playing for life

"Backstory" presentation, Grieg Haus Leipzig, 29 June 2019 (temperature 101 F)

Two Pianos flows from a forty-year quest by Anna's daughter Nora Jean Levin and her husband Michael to recapture vanished worlds.  It draws on Papers, Please: A Twentieth Century Odyssey, the Levins' private source-materials website containing annotated first-person interviews conducted 1978-85 enhanced by historical context, audio clips and original documents.  Halina's Hoffman grandsons provided important additional materials. 

The Two Pianos "Backstory" presentation traces that intercontinental quest, how Two Pianos came to be, and the characters' colorful lives before and after events in the Two Pianos concert documentary, adding projections and live music played by Anna, Halina and their companions to that narrative.


"Concert Plays Tune of Resilience and History"
Marissa Stern (6 June 2018)
(excerpt 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 hid her young daughter with a righteous family.  The two survived labor and DP camps before reaching London in the late 1940s.  Anna Burstein Bieler-Suwalski and Halina Neuman Schulsinger 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 displayed 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.”