Saving Anne Frank

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For two years, Anne Frank’s family hid in secret rooms in Amsterdam, knowing that a curtain left open by mistake, a wayward noise or a nervous conspirator’s phone call to the Nazis could land them all in concentration camps. Of the eight Jews hiding, seven died before the Holocaust was over, including Anne, whose diary was a testament to the horrors of the Nazi regime. She died of typhus at age 15 at Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany.

By Tony Castro

 

AS A THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD schoolboy I grew up wanting to save Anne Frank.

Allow me to clarify that.

As a young man, the son of a World War II army veteran, I grew up wanting to save Anne Frank.

I’m still not clear, I fear.

As the son of a World War II decorated veteran who told me stories of the horror he saw at Nazi concentration camps, I grew up wishing there was some way I could go back in time and save the six million Jews killed in the Hitler holocaust. And when I read Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 2.45.03 PMThe Diary of A Young Girl.  I wasn’t sure if I’d fallen in love with young Anne and wished I could save this damsel in distress or whether I simply wanted to save mankind.

I must confess that about that time I had also seen Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and had fallen even deeper into a trance of fascination with Anne Frank, whom I saw personified in this beautiful young actress.

Anne Frank. Elizabeth Taylor. What can I say? I was a child of the 1950s. I knew no no young Jews in my hometown. I knew of Jews only through my religion, Catholicism, and its claim at the time that Jews had killed Jesus Christ, which I knew in my heart wasn’t true. Each Sunday at my church, with those enormous murals of the Stations of the Cross adorning its walls, I would see Roman soldiers leading Christ to his death and crucifying him. I didn’t see Jews hammering nails into his hands and feet.

So the only other Jews I knew about were those killed in the Holocaust from the stories I heard my father tell. They were more like confessions, as if he were trying to exorcise those scenes from his mind, to rid himself of the worst horrors he had seen in the war.

And, of course, I knew Anne Frank. I knew of Anne Frank. I was among the many millions touched by her story, her fears, her aloneness, her hopes.

She haunted me, her story and her photograph. She looked unlike any young woman I knew at that time. Of course, as I said, there were no Jews in my hometown, though that’s not correct I now realize. There were no Jewish people  who lived in my side of my home town, Waco, Texas. And, to be honest, for the longest time, I had no idea that my side was the wrong side of town, the poorer, working side of Waco where I felt out of place, as if I didn’t belong there or any other place. Like the Jews the Nazis had killed in Europe.

“Are we sure we’re not Jewish?” I asked my family at the dinner table one night.

“No, we are Roman Catholics,” my mother quickly answered me.

“But that bothers me,” I said. “Wasn’t it the Romans who crucified Jesus?”

“No, the Jews killed Jesus,” mom said.

“Who said so?”

“The church said so,” she said.

“No, they’re wrong.”

“The Bible says they did.” Mom was insistent.

“No, the Bible doesn’t say that,” I said. “It says that the Jews turned Jesus over to the Romans and left it up to the Romans to decide.”

“You shouldn’t be reading the Bible by yourself,” mom said. “Father Dols says you should only read the Bible with the guidance of a priest.”

“Why? What’s to understand that I would need a priest to explain?” I said. “Quod scripsi scripsi, Pilate said. What I have written I have written. Jesus was the King of the Jews, Pilate wrote, and Pilate’s Roman soldiers crucified Jesus.”

Mom looked at my father.

“Eat your dinner before it gets cold,” he said.

I looked at my little sister who appeared to be in another world.

“What are you day-dreaming about?” I asked her.

“I’m thinking about how I really love fillet mignon,” she said.

She was crazy, of course.

“This isn’t filet mignon we’re eating,” I said. “It’s spaghetti.”

“I’m imagining it’s filet mignon,” she said.

This was my family. Full of denial. My mom didn’t believe that it was the Romans who had crucified Jesus Christ. My sister wanted her pasta to be steak. And my father would have nothing to say if it weren’t about the Dallas Cowboys.

And I was in love with Anne Frank, a girl my age, once, whom I felt I knew better than anyone else in the world. For what was it she had written?

“Writing in a diary,” she had said, “is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.”

One day all the world would wish it had saved Anne Frank.

 

Tony Castro is the author of  Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights and A Final Rite of Passage.

 

Liudmila Konovalova: The New Maya

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Dressed in black leg warmers and an insulated lavender down vest to ward off the cold that had chilled the magnificent opera house, the disarmingly gracious Konovlova, the prima ballerina of the Vienna State Ballet — the Wiener Staatsballett, sank herself into a rehearsal break just off an enormous ballet training room as she contemplated a journalist’s question about her childhood idol.

Like most Russian-born dancers, Liudmila Konovalova grew up fantasizing that she would follow in the toe shoes of the country’s fabled ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who spent much of her career as a captive under fierce scrutiny and at the murderous whim of Stalin’s regime, but still shimmered as one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon's 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon’s 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

But for Konovalova, that fantasy was little more than a fairy tale, a seemingly unrealistic goal given her circumstances. The child of a broken home, she lived in a shelter as a teen and was rejected by the Bolshoi Ballet company after going through its academy. She had little reason to expect that one day her homeland’s ballet icon would wondrously connect with her artistically and personally, breathing new life into her dreams, not unlike Michelangelo’s near-touching hands of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Much less could she have foreseen a scenario in which that would happen when she was literally down and out — and in the most embarrassing position possible.

But that was the spectacle Konovalova now remembered from Italy’s 2007 Premio Roma Dance competition at which Plisetskaya was head of the judging jury, and where Konovalova dreaded she had chosen to perform the challenging Black Swan pas de deux in front of her role model whose storied name was synonymous with “Swan Lake” in the world of ballet.

“I was thinking, the Black Swan is… one the most famous roles that Maya Plisetskaya did,” recalled Konovalova who had never met Plisetskaya until that competition, “and now I (am) gonna show her my Black Swan! I thought it’s a joke. That would be total fiasco.”

Almost prophetically, in the middle of her performance that day, Konovalova’s worst fears pirouetted out of control. Slipping and as her legs gave way underneath her, she felt certain that her dreams of winning the competition had just fluttered somewhere beyond her black tutu — all in front of Plisetskaya. 

“I finished my (Black Swan) variation exactly (as) the music was ending, seated on my ass,” said Konovalova, one of the select group of dancers who performed at the March 6 Ave Maya Gala at London’s Coliseum Theatre honoring Plisetskaya, who died last May at the age of 89. “Yes, I fall completely on my popo, bottom, rear, ass — however you call it — it is the fact.

“I was sure I am out of the competition and plus such big shame… But right after I was sitting on my ass, Maya Plisetskaya stands up. (She) was clapping and laughing!

“So then we did (the) coda. I did my fouettés. This all went fine. We got a really good applause, but she was (giving) me standing ovation…”

The competition wasn’t over, though Konovalova figured she could no longer even place, much less win, and that in further rounds could only hope to complement her dance partner who was still up for a prize himself.

“That gave me time to give more to understand the situation,” she said, looking back on what appeared to be developing into a disappointing moment in her career. “I was officially working nowhere. I (was) finished with Russia. I had (a) contract to Berlin, but I (was) suppose to start in two months.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding performing in 'Swan Lake.' Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, Copyright 2016.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding perform in ‘Swan Lake’ in Moscow in 2015. (Photo by Alex Pankov. courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

“So I was girl from nowhere.”

Then, as all hope seemed gone, fate stepped in.

“Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?” “Коновалова,где моя Коновалова!”

Startled out of her self-pity over having fallen in competition, Liudmilia couldn’t believe she was hearing Plisetskaya’s voice screaming her name in their native Russian tongue. “Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?”

“I was scared… but went front… And then comes unbelievable thing,” said Konovalova, who found Plisetskaya reaching to embrace her. “She hugs me and tells me how great it was and that I gonna get a first prize, and that she remembers how hard was this variation of Black Swan, and I am doing it so light, like nothing.

“And that I am real ballerina.

“I thought I am dreaming… Deeply! And need to wake up… But it was the truth! Sometimes I cannot even talk about it because it sounds so unrealistic!

“So then it was second round and on to the third I had to repeat Black Swan again. She came to me right after third round was finished. She told me that it is the best Black Swan she ever saw. She told me that I will get first prize and I will not share it with anyone — normally very often they share the prizes — but Maya Plisetskaya said, ‘No way. She will get it alone!’

“And I got it! And got it alone! And I know that she was fighting for me, and because it was against their rules to give it just to me, and Maya Plisetskaya had major fight, but she did what she told me! And this you almost never see now.”

A touch of the hand of providence indeed.

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Liudmila Konovalova Steals the Thunder at ‘Maya Gala’ in London

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Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding thrilled the Ave Maya Gala in London honoring ballet great Maya Plisetskaya March 6 with their Black Swan pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” shown here in their White Swan variation during their Moscow performance. (Jack Devant Photo)

LONDON CELEBRATED THE LEGENDARY ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, and her fellow Russian protégé Liudmila Konovalova stole the thunder at a West End gala tribute featuring some of the world’s biggest ballet stars.

They were honoring the memory of the Russian baller icon who died at the age of 89 last May.

In a poetic twist, it was Konovalova, the Russian-born ballerina who has been staking her claim on Plisetskaya’s glorious legacy, who captured Sunday night’s biggest applause as she danced the Black Swan pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” a role that was synonymous with Maya in the ballet world.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding take their bows after performing the Black Swan pas de deux at the Maya Plisetskaya gala in London March 7.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding take their bows after performing the Black Swan pas de deux from “Swan Lake” at the Maya Plisetskaya gala tribute in London March 6.

“The last time I danced as the Black Swan (Maya) told me, ‘Don’t think about anything, just dance for you and for her’ — and tonight I did the same thing,” said Konovalova, the prima ballerina of the Vienna State Ballet whose career rise was guided and overseen by Plisetskaya. “I was dancing for her. It was a magical and emotional night.

“I think one of the great London ballet nights.”

Prince and Princess Michael of Kent were among those at the London Coliseum who watched Konovalova’s breath-taking performance as she was partnered by Matthew Golding, the principal of the Royal Ballet.

“To give a show for Maya and dedicate the career she gave for the stage and off the stage was something special,” said Golding. “All the people here are good people from top companies.”

Like most Russian-born dancers, Konovalova grew up fantasizing that she would follow in the toe shoes of the country’s fabled ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who spent much of her career as a captive under fierce scrutiny and at the murderous whim of Stalin’s regime, but still shimmered as one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.

Konovalova, the prima ballerina of the Vienna State Ballet, was close to Plisetskaya who helped launch her career after she won a competition in Rome organized by Plisetskaya.

For Konovalova, that fantasy was little more than a fairy tale, a seemingly unrealistic goal given her circumstances.

The child of a broken home, she lived in a shelter as a teen and was rejected by the Bolshoi Ballet company after going through its academy. She had little reason to expect that one day her homeland’s ballet icon would wondrously connect with her artistically and personally, breathing new life into her dreams, not unlike Michelangelo’s near-touching hands of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Much less could she have foreseen a scenario in which that would happen when she was literally down and out — and in the most embarrassing position possible.

But that was the spectacle Konovalova now remembered from Italy’s 2007 Premio Roma Dance competition at which Plisetskaya was head of the judging jury, and where Konovalova dreaded she had chosen to perform the challenging Black Swan pas de deux in front of her role model whose storied name was closely identified with “Swan Lake” in the world of ballet.

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon's 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon’s 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux.Konovalova reprised he performance at the London tribute for Plisetskaya March 6. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

“I was thinking, the Black Swan is… one the most famous roles that Maya Plisetskaya did,” recalled Konovalova who had never met Plisetskaya until that competition, “and now I (am) gonna show her my Black Swan! I thought it’s a joke. That would be total fiasco.”

Almost prophetically, in the middle of her performance that day, Konovalova’s worst fears pirouetted out of control. Slipping and as her legs gave way underneath her, she felt certain that her dreams of winning the competition had just fluttered somewhere beyond her black tutu — all in front of Plisetskaya.

“I finished my (Black Swan) variation exactly (as) the music was ending, seated on my ass,” said Konovalova. “Yes, I fall completely on my popo, bottom, rear, ass — however you call it — it is the fact.

“I was sure I am out of the competition and plus such big shame… But right after I was sitting on my ass, Maya Plisetskaya stands up. (She) was clapping and laughing! “So then we did (the) coda. I did my fouettés. This all went fine. We got a really good applause, but she was (giving) me standing ovation…”

The competition wasn’t over, though Konovalova figured she could no longer even place, much less win, and that in further rounds could only hope to complement her dance partner who was still up for a prize himself.

“That gave me time to give more to understand the situation,” she said, looking back on what appeared to be developing into a disappointing moment in her career. “I was officially working nowhere. I (was) finished with Russia. I had (a) contract to Berlin, but I (was) suppose to start in two months.

“So I was girl from nowhere.”

Then, as all hope seemed gone, fate stepped in.

“Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?” “Коновалова,где моя Коновалова!”

Startled out of her self-pity over having fallen in competition, Liudmilia couldn’t believe she was hearing Plisetskaya’s voice screaming her name in their native Russian tongue. “Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?”

Liudmila Konovalova listens to her idol and mentor Maya Plisetskaya go over her ballet choreography. (Courtesey of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

Liudmila Konovalova listens to her idol and mentor Maya Plisetskaya go over her ballet choreography during one of the many conferences during their close friendship. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

“I was scared… but went front… And then comes unbelievable thing,” said Konovalova, who found Plisetskaya reaching to embrace her. “She hugs me and tells me how great it was and that I gonna get a first prize, and that she remembers how hard was this variation of Black Swan, and I am doing it so light, like nothing. “And that I am real ballerina.

“I thought I am dreaming… Deeply! And need to wake up… But it was the truth! Sometimes I cannot even talk about it because it sounds so unrealistic!

“So then it was second round and on to the third I had to repeat Black Swan again. She came to me right after third round was finished. She told me that it is the best Black Swan she ever saw. She told me that I will get first prize and I will not share it with anyone — normally very often they share the prizes — but Maya Plisetskaya said, ‘No way. She will get it alone!’

“And I got it! And got it alone! And I know that she was fighting for me, and because it was against their rules to give it just to me, and Maya Plisetskaya had major fight, but she did what she told me! And this you almost never see now.”