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 Hermann-Neisse, 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 favor of her travels with a guitar.
“It’s much easier to travel with songs than with a whole theater,” she laughs. “They’re much more portable.”
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 revitalization 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, which was 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.
‘There is certainly a willingness and an openness to Jewish culture here, in a place where – before the Holocaust – it existed for 800 years’
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 organizations 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.”
Meantime Kahan – who is also presenting a different show in Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center 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 Center in Tel Aviv on April 5 and at London’s JW3 on April 15.