How did a nine year old Jewish girl living in the Hindenburg Kaserne, a German military barracks which the Allies turned into a Displaced Person’s camp, intuit the need to preserve the songs she heard being sung by survivors in Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and Russian? She doesn’t know “how or why it came into my head.” But it did and she went about doggedly archiving these songs. As soon as she heard one, she wrote it down in a notebook, decorating the pages with charming, colorful drawings. That journal would become her life’s work as musicologist, Yiddishist, writer and teacher.
Eventually, she earned a professorship at Columbia University as well as a job as a regular columnist for the “Forward.” Miriam Hoffman is also a playwright and the proud mother of Avi Hoffman, a man of many talents with a long and varied list of stage and screen credits and two Drama Desk awards. He has garnered praise for the leading role in “Songs of Paradise” which was a huge success at The Public and the first play to be performed in Yiddish with English supertitles, making it an off-Broadway hit with Jewish and general audiences. More recently, he played Willy Loman in a Yiddish production of Arthur Miller’s classic, “The Death of a Salesman.” Many critics praised his interpretation as the quintessential depiction of a doomed dreamer in the midst of the Great Depression. (What are the descendants of Jacob and Joseph, if not dreamers?) He has recently optioned the rights to the play, which he plans to produce as a film (in English.) The creator of the successful, one man musical, “Too Jewish,” is now turning his mother’s experiences and those of his maternal grandparents in a Siberian labor camp followed by hurdles they faced as displaced persons and refugees based on her song journal.
Like the Bible’s first poet, her Biblical namesake whose words recount Israel’s victory over the Egyptians, Miriam Hoffman has also written a poetic account of what many consider the Jewish victory over the Nazis. “Displaced Persons- Refugee”, a play-in-progress, had a preview at the Shalom Aleichem Cultural Center. Read and sung by four actors, it was a brilliant rendition of what life was like for Holocaust survivors in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Not enough attention has been paid to what survivors endured before they could return to life from the Nazi’s charnel houses. Some of these concentration camps, such as Bergen-Belsen, were re-purposed to house survivors; also perpetrators disguised as hapless victims to hide their criminal pasts. Thus, Jews often found themselves in the Kafkaesque position of living alongside those who had tormented them and murdered most of their people. Until the allies were apprised of this and sorted it out, victims (and victimizers) were forced to live together in these lagers. To add insult to injury, curfews and other regulations intended to keep Jews and others from taking revenge, were the barbed wire fences of the former camps. Within them, former prisoners of the Nazis were constrained. Outside them, German civilians, many of whom were Nazis hiding their identities, moved about freely.
Nevertheless, Jews were determined to raise themselves out of the mire and become productive and self-sustaining as they prepared to find permanent homes.
The situation was complicated for Jewish survivors. Most had been left without kith and kin. They were left to fester in frustration until they found a safe homeland. Because Eretz Israel was not yet a sovereign state, emigration was blocked. The United States was still using quotas, making it easier for Germans (even former Nazis) to gain admittance than Polish Jews.
The refugees, driven by faith and/or optimism, pulled themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and created new lives and new Jewish institutions for themselves and their children. They set up synagogues and schools, trade schools and sports activities. They bartered donated foods they couldn’t or wouldn’t eat, such as peanut butter, processed cheese and SPAM, for goods and services. In Miriam Hoffman’s case, her mother traded a package of American noodles (spaghetti?) for Miriam’s first piano lesson, and a star was born.
The preview of “DP-Refugee,” featuring phenomenal performances by Rachel Botchan, Michael Fox, Zisl Slepowich and Suzanne Toren left the audience eager for more, much more. Given the current refugee/migrant crisis, the play, with a message for today by this amazing mother-son team is sure to have legs. If it were to be written in English would be Broadway-bound. Even in Yiddish, it well may be. After all, the original “Fiddler on the Roof,” that Broadway hit of unexpected proportions, is a now on Broadway in Yiddish, accessible to Yiddish and Russian audiences, through supertitles. Presumably, the Yiddish Fiddler can play anywhere in the world. with the help of appropriate supertitles. In this season of miracles, in an age of miracles, everything is possible. In the meantime, Miriam Hoffman’s recently published memoir, “A Breed Apart” will have to suffice and inspire.
David Braun serves as the director of SACC and is co-president, along with Itzik Gottesman. Braun come to this work with a stellar resume. He taught at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He currently teaches at Columbia University and is also the Academic Director of the intensive U. Weinreich Summer Program in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and Bard College. SACC is named for the writer who lived a hundred years ago, and best known as the creator of Tevye the Dairyman, the inspiration for “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevye has (like Willy Loman) become an endearing classic character, dreaming their way out adversity that engages and entertains audiences around the world, even today. The humble center, which was a school and that taught Yiddish and a cultural appreciation of Yiddish language and literature, as well as Jewish history, holidays and traditions, seemed a perfect setting for this preview. It serves as a reminder that vibrant Jewish culture doesn’t need grand places and spaces to bring out the finest products.
Near Montefiore (Italian for mount of flowers) Hospital, not far from the New York Botanical Gardens, this rare blossoms blooms monthly with a variety of fascinating talks in Yiddish, coupled with songs. The next event at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center is a lecture, scheduled for Sunday, May 19, 1:30 p.m., by Professor Eugene Orenstein (emeritus, McGill University) entitled: «100 Years since the Martyrdom of A. Vayter, Revolutionary Yiddish Writer.» It will include a performance of Yiddish songs by Adah Hetko.
Events are free, but arrive early for good seats. Location is 3301 Bainbridge Ave, Bronx New York.
By Barbara Wind