The memory is clear, the fear still palpable.
“We looked from behind our curtains, and in the street we saw the hardware rumbling past — the cannons, the machine guns, and the open limousines with Goering and Hitler,” Theodore Bikel says. “We trembled. And within days the expected and feared happened.”
Three-quarters of a century have passed but the memory of the Anschluss, of the Nazi takeover of Bikel’s native Austrial is still fresh.
But, as Bikel told an audience of dignitaries in Vienna last month, “The mass murderers are gone and I’m still here, singing the song of freedom and peace.”
He made that statement of defiant triumph as the guest of honor at a commemoration of Kristallnacht, and will undoubtedly reaffirm it in front of another, more celebratory crowd on Dec. 2, when the Folksbiene Theater recognizes the singer-actor on his 90th birthday.
“It was important that I was able to [say that] in a location no less than the Austrian parliament, in front of the head of the Austrian government and certain ambassadors,” he says. “It was symbolically important.”
The choice of Bikel as honoree as the Folksbiene approaches its own centenary is also symbolically important.
“To my generation, which grew up in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Theodore Bikel was the voice of the rebirth of Yiddish culture,” Moishe Rosenfeld, producer of the event, wrote in an e-mail last week. “His albums of Yiddish songs were played constantly in my home and in thousands like it around the world, long before there was a klezmer revival, which he helped inspire. There isn’t anyone more worthy of being honored by the Yiddish world than Theo.”
Rosenfeld’s choice of words is also “symbolically important.” Everyone calls Bikel “Theo,” an affectionate diminutive that suggests close kinship, a reflection of the warmth he projects on stage, on screen, in concert, and of the way that younger generations of Jews (and non-Jews) have taken him to their hearts like a kindly, if occasionally gruff, beloved uncle.
Unsurprisingly, it is his lifelong commitment to Yiddish that Bikel says should be his legacy.
“I’d like to be remembered for the fact that I am passionate about the survival of Yiddish as a language,” he affirms, “As poetry, as literature, as the heimishe, homebound language of my people.”
Bikel is well aware of the feelings he evokes in audiences, but he is also cautious in his assessment of his life.
When the Nazis marched into Vienna, he was only 13.
“Overnight I turned from a human being with equal rights into an object of hatred, of derision and persecution,” he says. “It made me a refugee, which in one way or another I still am today. Despite success, a refugee is one that can never go home. You can visit, but you can’t be home.”
However, he adds quickly, there is a positive side to that status.
“You’re at home nowhere, but you’re also at home everywhere,” he says. “And I’ve made sure I that I was.”
He certainly has been at home everywhere professionally. As a theater actor, he co-founded the Cameri Theatre in Israel, attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and has been nominated for the Tony Award twice. As a film actor he has an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor (for “The Defiant Ones”) and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; on the small screen he has won an Emmy and appeared on everything from “Law and Order” to “Babylon 5.” He has recorded over 20 music albums, co-founded the Newport Folk Festival and performed with over two-dozen symphony orchestras. He has also written several books.
Looking back from 90, is there anything he hasn’t done in the arts?
After a brief pause, Bikel replies, “I haven’t done ballet, much to the delight of the audience.”
The other thing Theodore Bikel hasn’t done at 90 is slow down. He is producing and starring in a new documentary, “Theodore Bikel in the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem,” which is in post-production.
“It’s an interplay between my life and the life of Sholem Aleichem,” he explains.
He also has a number of concerts scheduled for the new year, as well as the Dec. 2 event.
Bikel can honestly say that as a singer he’s never been at a loss for words. After all, he has sung in 23 different languages.
“I don’t play favorites when it comes to material,” he says. “I find Slavic songs easily mastered. I recently started singing in Bosnian, and that is a Slavic tongue, so it came fairly quickly. When I had to learn a song in Zulu, that wasn’t so easy. But I happen to have the ability to do accents very well and it helps.”
He also doesn’t play favorites as an actor. In television and film, Bikel has frequently been cast as a heavy, whether a comic villain like Zoltan Karpathy in “My Fair Lady,” or something darker like a U-boat officer in “The Enemy Below.”
“An actor plays what an actor plays,” he says philosophically. “Sometimes they’re heroes, sometimes they’re villains; you do whatever comes down the pike. You try to do it with as much expertise as you’re capable of, to let your skills as an actor take over. I don’t have to like them or what they do. But the villains are needed; conflict is what drama thrives on and you help the conflict.”
His favorite roles come from the other side of the dramatic spectrum. Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and the title character of Zorba in the underrated Kander-Ebb musical that bears his name are complex, three-dimensional characters.
Still, like all working actors, he demurs, “Whatever I happen to be doing at the time, that’s my favorite.”
What Tevye and Zorba have in common is that they are life-force characters whose personalities reach the last row of the highest balcony in the biggest theaters in the land. Bikel’s reaction to reaching 90 suggests that this is what he shares with those two outsized figures.
“The secret is, don’t hold back,” he says. “Live fully. Don’t treat yourself with kid gloves and don’t treat life that way either. Just live.”
“Miracle of Miracles: A Chanukah Extravaganza,” featuring Theodore Bikel, will be presented by The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene on Monday, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space (95th Street and Broadway). For information, call (212) 213-2120, x203 or go to http://www.nationalyiddishtheatre.org/productions/miracle-of-miracles-a-chanukah-extravaganza.
Bikel’s Jewish-themed recordings are available at hatikvahmusic.com.