Yiddish singer brings to life voices silenced by the Holocaust

Yiddish singer brings to life voices silenced by the Holocaust

BY JENNI FRAZER for the Times of Israel April 5, 2015

LONDON — For Israelis and Anglos alike, Bente Kahan’s multi-lingual abilities are a
thing of wonder. Born and raised in Norway, a graduate in performing arts at Tel
Aviv University and at New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy, the
actress and singer lives today in Wroclaw, Poland, and describes herself as “utterly
European” wherever she might be.

Kahan’s personal, and often painful, interpretations of songs and poetry written in Nazi Germany
and the Holocaust ghettoes find focus in her one-woman show, which she is bringing to London,
to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, on April 15. In the show she
interprets songs by the Yiddish songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig and poems by Max HermannNeisse,
Ilse Weber and the contemporary Polish poet Tadeusz Rozewicz.

Kahan has spent much of her professional life shuttling between Norway, Israel and the United
States. “I began singing in Hebrew at 16,” she recalls, and in 1983 she was performing in a cabaret –
surely unique – of Yiddish and Norwegian songs, her first encounter with Yiddish.

As she moved from country to country, gathering songs and languages – at latest count, she
performs in 10 different languages – Kahan gradually dropped her more formal theater work in
favour of her travels with a guitar.

“It’s much easier to travel with songs than with a whole theatre,” she laughs. “They’re much more

On both sides of her family, Bente Kahan is a child of the Holocaust. Her mother escaped to
Sweden during the war but her uncles, aunts and cousins were taken to Auschwitz and killed
there in 1942.

Her father – who still lives in Oslo – is from the same town as Elie Wiesel in Romania and survived
a number of concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He was found by an American soldier
who saw his arm moving under a pile of dead bodies. Aged just 19, and a member of the Satmar
Chasidic sect, Kahan’s father went to Hungary at the war’s end and then moved to Oslo when his
brother-in-law got a job as a chazan in the Norwegian capital.

Kahan, who has acted with Israel’s Habima Theatre, first went to Poland in 1991, living and
working in Warsaw with her husband, who had been heavily involved in the Polish liberation
movement, Solidarnosc, before moving to Norway.

“We liked Warsaw a lot,” she says, recalling the first rebirth of Jewish culture there.

It was not the couple’s intention to stay in Poland, and they moved back to Norway in 1993. In
2001 a job offer in New York fell through and instead, together with their two children, a daughter
then aged seven and a son aged 12, they went to Wroclaw, in Lower Silesia, the town formerly
known as Breslau when it belonged to Germany.

In Wroclaw Kahan began her most extraordinary project yet: the revitalisation of the historic 200-
year-old White Stork Synagogue, and the setting up of her own fund, the Bente Kahan
Foundation, which became the powerhouse behind the synagogue’s renovation, completed in 2010.

From the synagogue she runs the Wroclaw Centre for Jewish Culture and Education, which offers
an enviable array of arts programming – not just for the 300-strong remaining Wroclaw Jews, but
for the wider community.

Kahan says she has achieved extraordinary results in obtaining funding for her work. “People say to me, ‘Oh,how can you live in Poland, it’s so anti-Semitic.’ But in fact almost all the money for the White Stork came from the city and European grants. I didn’t really go to Jewish organisations for money at all. In fact, I’ve just got about 50,000 euros [$53,564] for the renovation of a small
synagogue and a mikvah in the city. So there is certainly a willingness and an openness to Jewish culture here, in a place where – before the Holocaust – it existed for 800 years.”

Among the presentations Kahan has run in Wroclaw has been her play, “Voices from Theresienstadt,” excerpts from which she will perform in London. Two other plays she wrote, “Wallstrasse 13,” and “Mendel Rosenbusch,” based on the pre-war children’s stories by Ilse Weber, have been performed at the White Stork with Polish actors, and Kahan believes more than 10,000 youngsters have seen her plays in the synagogue. It serves the community during the religious holidays and becomes a prestigious concert venue for the rest of the year.

Eventually, Kahan concedes, she and her family may return to Norway, but she is desperately keen not to let her work in Poland dissipate if she leaves. Besides, she notes ruefully, the temperature and climate of opinion for Jews in Norway “is just like it is in the rest of Scandinavia. Norwegian society has become progressively more anti-Israel since the Lebanon War, but now there is an added physical fear [among Jews] and that presents a huge challenge.”

Meanwhile Kahan – who is also presenting a different show in Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Centre on
April 5 – is concentrating on bringing the voices from the Holocaust back to life.

“I try to make my shows very personal,” she says. “I want people to go away with something to
think about. All art should make people reflect, and there is so much to reflect on about being a
Jew in Europe, which has become a very tough thing.

“But I want to fight for a Europe that is safe for each of us to live in. It would be like Hitler winning
all over again if 70 years after the Holocaust, Jews can’t live here – or that we can only live in
ghettoes to feel secure? That’s a really horrible thought. What I have tried to do is to build
something and repair something: that’s what I feel will succeed.”

Bente Kahan appears at the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv on April 5 and at London’s JW3 on
April 15.

  • 6 April, 2015