Recent passing in the UK of celebrated Academy award-winning scriptwriter brings back memories of his Lithuanian roots
By Danutė Serapinienė
First appeared in the local Lithuanian newspaper and translated into English with the help of the writer‘s daughter, Rita Williams.
On September 8th 2020, at the age of 85, the South African-born British author, playwright, and screenwriter, Sir Ronald Harwood passed away. Best known for his plays for the British stage as well as the screenplays for The Dresser and The Pianist, for which he won the 2003 Acadamy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Harwood‘s roots trace back to Plungė (in Yiddish Plungyan).
The writer‘s father was born and spent his childhood in our city and this year marks the 15th anniversary of this celebrated writer‘s first and last visit to his father’s homeland.
Two classmates from Cape Town
Ronald Harwood’s father was Isaac Horwitz. As a teenager, in 1902 he arrived in Cape Town in South Africa, and in 1934, his son Ronald was born. The boy found himself in the same class throughout his schooing at Sea Point Boys School as Abel Levitt, whose father was also from Plungė, but the two were unaware of this at the time. After matriculating, the friends parted ways.
In 1951, Ronald moved from Cape Town to London to pursue a career in the theatre, and following an English master telling him his surname was too foreign and too Jewish for a stage actor, he changed it from Horwitz to Harwood.
In 1959, he married Natasha Riehle (1938-2013), the granddaughter of a 7th generation descendant of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great and had three children – Anthony, Deborah, and Alexander.
From 1993 to 1997, Harwood was president of the International Club of PEN (Poets, Essays, Novelists), and from 2001 to 2004, he served as president of the Royal Literary Society. The creative legacy of this writer would span 24 stage plays, 20 screenplays, 33 books and publications. Nominated 32 times for various awards, Harwood won eight, his most presigious being the Oscar for The Pianist, which revealed his strong interest in the Nazi period, especially the situation of people who either chose to collaborate with the Nazis or who faced strong pressure to do so and consequently had to work out their own personal combination of resistance, deception and compromise.
His schoolfriend Abel settled in Israel. Together with his wife Glenda, they pursued a path of honouring the memory of Abel‘s relatives and other Jews of Plungė killed during the Holocaust in Kaušėnai, and helped to establish the Tolerance Education Center at the Saulė Gymnasium. For their outstanding efforts in preserving Jewish history and culture in the Plungė district, Abel and Glenda Levitt were awarded in 2014 our Municipaliy‘s Badge of Honor. This was followed in 2019, when the Lithuanian Embassy in Israel awarded the Levitts‘ the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs badge of honor, the “Star of Lithuanian Diplomacy” for fostering relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the State of Israel and perpetuating historical memory.
Relations between the two classmates were resumed when Abel read Harwood’s novel “Home” and learnt that Ronald’s father had emigrated to South Africa from Plungė. Abel called Ronald and suggested “What about you and Natasha joining us in a trip to our shtetl Plungyan?” They immediately agreed.
Returning to their Roots
On May 25, 2005, Ronald and Natash Harwood and Abel and Glenda Levitt arrive in Plungė and visit Jakov Bunka, known as “The last Jew in Plungė”. Next, they visit the Kaušėnai memorial, where 1,800 Jews from Plungė were murdered in July 1941. Although Ronald’s family had allready left before the Holocaust, he walked in silence, deeply moved, shrouded in the sanctity of the moment.
Next, our guests visited Saulės Gymnasium, where in an open lesson held in the Assembly Hall, Ronald addressed the gathered students and teachers and spoke about the making of the film “The Pianist”, basing his script on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist living in Poland. After the Nazis occupied Warsaw, the musician, separated from his family, went into hiding for several years. The idea of the film, explained Ronald, was not to give in to the terrible force of events and to remain a spiritually unbroken person. The screenwriter recounted how the lead actor, the talented American Adrien Brody, had to starve to appear physically like a hunted and hungry man. Not eating normally, the actor was naturally and constantly melancholy – contibuting to the realism of his performance. Admitting that he had initially agonised how to begin the screenplay – the opening being so important – he revealed that it was the film’s director, Roman Polanski whocame up with the idea of the main character playing the piano in the opening scene. The screenwriter took advantage of that advice – then came the inspiration to ‘compose’ all the frames and present the protagonist playing the piano in the finale. This film won three Oscars – Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Harwood took questions from the audience.
Visiting that afternoon the Samogitian Art Museum, Harwood was met as he entered the hall with a melody by Frederik Chopin played by the pianist of Plungė‘s Mykolas Oginskis Art School. It was a moving introduction to his next encounter as it was the same melody from the opening sequence in The Pianist. It powerfully resonated; after all, the movie’s soundtrack symbolises a belief in life and human purpose that man can find in himself the strength to restore a shattered world even while enduring the horrors of Nazism.
Again speaking about the making of the film, Harwood also spoke about himself and his father who came from Plungė, and answered questions from the audience. The meeting concluded with a photograph of all the participants.
The next day, the Harwoods and Levitts visited Kazys Vitkevičius, the last surviving rescuer of Jews in the Plungė district.
In 1941, at the age of 14, he helped his mother Emilia Vitkevichienė hide and feed Jewish girls. He did this by digging pits in which he hid the girls covered by branches, and bringing them food. Both his mother and Kazys were honoured by Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous among the Nations‘. Ronald and Natasha were visibly moved by the experience of meeting this special man.
At the special reception for our guests at the Municipality, Abel and Glenda Levitt were most impressed by Harwoods words to Algirdas Pečiulis, the mayor of Plungė:
“Mr. Mayor, I know you have difficulties with the budget. I appeal to you no matter what you decide, don’t cut the cultural budget so as not to harm your community.”
These words inspired Abel and Glenda to organize with the Saulė Gymnasium Tolerance Centre, “The Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art competition”. Since that time, the Competition has grown from a local, then to a regional and presently to a national event.
Seeing Light Beyond Darkness
The aim of the Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition is to encourage students to explore a dark chapter in their history and to express their understanding of it through art. Simply put, school children would be invited to dance, sing, write or paint their insights of the Holocaust.
In the spring of 2007, the final event of the first competition took place, which was attended by students and their teachers from Plungė, Palanga and Mažeikiai. Abel and Glenda Levitt came from Israel to assist in judging the competition, while Harwood, who was unable to attend due to commitments of work, sent a letter to the participants, which was read aloud to everyone. He wrote of his strong family roots to Plungė and the memories from his last visit that gave him strength in his daily life. He believed that his late father, “would be deeply moved, knowing that I could breathe the same air he breathed as a boy and that I could look up at the same sky he did.”
He recounted the impact it had on him hearing of the massacres and seeing the graves in Kaušėnai and meeting the heroic rescuer of Jewsish girls – Kazys Vitkevičius:
“I learned that, despite the horror he experienced, he has survived as a bright example of goodness and courage. He showed the light where I saw only darkness.”
In 2010, Ronald Harwood was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England and became Sir. Ronald Harwood and his wife Lady Harwood. The Tolerance Education Center at the Saulė Gymnasium congratulated Sir. Ronald Harwood who replied with thanks ending his email – “Your Ronnie”.
Signing off with such familiarity from someone who mixed in social circles from world leaders to celebrity film stars, as well as being hosted for a dinner by Prince Charles and Camilla on the occasion of the writer’s 80th birthday, truly resonated with the people of Plungė.
In the 13 years of the Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition, over 800 students have participated. Over the years, interest in the competion has expanded geographically with particiation from schools in Ariogala, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai, Vilnius, Alytus, Marijampolė and Kėdainiai. Such support for the goals of the competition offers hope that the current generation can help to create a more beautiful world.
In countries and cities abroad, Abel and Glenda Levitt have exhibited many of these fine artworks by students at schools confronting the haunting question of “What happened to our Jewish communities during the Holocaust? ”
They are confronting through art their past to seek a more enlighened future.
At these exhibitions – which have been held at Plungė Public Library, Biržai, the Israeli cities of Tel Mond, Netanya, Kfar Saba, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Ra‘anana, Tel Aviv, South African cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, as well as London, Toronto and Washington – the Levitts speak about Lithuania and the Tolerance Centre in Plungė, which promotes the values of humanity and tolerance through art. So thank you to Abel and Glenda in helping to bring the better angels of our city to the outside world. Let me end with the words that “Ronnie“ concluded in his letter to the first contestant of the art competition:
“Politics is temporary, but art is eternal.”
It can be said too that the life of Sir Ronald Harwood was temporary but his message eternal. He has left us a legacy that illuminates the road ahead for those that remain to follow.
About the Writer:
Danutė Serapinienė is a retired schoolteacher in Plungė. She recently received an award by the State President of Lithuania for her role in educating about the Holocaust in Lithuania.
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