A production of Papers Please Inc.


                               playing for life

Premiere Discussion Panel - Left to Right:  Ken Hoffman, Diana Shapiro (Halina), Michael Levin (Hirsch), Jean Levin, Stanislava Varshavsky (Anna), Gail Prensky



"Concert Plays Tune of Resilience and History"
Marissa Stern (6 June 2018)
(edited for clarity)

"Nora Jean Levin and her husband Michael Levin were at dinner with her parents one night in 1978 at a hotel near the Levins’ home in Washington, D.C.  Four hours later they’d been kicked out of the restaurant and moved to the lobby so they could continue talking.

At this dinner her parents began telling their story of leaving Leipzig in Nazi Germany, moving to Palestine and ultimately reaching Philadelphia in 1938. Her mother, Anna Burstein Bieler-Suwalski, had been a concert pianist at and after the Leipzig Conservatory where her two older sisters had graduated and where she met Halina Neuman Schulsinger. The duo played two-piano concerts for the Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund under the Nazis.  After reaching Philadelphia, Bieler-Suwalski made her own musical connections and ultimately taught at the Settlement Music School from 1945 to the 1980s, making its location for the debut of Two Pianos: Playing for Life an appropriate choice....

Two Pianos was born out of a personal project by Jean and Michael Levin. Following the dinner [above], Jean and Michael Levin continued interviewing — this time equipped with tape recorders. Her parents had just returned from their first trip to Leipzig since 1936 and “my father was 78 years old. . . he was ready to tell his story,” Jean Levin said, “which was a remarkable story.”

Her Polish-born father, Hirsch, had been in the petroleum business in Germany and received supplies from Atlantic Refining in Philadelphia. They had no other Philadelphia connections — her father’s family soon was “exterminated,” as he put it — and he hoped to use this Philadelphia link to establish himself.

Meanwhile Anna set out to play.  “She was surrounded by many other exiled musicians who had also fled Nazi Germany,” Jean Levin said. “The Settlement School became her teaching and performing home.”  “They had portable skills,” Michael added. The two were able to buy a house in Oak Lane within a year and moved to Elkins Park in the 1950s.

Another impetus for Two Pianos was Jean Levin’s older sister, Tania Bieler Haftel.  Their mother stopped playing when she was 80. Haftel, who was born in Leipzig, wanted to get her mother back to the piano bench. She started a program for retired players that began as Sixty Plus or Minus Players and remains active at Settlement as the Adult Chamber Players.

When the Levins knew there was a program they wanted to do, Philadelphia — where both Jean and Michael Levin were born and went to school — seemed a logical choice. Her mother had donated a Steinway piano to the Settlement School as well as music to its library before she died in 2003 at 95. Her parents created a scholarship there.  The event also honors Haftel, who died in November 2017.

Another piece of the puzzle was The Jüdische Kulturbund Project, which Jean Levin discovered while researching its German namesake.  She learned its director Gail Prensky started to interview surviving players from the Berlin Kulturbund 15 years ago.  Then she discovered Prensky was a neighbor in Washington....

“We are so excited to bring this story to life,” Prensky said. “Music sustained these women and fueled their will, not just to survive during the darkest hours of Nazi Germany, but to thrive.”


Schulsinger did not make it out of Germany as early as Jean Levin’s parents. Instead she escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto — and played Chopin for the Polish resistance army — and survived with her young daughter before reaching London in the late 1940s.  Anna and Halina reunited in Elkins Park in 1951.

The notion of motherhood under pressure struck a powerful chord for Jean Levin.  “Part of the reason I found these stories so compelling,” Jean Levin said, “was that while these women were practicing and playing and performing … they were also married with young children and they were juggling career, family and childcare.”  The courage her mother, Schulsinger, and their Conservatory classmate Tanya Ury showed in playing through adversity became a key theme for the performance. “This is all about resilience and secret resistance,” Michael Levin said. “They used their art as a way of preserving personal space.  It was a way for them to endure … All three of them kept playing through everything.”"

*           *          *


"A historically resonant presentation . . .[that] grows from dark and tangled memories."

 -- Julia Klein,  Pennsylvania Gazette (Oct. 2018), "Nothing Mattered But the Music"


"Two Pianos is a salute to the human spirit ... [a] remarkable performance, along with the impressive. . . display of artifacts... Last Saturday at the Queen Street Settlement Music School was a joyous celebration, with two accomplished young pianists, Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro, immigrants from the Ukraine and Russia, playing some of the music that Anna and her best friend and pianist partner Halima Neuman played at Kulturbund concerts in the 1930s.  As Jean explained in her remarks, she wanted professional women pianists who were married with children, just like her mother and her mother’s partner Halina. And the music they played ...was sublime!"

 -- Bonnie Squires, Main Line Media NewsLink to full article

"Congratulations ... on creating a really wonderful event. . . . I had to be there to really understand what the multi-media experience would be like, and . . . it was deeply moving as well as artistically beautiful and educational.  An amazing fusion of history, concert, and family photo album."

-- Mary Felley,  Program Coordinator, Adult Chamber Players, Settlement Music School


"What a glorious evening. Everything was perfect - superb musicians, fascinating story captured in the exhibit, brilliant fact-finding and research, all presented by warm, loving comments from you, Michael, Kenneth and the pianists. It couldn’t have been better."
-- Susan Glazer, Dean, Philadelphia College of the Arts (ret.), Philadelphia PA

". . .an old and new tale, poignant and [dramatic]. All in one, a human survival story. Thank you so much!"

-- Iryna Shahova, born Kiev, naturalized American, Gaithersburg MD


"Fantastic concert and performance was so touching and impressive! Everything, starting from organization, exhibit, concert, performance and the whole mood were extraordinary and memorable." 

-- Igor Mizine & Marina Mizina, born Leningrad, naturalized Americans, Rockville MD

"Your devotion has made Two Pianos and its story realized.  A beautiful legacy.... Two Pianos is heading into a new phase -- now the program is ready to go out into the world. "

-- Gail Prensky, Founder, Judishe Kulturbund Project,Washington DC


"It was a wonderful, amazing culmination of many [efforts] and a testimony to the power of music. ... wonderful outcome - Exhibit, video . . . such an informative program!!"

-- Marlea Gruver, Adult Chamber Players performer, Philadelphia


"Your event was amazing. So interesting to learn about your family’s journey. It made me think more about my family’s journeys which I intend to explore further."

-- Toby Needler, writer and education teacher, Brooklyn College Academy, New York

"I...can't wait to go to another performance in another city. Rarely does one have the opportunity to hear the back story behind a renewed concert. This one enhanced the performance beyond the world class talent of the pianists."

-- Margot Jones, NYC public school teacher (ret.), Peace Corps volunteer, world traveler