing. Ellen Foyn Bruun and I are both mothers and we are
women through women’s eyes."
Originally written in Norwegian, the play has been translated into
English and German. The English translation is by David Keir Wright,
a Scotsman. "It was a big job," says an appreciative Kahan
about Wright’s work. "It was not like giving the work of
away to some stranger. It was important to be as close to the original
as possible, and not to make something new. The material has to be
kept as an eye-witness account."
"Poetry must be in the language of the listeners," Kahan says.
"There is a direct connection to the listener when you sing
to My Son’ in a language the audience understands. Everybody has a
mother or a child." "Letter to My Son" was written by
Ilse Weber, an inmate of Theresienstadt, who was sent to Auschwitz
and gassed at the age of 41.
Weber is a focal point, not only of this play, but also of future
projects for Kahan. "This play is a start for Weber to be
says Kahan. "I hope to do more about her and her poetry through
songs to be used in schools, and in education about the Holocaust.
I hope that there will be a CD, a song book, and a docudrama."
Kahan has been named by Hanus Weber, Ilse’s surviving son, as the
sole person with the right to use Ilse’s material.
Not only is Ilse Weber of special importance to Kahan, but, in
she was the link who brought Kahan and her play to Rutgers, where
Hans Fisher, a professor of nutrition, acted as a catalyst.
As Fisher tells his story, "It all began after returning to my
mother-in-law’s home following her funeral in Santiago, Chile, in
May of 1998. I began to browse through her book shelves and suddenly
came upon a thin, gray partially mouse-damaged volume by Ilse
called `Mendel Rosenbusch, Geschichten fuer Juedische Kinder’ (`Tales
for Jewish Children’). Instantly, the book conjured up fond memories
as one of my favorites, growing up in Breslau, Germany, during the
1930s. On rereading it, I found it just as charming as I had
it." Fisher and his wife, Ruth, translated the book into English
for their grandchildren; they also began to wonder what had become
of the author.
After several dead-end attempts, Fisher turned to Kevin Mulcahy of
the Rutgers University Library, who discovered that Herlinger used
only her married name after she married Willi Weber, shortly after
writing the book. Some of the poetry she wrote at Theresienstadt was
published under her married name. Through the publisher, Fisher made
contact with Herlinger-Weber’s son Hanus, who lives in Sweden. In
June, 1999, the Fishers met Hanus, head of the Swedish Broadcasting
Company, in Prague. The Fishers then continued on to Berlin.
In a Berlin bookstore, a surprised Ruth Fisher happened upon a CD
entitled "Voices from Theresienstadt," which included songs
by Ilse Weber. The recording artist was Bente Kahan. "At the first
opportunity upon returning to the United States," Fisher says,
"we listened to it. It was an emotional experience for us; the
words and the music, all unusual and heart-wrenching." Armed with
a boom-box and Kahan’s CD, Fisher made the rounds at Rutgers
potential sponsors to bring Kahan to campus. Her performance, the
Ruth Ellen Steinman Bloustein and Edward J. Bloustein Memorial
is co-sponsored by the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life
and the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy,
in cooperation with the Mason Gross School of the Arts. A link to
Bente Kahan’s music exists at the website
Kahan’s website is www.bentekahan.no.
Kahan’s discovery of Weber, like Fisher’s, was a
affair. "It started with survivors in Denmark who asked me to
sing songs from Terezin," Kahan says. "I thought it would
be impossible to do 50 years later, but I started to dig into the
material, along with my collaborator Ellen Foyn Bruun. In a file in
Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial in Israel], I found `Ein Koffer
Spricht’ [`A Suitcase Speaks’] by Ilse Weber. I wondered if there
was anything more. I had contact with an American professor in Israel,
David Bloch, who was collecting material on Terezin. He knew of two
songs that Ilse wrote and he told me that her son lived in
Still another path leads to Weber. Ruth Elias, in "Triumph of
Hope: From Theresienstadt and Auschwitz to Israel" (John Wiley
& Sons, with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; translated by Margot
Dembo; 1998) includes Weber in her memoir. Elias now lives in Israel.
Translator Dembo, who happens to be my own former college roommate,
and who lives in New York, recognized Weber’s name when we met
and sent me an excerpt from the book.
"Ilse Weber, who worked long hours as a nurse in the children’s
infirmary," Elias writes, "dressed simply, but always looked
clean and neat. When she went to work, she wore her white nurse’s
apron with its broad straps and ties, and we were at a loss to know
how she managed to keep it snow white. She suffered with her young
patients who had scarcely any medicine or nourishing food.
"She had arrived in Theresienstadt with her husband Willi and
one of her two sons, Tommy, who was then five years old — Ilse
talked with great longing about her other son, Hanusch [Hanus]. Before
she was deported, she had sent the eight-year-old boy to friends in
Sweden, not knowing what fate awaited him there. Often she expressed
doubts that she had done the right thing. True, she had deprived him
of his mother’s love, but she also saved him from the privation and
humiliation of life in the ghetto. She read us a heart-wrenching
she had written to him, but which she was never allowed to send. Ilse
saw her own son, her little Hanusch, in each of the sick children
she cared for.
"In her free time Ilse wrote about what she saw [and] what she
heard, but primarily how she felt. It is extraordinary how this
simple woman was able to put into poetry, profound poetry, everything
she observed. One marvels how, in that monstrous time, she managed
to see so much that was ugly and yet sometimes also that which was
beautiful and describe it all.
"We would often squeeze into Ilse and Erna’s little room to listen
to Ilse read her poems. Later, when the guitar arrived, Ilse set
of her poems to music and sang them for us while accompanying herself
on the guitar."
In Terezin, actress Kahan points out, many inmates couldn’t
with each other. "There were language barriers," she says.
"The Jews in Europe were many different groups. They were not
homogeneous. But what makes the play effective is that they were
similar to us."
Kahan was born in Norway in 1958. Her maternal grandparents were
in Scandinavia by 1905. Her paternal heritage, documented in a family
tree that goes back to 12th-century Spain, included large Hasidic
families and many rabbis. Kahan’s father grew up in Sighet, now in
Romania, where he was a childhood friend of author Elie Wiesel. Like
Wiesel, Kahan’s father spent the war in concentration camps.
Bente, at age 19, after finishing high school, spent three years in
Israel, where she studied Jewish history, Hebrew, and acting. She
continued her acting studies in New York at the American Musical and
Dramatic Academy, and acted in the Bond Street Theater Coalition,
a street theater group. "I almost thought that I would stay in
the United States," she says, "but I couldn’t see myself as
a waitress or in a service job. I was not eager to work half time
as an actress, which many people do in New York."
Invited by Habimah, Israel’s national theater, she returned to Israel,
where she stayed until she became disillusioned during the 1982
war. "All the ideals had fallen apart," she says, "and
there was no other place to go but Norway. I never thought I could
build a future there. I love Norway; I love the people in Norway;
but I felt like a stranger."
After returning to Norway, Kahan experienced a major insight. "I
would be a stranger anywhere," she says. "Now I’m used to
that. I could move to the moon tomorrow, and it would be no problem.
It depends on you — on what’s inside."
Kahan lives in Oslo with her husband, whom she describes as "a
freedom fighter," and their children. Born in Wroclaw (formerly
Breslau) her husband, a researcher in physics, became active in the
Polish opposition movement Solidarity. He arrived in Norway as a
refugee. His twin 17-year-old sons, and their 16-year-old brother
join the couple’s 11-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to
Upon her return to Norway Kahan mounted a cabaret show with Yiddish
songs and stories, "Yiddishkeit" which is now available as
a CD. Then she turned to serious acting. In 1990 the Norwegian Council
for Cultural Affairs awarded her a grant for the performing arts which
she used to found Teater Dybbuk Oslo (TDO), a production company.
TDO’s staff is small. The team includes Kahan’s collaborator Bruun,
and two assistants. "There’s never enough budget for a large
Kahan says. "That’s why `Voices from Theresienstadt’ is a
Norway has encouraged Kahan. "They supported all my work,"
she says. "Even now they’re paying for my ticket to the United
States. They realize that my work is important. They like the fact
that I’m a Norwegian ambassador, who is a Norwegian Jew." The
chilling songs and stories of the Holocaust that Kahan performs are
vivid reminders of a history almost 60 years old that Norwegians share
with the Jews of central Europe.
— Elaine Strauss
Nicholas Music Center, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511. Free. Three
from Kahan’s recording can be heard at
Tuesday, February 8, 8 p.m.
In "Voices" Kahan is supported by two musicians from Warsaw
who have worked with her since 1992: Dariusz Swinoga, accordion (and
piano), and Miroslaw Kuzniak, violin (and mandolin). "The violin
is very much Vienna," Kahan says. "It evokes prewar Viennese
theater, and also classical music. The accordion is a folk instrument
that actually was used in Terezin."
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