playing for life

Anna Burstein Bieler and Halina Neuman Schulsinger, Grado Italy 1936
Two Pianos 2018-19 Performance Overview: Philadelphia, Leipzig, Newark

"In view of our present societal situation, not only in Germany but worldwide -- both the renewed growth of nationalism and right-wing radicalism but unfortunately also anti-Semitism -- it is of paramount importance that we take an unambiguous stand.  Our today's event is to show this stand."

            Gisela Kallenbach (Event Sponsor; Director, Synagogue & Jewish Community of Leipzig; former Member, E.U.     Parliament) -- June 2019 remarks introducing Two Pianos Leipzig events


A Multimedia Concert Documentary with Companion Performance, Exhibit, Video and Print Modules
about the power of music to sustain life and friendship under oppression

by Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin
a production of 
Papers Please Inc., a D.C. arts/education company

based on content from the family-history sourcebook
compiled and annotated by Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin

WELCOME to this website, which describes the Two Pianos package and next steps on its path. 
We invite you to learn more and visit our YouTube channel play list.
To order Two Pianos materials, please visit our Web Store

The setting

Germany 1933: a beautiful spring marks Hitler’s 100th day in power.  His regime already is working through its kill list.  Its targets include trade unions and German Communists. But the bulls-eye is Jews -- starting with cultural icons like conductors Otto Klemperer in Berlin and Bruno Walter at Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra.   Brown-shirts agitate on streets and in audiences.  Concert halls connected with Jewish conductors are padlocked or vandalized.  Jewish musicians are attacked in print, even by mainstream newspapers that seek to please the new government.  Klemperer and Walter leave Germany.

In Berlin a group of dismissed Jews petitions for a separate self-supporting organization that will allow unemployed Jewish artists to perform for Jewish-only audiences.   The “Culture-League of German Jews”  -- Kulturbund Deutscher Juden -- is approved.  By 1935 it's the sole public access to culture for Jews in Germany.  Goebbels’ Ministry of Enlightenment oversees its administration, performers, audience and programs.   Certain ‘German’ composers -- Wagner, Strauss, even Beethoven -- soon are off limits.  Still dozens of Kulturbund chapters form, including Leipzig's.  Its early members include three young Jewish concert pianists and their music-loving businessman husbands.

The performances

Two Pianos was developed with the Judische Kulturbund Project (Washington DC), whose support helped create the show's vision and launch its premiere at Philadelphia's Settlement Music School (June 2018).  Live classical music, narration and archival projections follow the long friendship and music careers of Jewish pianists Anna (Burstein) Bieler-Suwalski and Halina (Neuman) Schulsinger, who like their friend Tanya (Zunser) Ury performed concerts in Leipzig before Jewish-only audiences under the Third Reich.  Selections from those Anna-Halina concerts are performed on two grand pianos by Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro, artists-in-exile whose stories echo the characters'.  A "Back Story" presentation with live music and companion exhibit deepen these stories

The story

Two Pianos highlights the tenacity, passion and devotion to craft shared by Anna and Halina. As talented student “alien residents” in Leipzig they mastered new languages and cultures.  As young Jewish mothers they maintained professional careers while juggling child-care and shrinking life-choices.  As naturalized American citizens, teachers and performers Halina (1908-1999), Anna (1908-2003) and Tanya (1907-1988) shared their art while celebrating life.  As the pianists who portray them in Two Pianos note in the Premiere highlights video, their story "reminds people that they need to appreciate being a human being and being allowed to breathe and lead a dignified life . . . Everyone has something that helps him or her to go through everything.  In our case it’s music.  In somebody else’s case, it could be literature, art, whatever. . . .We need to know what keeps us alive."



After the Philadelphia premiere we formed the arts/education company Papers Please Inc. to develop new video/print materials while bringing Two Pianos to additional audiences in the U.S. and abroad. With help from our dedicated backers we successfully found local partners for our initial performance goal -- live events in Leipzig Germany and Newark NJ, two main stations of our characters' lives.

In June 2019 venue-specific Two Pianos events were part of Leipzig's "Schalom Week," a bi-annual welcome for exiled Leipzig  residents and their descendants.  In  October 2019 the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University/Newark sponsored a venue-specific Two Pianos concert documentary/Q & A at its Paul Robeson Campus Center. These events also produced new Two Pianos materials to start extending the events' reach beyond the concert hall.  In Leipzig our German sponsors connected us with an English-speaking videographer and provided on-site logistics support to print programs, program inserts, and an  illustrated 32-page German-language brochure that took the place of a full exhibit.  At Rutgers our local videographer donated his services to help produce a new highlights video plus a full-length program DVD.  The new Rutgers materials detailed the dark journey of Halina and her daughter Jola from their 1938 deportation to Poland, to their eventual NJ home.  A new English-language brochure and tabletop Notepad video loops became parts of the Two Pianos package for the first time.  In October 2020 we added a "sizzle reel" video overview of all past performances (above) to this site.

2021 (and beyond)

COVID suspension of live performances has sharpened our focus on alternative ways to bring the Two Pianos experience to audiences.  While new venue-specific performance opportunities are emerging, we also aim to integrate our 2018/19 video and print materials in a menu of host options that does not necessarily require live performances.  This next step includes educational products already in process -- for example, a Two Pianos "Catalogue of Exhibit Items," and publication of additional booklets or books drawn from life stories in Papers, Please: A 20th Century Odyssey.  The Catalogue will support revolving loans of Exhibit items requested by interested venues; background videos could be part of these loans.  The new publications can serve as curriculum units for secondary-school or college courses, and be provided to the emerging Two Pianos fan club.

The Two Pianos Project is a "sponsored project" of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. This relationship allows Papers Please Inc. to receive tax-deductible contributions for specific Project-related activities.  All such charitable contributions to the Two Pianos Project must be made payable to Fractured Atlas, and may be made by clicking this link.