Nora Jean Levin and her husband, Michael Levin, were at dinner with her parents one night in 1978 by the Levins’ home in Washington, D.C.
Four hours later, they’d been kicked out of the restaurant’s dining room and moved to the lobby so they could continue talking.
At this dinner, her parents began telling their story of leaving Leipzig in Nazi Germany, moving to Israel and ultimately making it to Philadelphia in 1938.
Her mother, Anna Burstein Bieler-Suwalski, had been a concert pianist at the Leipzig Conservatory where her two older sisters had gone and where she met Halina Neuman Schulsinger. The duo played two-piano concerts for the Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund. A third pianist, Tanya Zunser Ury, was a mutual friend.
The Kulturbund was created in 1933 by Jews for Jews — and approved by the Nazis — to allow performers to continue playing, as the Nazis began to exclude Jews from public life and culture. It started in Berlin and spread to 60 cities across Germany.
After making it to Philadelphia, Bieler-Suwalski made her own musical connections and ultimately taught at the Settlement Music School from 1945 to the 1980s — making its location for the debut of Two Pianos: Playing for Life an appropriate choice.
The performance, presented by the D.C.-based Jüdische Kulturbund Project, at 7 p.m. on June 9 at 416 Queen St. will feature Four-Hands pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro, who will play selections by Arensky, Brahms, Toch and Chopin — works Bieler-Suwalski and Schulsinger played.
The musical performance is complemented by live readings and an exhibit featuring pieces of memorabilia of life in Germany courtesy of Levin’s parents, including a ticket book for Kulturbund events in Leipzig and a membership card.
Two Pianos was born out of a personal project by Jean and Michael Levin.
Following the dinner in which Levin’s parents began divulging, Jean and Michael Levin continued interviewing them — this time equipped with tape recorders.
Her parents had returned from a trip to Leipzig — their first since 1936 — and “my father was 78 years old, my mother was 70 and he was ready to tell his story,” Jean Levin said, “which was a remarkable story.”
Her Polish-born father, Hirsch, had been in the petroleum business in Germany, in which he received supplies from a company in Philadelphia. They had no other connections — her father’s family was “exterminated,” as he put it in a letter they discovered, in a Polish ghetto — and he hoped to use his Philadelphia link to establish himself.
As he did that, Anna set out to play.
“She was surrounded by many other exiled musicians who had also fled Nazi Germany,” Jean Levin said. “The Settlement School became her teaching and performing home.”
“They had portable skills,” Michael Levin added. The two were able to buy a house in Oak Lane within a year and moved to Elkins Park in the 1950s.
The two fleshed out her parents’ stories, adding footnotes and historical context over the next 40 years. It was ultimately compiled into a sourcebook, now housed on a private website.
Another piece of the impetus for Two Pianos was Jean Levin’s older sister, Tania Bieler Haftel.
Their mother stopped playing piano when she was around 80. Haftel, who was born in Leipzig before their parents left, sought a way to get her mother back at the piano bench. Haftel started a program for retired players, which began as Sixties Plus or Minus Players and remains active at Settlement as the Adult Chamber Players.
When the Levins knew there was a program they wanted to do, Philadelphia — where both Jean and Michael Levin are from and went to school — seemed a logical choice. Her mother donated a Steinway piano to the Settlement School as well as music to its library before she died in 2003 at the age of 95. Her parents also created a scholarship there.
Another piece of the puzzle comes via The Jüdische Kulturbund Project, which Jean Levin discovered while researching its German namesake and learned the director, Gail Prensky, started to interview players from the Berlin Kulturbund 15 years ago.
“I picked up the phone — after yelling to Michael, ‘Michael, my God, you won’t believe what I found!’ — and called her and it turns out her organization is based in D.C., and she lives about a mile and a half from where we live. It was fabulous,” Jean Levin enthused.
Prensky came over — “We invited her over for strudel, what else?” Michael Levin laughed — and Jean Levin told her about her mother and her friends who played in the Kulturbund concerts in 1934 and 1936.
“We are so excited to bring this story to life,” Prensky said in a statement. “Music sustained these women and fueled their will, not just to survive during the darkest hours of Nazi Germany, but to thrive.”
The event also honors Haftel’s memory, as she died in November 2017.
The notion of motherhood struck a powerful chord for Jean Levin.
Schulsinger did not make it out of Germany as early as Levin’s parents. Instead she was sent to, and later escaped from, the Warsaw Ghetto — and played Chopin for the Polish resistance army — and hid with her young daughter with a righteous family.
“Part of the reason I found these stories so compelling,” Jean Levin said, “was that while these women were practicing and playing and performing … they were also married with young children and they were juggling career, family and childcare.”
The bravery her mother, Schulsinger — who were reunited in the 1950s and stayed lifelong friends — and Ury displayed in playing through adversity became a key theme for the performance.
“This is all about resilience and sort of secret resistance,” Michael Levin said. “They used their art as a way of preserving personal space and it was a way for them to sort of endure … All three of them kept playing through everything.”
Tickets are available at evite.me/g1sneYBYuh.
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