Friday, December 2, 2022     Volume: 23, Issue: 40

Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on February 4th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 49 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 49

New book examines Theodore Bikel's childhood in Vienna during Nazi annexation


About a year before his passing in 2015, Austrian-American film actor Theodore Bikel (The African Queen, My Fair Lady) wrote a memoir, describing a year in the life—between 1937 and 1938, during his childhood in Vienna. The short story was published in Moment Magazine and explored Bikel’s confusion as a child in response to rising anti-Semitism in the city, shortly before the Nazi takeover. Bikel recounted brutal memories that remained with him all his life—including the aftermath of Kristallnacht.

Shed some light
Aimee Ginsburg Bikel will discuss her new book, Theodore Bikel’s The City of Light, during an author event at the Book Loft on Saturday, Feb. 15, from 2 to 4 p.m. The store is located at 1680 Mission Drive, Solvang. Call (805) 688-6010 or visit

Aimee Ginsburg Bikel posed with her late husband, Austrian-American film actor Theodore Bikel, by his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Six years after the story’s publication, Bikel’s widow, Aimee Ginsburg Bikel, has expanded the memoir into a young adult book, suitable for ages 12 and up, complete with original illustrations by artist Noah Phillips. Aimee will appear at the Book Loft in Solvang on Saturday, Feb. 15, from 2 to 4 p.m. to promote the new book. 

She recently sat down with the Sun to discuss the book and reflect on her own memories of her husband as well.

Sun: What is the meaning behind the book’s title, Theodore Bikel’s The City of Light? What exactly is The City of Light?  

Aimee Ginsburg Bikel has expanded her late husband’s memoir into a young adult book, suitable for ages 12 and up, complete with original illustrations by artist Noah Phillips.

Aimee: Theo thought of Vienna as The City of Light, although of course that is usually a title reserved for Paris. But for Theo, as a child, his city was almost a fantasy land—beautiful lit-up buildings, glowing with theaters and coffee shops, bakeries on every corner with glimmering display cases of the most delicious looking creations. But the title also carries within it the opposite: the great and terrible darkness which descended on this grand city in March 1938. When I expanded the book from the original, I added a story about the boy’s visits to the synagogue, where he was enchanted and moved by the Ner Tamid, the eternal flame. The rabbi tells the boy that the eternal flame shows us that goodness and truth will always light our way. The boy imagines that this eternal flame is the source of the light that illuminates the entire city. Later, during the night of broken glass—Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938—the synagogue is vandalized, and the eternal light is smashed into bits. 

Sun: Was it challenging for you to depict that event appropriately in a young adult book? I admired critic Jonathan Kirsch’s blurb in the press materials, which described your book as effectively foreshadowing the events of the Holocaust “without confronting young readers with its atrocities.” How were you able to maintain the book’s accessibility to children and adults alike?

Aimee: When I write, I get very still and am able to access the quiet but clear voice within me that says exactly what is in my heart. This gift has been developed over a lifetime career as a journalist, writing feature stories and, even more so, my personal columns. My first editor, in Israel, used to tell me to be sure that my voice is clear enough that anyone reading my work—be they an intellectual or a much less educated reader—feels as if I’m speaking to them directly. Perhaps it works the same way when you are trying to talk to people of any age. You speak from your heart, as quietly and accurately as you can, and then the age of the one you are speaking to makes no difference. The same is true with love by the way.

Sun: Before Theo’s original short story was published, did he discuss his childhood often?   

Aimee: Theo spoke about his childhood very often, and the older he became, the more he thought about the events in The City of Light. Theo loved sharing these stories with me, and when we traveled together to Vienna, he would take me to the important places of his childhood, where all of these events happened. So when I added my words to his, I could see the places and the stories vividly in my imagination. 

Sun: How did you two first meet? What brought you together?

Aimee: We met at a Friday night dinner—a Sabbath dinner. The feeling of kinship was instant. We started a conversation that night that just continued and continued. We realized we knew the same childhood songs and nursery rhymes, had both gone to live on a kibbutz (and both had ultimately decided against it). And Judaism—the holidays, the stories—was the center of our families’ lives—not in the religious sense, but in the cultural sense, and as a membership in a tribe.

Sun: In what other ways were your upbringings similar? And in what ways were they very different? 

Aimee: Theo and I both grew up in very culturally Jewish, left-wing Zionist households. The differences are the historical context—he was a child in Vienna, born in 1924, and I was a child in Los Angeles and Israel, born in 1962. Our backdrops were completely different. And the survivor guilt that Theo had to grapple with his whole life is something I was mostly saved from—although even as a child, I did feel a certain amount of the survivor guilt, in retrospect. One thing we very much shared was a certain feeling of rootlessness: We both moved too much as children. So we both felt completely at home in the world, and not really at home anywhere.

Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood can be reached at

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