playing for life

Anna Burstein Bieler and Halina Neuman Schulsinger, Grado Italy, 1936

about the power of music to sustain life and friendship under oppression

by Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin

a production of 
Papers Please, a D.C. arts/education company

based on chapters of the web source-book
compiled and annotated by Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin

WELCOME to this website, which describes Two Pianos and next steps on its path. 
We invite you to learn more.

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 everywhere, 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 performance

Two Pianos was developed with the Judische Kulturbund Project, whose collaboration and sponsorship helped create the show's vision and launch its premiere at Philadelphia's Settlement Music School in June 2018.  Live classical music, narration and archival projections follow the long friendship and music careers of Jewish pianists Anna (Burstein) Suwalski-Bieler 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 Varshavsky and Diana Shapiro, artists-in-exile whose stories echo the characters'.  A companion exhibit deepens 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."


Next steps

After the premiere the Levins formed the arts/education company Papers Please to bring Two Pianos to new audiences in the U.S.and abroad. 

Papers Please has been approved as fiscal sponsoree of The Two Pianos Project by Fractured Atlas, a non-profit Section 501(c)(3) arts service organization headquartered in New York City.  This allows us to seek contributions for the Project through Fractured Atlas that are tax deductible to the extent permitted by law.  Contributions may be made on-line by clicking this link.

For new Papers Please performance events, please click here.