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'Ghetto' Sounds: The Song Of A Survivor

November 29, 1986|MARC SHULGOLD

Despite its unrelenting tragedy, Joshua Sobol's "Ghetto," currently at the Mark Taper Forum (through Dec. 14), does contain one glimmer of hope--a brief moment when both Nazi and Jew shed their animosity.

Kittel, the SS officer in charge of the Jewish ghetto of Vilna, discovers the artistic side of the walled city's inhabitants and, feeling in an expansive mood, makes a request of Heikin, a klezmer (roaming musician) who has just recently arrived.

"I feel like hearing some Gershwin," Kittel says with a broad smile. Heikin slowly raises clarinet to mouth and pours out the spine-chilling opening of "Rhapsody in Blue," stopping everyone in their tracks.

It is a moment of truth, says Giora Feidman, who portrays Heikin. "Each person can see how, through the clarinet, it is possible to create music as a language that can bring us all together--German and Jew."

To the 50-year-old Israeli, this is no hollow statement, but a deeply felt, sincerely expressed belief. For nearly three decades, the acknowledged "king of klezmer" has been carrying his message of music and peace around the world. Two years ago, he made a rare journey with "Ghetto"--to Berlin.

"Over 100,000 members of the new generation in Germany saw this play during the run," he recalls, as burning incense wafts around him during a conversation at his temporary living quarters near the Music Center.

How did the Germans respond?

"I was in a unique position to find out at the end. Since I was the only survivor (in the play), I became the only member of the cast who could see the audience--the pain, the confusion in their faces.

"No one could move. That silence was unlike any other sound I have ever heard.

"The Germans were very receptive to the play. But you know who hated it? The Jews. They didn't like the fact that they weren't depicted as angels. They didn't like Weisskopf (the enterprising Vilna tailor who turns a tidy profit from the Nazi's need for uniforms) and they didn't like seeing the Jews join in at the orgy." Those facets, he added, "were toned down in the Israeli production."

Feidman acknowledges that the Germans who saw the play demonstrated courage in coming, but he insists that Sobol's drama was "not designed to make people feel guilty. It simply says, 'Look at what men can do.' "

So close is Feidman to his role and to this play, that the two seem inseparable. In fact, the part of Heikin was created expressly for him. "The German director, Peter Zadek, was looking for someone to play a klezmer and he happened to hear one of my records. 'That's the sound I want,' he said, and they then began to track me down."

For six months, this fourth-generation klezmer set aside his busy concert career to play his wordless role in "Ghetto," something he is more than willing to do again during the Music Center engagement. ("This is like a vacation for me," he says.)

Being involved in the play has been a profound experience for this profound musician-philosopher.

"I am the voice of the people of Vilna," he says. "I am the man who brings sound to the inner walls of this society. The people there had no way to express their pain. My clarinet was the only way."

As gentle and ever-smiling as Feidman is out of character, it seems difficult to understand how, as Heikin, he could so easily agree to the request of the villainous Kittel and sing out with such a soulful "Rhapsody in Blue." And why, of all things, would a Nazi request music written by a Jew? The clarinetist smiles wistfully.

"First of all, I do not play to the Nazi, I play to the man. In truth, I'm not really playing for him, I'm praying for him.

"Why would he ask for music by a Jew? He didn't think of Gershwin as Jewish. The Nazi soldiers never thought in those terms. The guards at the concentration camps used to ask the klezmorim to play for them at the end of each day's killing. How else could they find sleep? They didn't know or care that they were being soothed by Jewish music. And the klezmorim didn't care that they were serenading their people's killers. This was their way of surviving."

Without a word, Feidman assembles his clarinet and gently, almost inaudibly, plays a haunting melody, his eyes closed tightly, his fingers gracefully and silently caressing the keys. When he finishes, he leans toward his visitor.

"Every night of the play, they come--the survivors. They greet me backstage and they tell me stories. 'You know why I was not killed?' one man said to me. 'I lived because I knew how to play the harmonica.'

"You see, that is what the play is about. That is what we are about. Surviving. This is what I show at the end of 'Ghetto' when I walk off playing a nigun . It's my way of telling the Nazis, 'You see? We're still here. You can destroy the man, but you can't kill the spirit.'

"I can think of no deeper message than that."

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