“Two Pianos: Playing for Life” set for June 9 at Settlement Music School

The program uses music, live readings and narration to follow two young women who played for all-Jewish audiences after the Nazis banned Jews from German public performances.

Anna Bieler-Suwalski’s 1936 Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund Paid Membership Event tri-fold card. (Levin family collection)

The following press release is from the performance’s co-producer Michael Levin:

The Judische Kulturbund Project announces the première of Two Pianos: Playing for Life on Saturday, June 9 starting at 7 p.m. in Presser Hall of the Settlement Music School’s Mary Louise Curtis Branch, 416 Queen Street, Philadelphia.

The event features Wisconsin-based Four-Hands pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro. A companion exhibit will be open next to the recital hall. A discussion and reception to meet the performers will follow the performance.

Admission is free, but due to limited seating and space availability, attendees must reserve at evite.me/g1sneYBYuh.

The one-hour program uses music, live readings and narration to follow two young women who played for all-Jewish audiences after the Nazis banned Jews from German public performances.

Anna Burstein and Halina Neuman met in 1926 as “alien student residents” at the Leipzig Conservatory and played two-piano concerts with the Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund, or Jewish Culture Association, under the Third Reich.

By spring 1933, Hitler’s new regime was moving to exclude Jews from “Aryan” life. Brownshirts with nightsticks and pistols agitated everywhere. Doors to orchestras with Jewish conductors were padlocked. Jewish performers and professors were attacked in the press and interrupted by uniformed thugs shouting “Schweine Jude!” Their concerts and lectures were cancelled “to ensure public safety.”

On April 1, a nation-wide boycott picketed Jewish-owned businesses, with Jewish stars smeared on shop windows and Jews beaten up in the streets. Signs saying “Jews not welcome” and “The Jews are our misfortune” appeared on walls, town borders and hotel lobbies.

On April 7, new laws began excluding Jews — first from government employment, including over 50 city orchestras.

Within two years, they would be legally barred from nearly all German economic, political and social life. Jewish-owned businesses would be “Aryanized,” or legally seized.

Jewish households would not be able to hire German maids to prevent contamination. Any German who dated a Jew — or a Gypsy, a supposed Communist, or person of color, would be a criminal.

The Jüdischer Kulturbund was formed by dismissed Jewish performers to allow Jewish artists to keep performing before segregated all-Jewish audiences.

It was approved by the Nazis in July 1933. Branches quickly spread from Berlin to over 60 German cities, including Leipzig.

Two Pianos’ live readings are based on first-person interviews with Anna and Halina 40 years ago. They will be read by Russian-born pianists whose artist-in-exile stories echo the characters’. The Four-Hands duo is internationally represented by Philadelphia’s Astral Artists. They met at Israel’s Jerusalem Conservatory, went on to win numerous competitions and have been playing together for two decades. They will perform excerpts from works played by Anna and Halina under and after the Nazis. Selections include Arensky, Brahms, Toch and Chopin, which will be showcased on Presser Hall’s two grand pianos.

Becoming Philadelphian

Anna reached Philadelphia in 1938, joining the ranks of talented exiles who fled the Third Reich to enrich their new American homes.

For fifteen years, she performed at local venues, to strong reviews. In 1945, she joined Settlement’s piano faculty, where she taught for nearly four decades.

In 1938, Halina and her family were forcibly deported from Leipzig to Poland. She and her daughter Jola survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish Home Army uprising against the Nazis, and labor and DP camps. Her post-War refugee stops included Vienna and London before she followed Jola to the U.S.

Three months after her 1945 arrival, she gave her first American concert. She retired as a piano professor at Rutgers University.

“We are so excited to bring this story to life,” said Gail Prensky, Creator, Executive Producer and Project Director of The Jüdische Kulturbund Project. “Music sustained these women and fueled their will, not just to survive during the darkest hours of Nazi Germany, but to thrive.”

Two Pianos’ co-Producers are Anna’s American-born daughter Nora Jean Levin and her husband Michael Levin, who spent decades researching, organizing and recapturing her family’s story in full context.

Jean and Michael also narrate part of the performance, together with Dr. Kenneth Hoffman, Halina’s grandson.

“My parents left Germany in time. We wanted to know how and why,” Jean Levin said. “Once we finally assembled all the pieces, we wanted to share them with a wider audience.”

About the Exhibit

The accompanying pop-up Exhibit presents Anna and Halina’s original documents and memorabilia, including Anna’s rare Kulturbund photo-ID membership card and ticket book.

About The Jüdische Kulturbund Project

Since 2002, the project has sought to engage the power of music to transcend differences, connecting examples of Jewish artists living under Nazi oppression with current artists around the world. It uses themes of resilience and resistance through the power of art and music to energize its presentations, performances and educational programs.

For more information, visit http://www.judischekulturbund.com/two-pianos-playing-for-life. An Exhibit description and artist bios are at: http://www.judischekulturbund.com/two-pianos-playing-for-life-the-exhibit/, http://www.piano-4-hands.com/.