Theodore Meir Bikel and his parents peeked through the drawn curtains of their Vienna apartment as in the street below Adolf Hitler, standing in his limousine, slowly rolled by, cheered on by frenzied crowds.
It was March 15, 1938, when Nazi Germany officially annexed Austria, changing forever the life of 14-year old “Theo” and of the country’s Jews.
On Thursday evening (Nov. 7), Bikel will stand on the rostrum of Austria’s Parliament Building before an audience of the country’s highest government and cultural leaders to mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night that synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were put to the torch.
Historians generally mark this event as the forerunner, if not the beginning, of the Holocaust.
Bikel will accept Austria’s highest honor in the arts and then give an hour-long concert of mainly Yiddish songs, interspersed with a few numbers in English and German.
For the finale, Bikel will present the Song of the Partisans, in Yiddish. He will ask the distinguished audience to rise as he renders the powerful words and notes of the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II.
The irony and meaning of the occasion is not lost on Bikel. “The Nazi criminals are gone, I am still here,” he said during an interview in his West Los Angeles home.
“I think I was created for this occasion,” Bikel added, referring to the Vienna commemoration.
That is saying a lot for a man who, during a 70-year career, has distinguished himself as an actor and folksinger on stage, screen and television, author, raconteur, union leader, advocate for the arts, and champion of Soviet Jews and human rights.
Of his many roles, Bikel cherishes that of folksinger the most, presenting “the songs of my people, songs of pain and songs of hope,” he said.
Bikel grew up in a strongly Zionist home, which named its only child in honor of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. By coincidence, the two men share the same birth date, though in different years. After leaving Vienna, the Bikel family settled in Tel Aviv, while Theo spent two years at an agricultural school, aspiring to the Zionist ideal of working the land. He then joined the Kfar HaMaccabi kibbutz, “but it soon became obvious that my talents lay elsewhere,” he observed wryly.
The kibbutz management came to the same conclusion and sent him to a three-week course for training actors in Tel Aviv. After his first taste of the limelight, “there was no turning back,” Bikel said, and he was admitted to the Habimah Theatre school. The man who was to gain international fame as Tevye in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” got his first paid role in the stage play of “Tevye and his Daughters.” He had the role of the Russian constable who warns the shtetl’s Jews that they better get out before the next pogrom. For his 29-word dialogue, Bikel received the equivalent of five dollars per show.
Bikel’s trip to Vienna was praised by the White House through its Jewish liaison, Mathew S. Nosanchuk. “I cannot think of a better emissary to carry a message of hope, perserverance and survival – on behalf of the Jewish people – to Austria, as the world marks these dark days,” Nosanchuk wrote. “You are the living embodiment of Jewish art and culture.” Interviewed two days before flying to Vienna with his companion Aimee Ginsburg, it was obvious that Bikel, at 89, has no thought of retirement. For one, he is now in the midst of producing and starring in the documentary film, “Theodore Bikel in the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem.”
As for his general health, while he hasn’t escaped the aches and pains of advancing age, he firmly proclaims, “I still retain the same mental vigor, the same energy, and the same curiosity.”
But just in case, for his tombstone, he plans the inscription, “He Was the Singer of His People” – in Yiddish.