Wrestling With God

Haggai Hitron
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Haggai Hitron

Leonard Bernstein's symphony "Kaddish" will be performed tonight in Jerusalem's Yad Vashem plaza, commemorating the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. In addition, Dr. Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor and jurist who became an influential adviser to American leaders, will recite his poem, "A Dialogue with God." His narration will be done on the backdrop of the symphony, performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir, with a soprano soloist. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Authroity's chairman, Avner Shalev, will stress in his opening remarks that "even here in the Jerusalem hills, the sounds of a personal, national and universal Kaddish will be heard."

Hundreds of Holocaust survivors have been invited to attend the event, sponsored by Lily Safra, chairwoman of the Edmund J. Safra Fund, in conjunction with the Center for Holocaust Survivors in Israel.

Leonard Bernstein composed "Kaddish" in 1963, and it includes a text that he wrote himself. Indeed, the piece and this accompanying narration were performed in Israel that same year, featuring actress Hanna Rovina, with Bernstein conducting. The newer version, with the text by Pisar - a friend of Bernstein's - was first performed in 2003 in Illinois and afterward in Lucerne, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Rome and Washington.

Undoubtedly, the full impact of the work can be felt when the audience is aware of its context and are acquainted with Pisar the man, or at least with his autobiography, "Of Blood and Hope," which tells of how this young boy from Bialystok survived the horrors of the Shoah, and as an adult forged an illustrious career.

The idea of adding a new text by Pisar to the work came from Bernstein himself, according to Pisar. After reading "Of Blood and Hope," the late maestro thought its author could bring a stronger, more authentic voice to the symphony than he himself could - since while Bernstein lost relatives in the Holocaust, he did not experience it himself. Bernstein was especially impressed by Pisar's description of a high-level Soviet-American conference that took place in Kiev in 1971. At that conference, Pisar related, he responded to the Russian delegates' vicious anti-American and anti-Semitic statements by quoting from Yevgeny Yevtushenko's famous poem, "Babi Yar."

Samuel Pisar was born in 1929, the son of Helena and David. The family was well-to-do; his father founded the first taxi company in the area. The Nazis murdered his parents and his young sister, Frieda; Samuel was imprisoned in Majdanek, Auschwitz and Dachau. At the end of the war, he managed to escape during one of the death marches.

After the liberation, Pisar and two friends spent a year and a half living unnoticed in Landesberg, Bavaria. He was then taken to Paris to the home of his aunt and later went to Australia under the patronage of his uncle. In Melbourne he resumed his studies, in which he excelled. In a pre-concert conversation, a few days ago, Pisar recalled that at the time, he "converted the adrenaline I had used in the past to survive, as a hunted animal" into energetic pursuit of his studies. The ability to harness that energy, he said, "served me well."

Subsequently - amd after recovering from a bout of tuberculosis - he traveled to the United States. He earned a doctorate in law from Harvard University, another doctorate from the Sorbonne and honorary doctorates from other universities in the U.S., Europe and Australia.

In 1950, Pisar was hired to work at the United Nations in New York and also worked for the UN in Paris; he returned to Washington in 1960 to be a member of president John F. Kennedy's economic and foreign policy task force and as an adviser to the State Department and to Senate and House committees.

As a lawyer in private practice in the U.S., Great Britain and France, he was involved in such realms as governance, multinational corporations and charities; he worked for the Olympic Committee, and chaired international conferences on trade, law and diplomacy. The quest for world peace and normalized relations between nations were always a focus of his approach and efforts: Indeed, at the height of the Cold War, he encouraged the establishment of U.S. relations with Russia and China, and helped oppressed minorities and politically persecuted figures, including composer Nikis Theodrakis, scientist Andrei Sakharov and writer Alexandr Solzhenitzin. Pisar also managed to help free many dissidents from Soviet prisons.

Pisar's books in his areas of expertise have been translated into dozens of languages. During events marking the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe, president Bill Clinton publicly recounted Pisar's traumatic childhood story; president Jacques Chirac also referred in his address to Pisar's life and achievements in an historic speech, in which he admitted to France's responsibility for crimes committed by the Vichy regime against the Jews.

Pisar has two daughters from his first wife and one daughter from his second wife, Judith, who came with him to Jerusalem for tonight's performance. He also helped raise Anthony Balinken, Judith's son from her previous marriage, who was president Clinton's adviser and the author of his famous "Shalom, Haver" speech, delivered after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Only after Leonard Bernstein's death and the attack on the World Trade Center did Pisar start writing his poem, "Dialogue with God." In it, he expresses his concern for the future of mankind - fears that are confirmed by the flourishing of ethnic hatred and religious extremism. He refers to the fact that he is a surviving remnant of a Jewish community that was destroyed and stresses his anger at the God who disappointed him.

In the poem, Pisar laments: "The loved ones I mourn are many: my father, David, tortured and executed by firing squad and tossed into a mass grave, my mother, Helena, sent off in a cattle-train to die, with my little sister, Frieda, who had hardly lived. My grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and every one of my schoolmates ... all wiped out in one fell swoop ... according to the unfathomable logic that reigns in your realm ... why do you abandon us? Do you even care?

"Is it anger or indifference that explains your perplexing failure to protect us when we were defamed? Perish the thought, Lord, but that failure may have convinced many a genocidal demon and a largely uncaring world that eradicating Jews and other vulnerable minorities was and is acceptable. Even to this day ... It is said that in ancient Greece when gods were more human, men were more divine, immortal though you are, Lord, can't you be a little more humane? So we can become a little more God?"

In his explanatory remarks, Pisar noted: "I recount a heart-wrenching lullaby about how loving, caring and merciful is our God, that my beloved grandmother used to sing to me before her voice was silenced in the ovens of Treblinka. At that moment I feel as if I am saying Kaddish for her, for my family, for my people, for all peoples decimated by genocide ... and the ritual Kaddish that mourns the dead, celebrates life and praises the Lord, I left untouched, to be chanted in Aramaic."

In his interview, Pisar admitted that there were many times during the Holocaust when he was angry at the Almighty: "I have often been torn between belief and doubt, faith and reason. But as I say in my Kaddish: I have never left his flock. Neither fear, pain or terror could ever shake my ancestral vow to worship him, if only in my own unorthodox ways. Today, I feel that his presence in our midst is so old, so immense, so ingrained that I dare not even ask myself if he is reality or illusion."

But if, as you admit, you have experienced periods of atheism, how can you speak to God, addressing him as a real being in "Kaddish"? You don't function in terms of the piece as a professional narrator, an actor who plays a role - you express your deepest thoughts and feelings.

Pisar: "Absolutely. But allow me to say that primarily, we are dealing here with art, music and poetry, and with a tremendous symphonic opus for which Bernstein took inspiration from Mahler and Bach. In my performance, I feel a little as if I were on a trapeze between two facets of my being: [that of] a believer and a nonbeliever. And, it is true, there are two individuals living within me: The young skeletal boy with shaved head and sunken eyes, who was imbued with religion in the shtetl. The other one is the modern man of affairs, a product of elite universities, who lives and works in the glittering capitals of the world. I feel quite comfortable with that, and my 'Kaddish' narration is delivered in the voices of these two very different individuals.

"At the level of my personal emotions, I can never forget that the victims of the Shoah died with God's name on their lips. I was there and I heard their last 'Shema Israel' with my own ears. I cannot betray them by playing lightly with faith and doubts."