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A Holocaust survivor and her family saw ‘Leopoldstadt.’ The Broadway play told their story.



(New York Jewish Week) — On a Wednesday evening last month, three generations of a Jewish family made their way to their seats at the Longacre Theater to see “Leopoldstadt,” Tom Stoppard’s epic Broadway play about the tragedies that befall an extended Jewish family in the first half of the 20th century in Vienna.

The date of the family gathering was a significant one: Nov. 9, the 84th anniversary of the Nazi pogroms known as Kristallnacht. And in the audience was Fini Konstat, 96, who lived in the once thriving Jewish neighborhood after which the play is named, and witnessed the horrors it portrays first-hand. Alongside her were her daughter and her son-in-law, Renee and James Akers, and her oldest great-grandchild, Lexi Levin, 23.

When Konstat was a child, she lived in a “nice apartment” in Leopoldstadt. But exactly 84 years to the day of their theater date, “I was running with my father, seeing all the Jewish stores with all their windows broken,” she told Levin in a short video her great-granddaughter filmed before the curtain rose.

“It’s such a blessing for me to be here with you,” Levin said to her great-grandmother in response. “Ninety-six years old, survived a pandemic, at a Broadway show in New York City.”

Left: Fini as a child on the balcony of her apartment in Leopoldstadt. Right: Fini with her three children in front of the very same building, pictured in 2015. (Courtesy)

Since the beginning of its Broadway run in mid-September, “Leopoldstadt,” with its depiction of a prosperous Viennese family on the brink of destruction, has moved audiences to tears and inspired deep reflections on the Holocaust. Based on the celebrated playwright’s own family history — of which he was barely aware while growing up in England — it has provided a stark counterpoint to news about rising antisemitism and the celebrities who have been purveying it.

But for Konstat, the play was much more personal. “When I heard the word ‘Leopoldstadt,’ this alone gave me lots of thrills and memories,” Konstat, who is known in her family as Mimi, told the New York Jewish Week in accented English. She recalled how Levin, who recently moved to the city, invited her to fly to New York to see one of Broadway’s hottest tickets.

“Leopoldstadt,” she repeated, her voice breaking. “The second district. That’s where we lived.”

At the end of Stoppard’s five-act play, audiences learn that most of the Jewish characters had perished under the Nazis — of the four generations in the show, just three cousins survive to carry on the family’s legacy.

For Konstat too, she and her parents were among the very few in their extended family to survive the Holocaust. “Almost all of them went to Auschwitz or other camps,” Konstat said. “My mother was a twin and only the twins remained alive. [My mother’s] five other siblings and my grandmother perished.”

L-R: Renee Akers, James Akers, Lexi Levin and Fini Konstat at the Longacre Theater to see Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt on Broadway,’ Nov. 9, 2022. (Courtesy)

In a Zoom conversation held over Thanksgiving weekend, Konstat, surrounded by two of her daughters, two of her granddaughters and three of her great-granddaughters, shared what the play meant to her — and how her family has restored what she lost.

In the months after Kristallnacht in 1938, Konstat and her parents hid in a neighbor’s apartment; Konstat recalls hiding under the duvet when German soldiers showed up. Eventually the family fled to Turkey, and then to India, before settling down in Mexico City. There, the teenage Fini met her husband David, also a survivor who escaped Poland. The two of them began to write the rest of their story — starting with the birth of the first of their three children in 1948.

Unlike many Holocaust survivors, Fini and David Konstat were open about their experiences during the war, instilling a sense of pride and duty to remember in their children — something that eventually extended to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“They were proud to speak about how they survived this,” said the Konstats’ middle child, Renee Konstat Akers. “Their life was an odyssey. They had the courage to do things that you would never think were possible. We grew up grateful knowing how our family survived in that incredible way.”

Each child moved to different places as they grew up and got married. Manuel, the oldest, stayed in Mexico. Renee married an American and moved to the Midwest, and Denise, the youngest, to Houston. Each became deeply involved in their Jewish communities, sending their children (Konstat’s grandchildren) to Jewish day schools, celebrating Jewish holidays and participating in synagogue life.

“The word ‘miracle’ really does not feel like an understatement in this scenario,” said Sherry Levin, one of Konstat’s grandchildren. “When we think about what it took for my grandmother and grandfather to survive and how they were able to intersect in Mexico, and such an amazing multi-generational family has come to fruition, it feels miraculous.”

Pictured here on their 40th anniversary, Fini and her husband David met in Mexico City after both had fled Europe. They were married 54 years before David died in 2001. (Courtesy)

Reviews of the show have ranged from rhapsodic to resistant, with some critics suggesting the play is simplistic and obvious in its story-telling or that it is less a well-crafted play than a well-meaning lesson on the Holocaust.

But just as the Merz family clashes and argues about everything from antisemitism to intermarriage to socialism in “Leopoldstadt,” each generation of the Konstat family that saw “Leopoldstadt” that night came away with something different —  a reaction influenced by their age, their Jewish identity, their nationality and their relationship with their family.

For Konstat, the arc of “Leopoldstadt” was so familiar that it hardly stirred her. “It was just very happy watching it and enjoying it and enjoying my children with me, “ she told the New York Jewish Week. “I didn’t think about anybody else.”

Akers, too, felt an intense familiarity with the story, and, perhaps toughened by her own family history, didn’t experience an intense emotional reaction. Her own parents’ lives gave Akers a sense of purpose in her life — for example, in the 1990s, she was passionate about helping resettle Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union. With her own children, she instilled in them a strong sense of Jewish purpose in their work, their education and their family.

“I was a sandwich in between seeing my mother and my granddaughter,” she said of her “Leopoldstadt” experience. “I was emotional thinking of my mom who went through it, but I was more emotional about seeing my granddaughter be so moved. It really hit her at her core.”

Indeed, it was the youngest member of the family present that night who was most shaken by the play.

“It really felt like a gift to my family and to me, specifically, to be able to see what Mimi’s life looked like before the war,” Lexi Levin said, surmising that, as a fourth-generation survivor, she is among the first in her family to be able to start processing the loss on a grander scale.

“For the first time in my life, I really felt the magnitude of her loss,” she added. “I’ve known her story and I’ve been inspired by her story to be involved with my own Jewish causes, but I have never been able to access and truly empathize with her grief and what it meant that she lost the entire family she had before this one that she created.”

Turning to her great-grandmother, as if trying to make her understand the exact precision of the show, Levin explained, “It’s a play about generations and the family was large and then it was small.”

“You made it large again,” she said, referring to the generations of family that had assembled — in the Broadway theater and again over Thanksgiving weekend. “Look at this room.”

Pictured on her 90th birthday in 2017, Fini Konstat now has three children, ten grandchildren and twenty great-grandchildren. (Courtesy)

There was a coda for the family after the curtain went down. The day after the show, the family wanted to see the 1907 “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” one of Gustav Klimt’s most famous paintings, which currently hangs at the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side. A version of the portrait’s true story — how a painting of a socialite from a prominent Viennese Jewish family was looted by the Nazis and the family’s efforts to get it back — features in the plot of “Leopoldstadt.”

The gallery, however, was closed on the only day the family could visit. After a call to the management at the gallery, which showcases the German and Austrian art collections of  Jewish philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder, the gallery’s director arranged a private tour.

“It felt like we were in a puzzle and everything was finally coming together,” said Akers. “It was an emotional, emotional time.”

When the week was over and the emotions were spent, Konstat and the Akers returned home with a reignited passion for their family story. But there was yet another twist: In addition to the whirlwind trip Levin planned for her grandparents and for Mimi, she had been undergoing the laborious process of applying for Austrian citizenship. Six members in Konstat’s large family have undertaken the process over the last two years.

“Part of the motivation was knowing Mimi’s story, and knowing that she survived because her mother had citizenship in Turkey,” Levin said. “That story was just inspirational to me, knowing that dual citizenship was what saved our family.” She convinced her brother and mother to apply for Austrian citizenship as well.

The day after her grandmother and great-grandmother left New York, Levin called them with news from her small apartment in Manhattan: An Austrian passport had arrived in the mail. The curtain was rising on another act.

Konstat was surprised at how interested her family was in getting Austrian citizenship. “I feel very good,” she said. “I’m very happy.”

“Does it make you emotional?” Levin asked her during the Zoom call with the New York Jewish Week.

“It does — of course it does. I used to love Austria,” she said. “I was sad to leave. I was disappointed. We never thought of coming back. I was happy to be able to escape. Thank God we made it out of hell.”

The post A Holocaust survivor and her family saw ‘Leopoldstadt.’ The Broadway play told their story. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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