Vanessa Redgrave, Academy Award-winning actress
Katerina Wolpe, concert pianist
Ilir Bajri, composer, Simply Beautiful
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
VANESSA REDGRAVE: I think arts have a fundamental place in a civilized society and are a fundamental need to all human beings, especially under conditions of hardship and conflict but, and especially for children.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, Academy Award-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave.
REDGRAVE: [speaking passionately on-stage] Those liars! Who force everyone else to lie. Ten years ago when somebody said “No one would notice that I was a Jew, you said instantly, ‘Oh yes, they would.’” And that was fine, that was straightforward. Why do you speak in such a roundabout way now!
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
PORTER: Vanessa Redgrave has spent much of her career as an outspoken champion of overlooked and sometimes unpopular causes. Her celebrity status has helped raise the profile of a number of human rights issues. Lately, Redgrave has been most concerned about the rights of refugees and those who are seeking asylum around the world.
REDGRAVE: Well, it means the right to leave your country, to go to another country, to ask for and be given protection, to not be detained or put in prison when you haven’t committed any crime. One of the horrendous features of today is that asylum seekers are treated as if they are criminals even though they have not been, they have not been faced with any criminal charges. Or they’re being deported, which is in a violation of one of the fundamental mandatory articles of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
It’s a situation which is in fact appallingly similar to the situation in the 1930s, when there were the pogroms taking place as the Nazi’s took control first of Germany, then began the mass deportations and the pogroms in ’38. Then occupied Austria, began deportations, killings, confiscations of homes, of property. So by the end of 1938 after Krystallnacht, you had a large number of refugees already from Germany-Austria, who had fled or were trying to flee into Czechoslovakia, Poland, but were mostly heading for Britain. And to put the case in a nutshell the British—after the occupation of Austria—the British government introduced visas so that all refugees had to have visas before they arrived. Or if they were indeed to arrive anywhere. But so many obstacles were put in the way of visas, which it’s too long for me to go into in detail, but the most horrendous obstacles were put in the way of getting visas.
PORTER: One way Redgrave works to raise global awareness of current refugee and asylum issues is through the medium she knows best: the stage. She’s put together a collection of sketches, readings, and music into a performance she titles Planet Without a Visa.
REDGRAVE: I gave the name Planet Without a Visa to a program which I wanted to express through the writings of poets and dramatists—and music—including some contemporary writings that had not necessarily poems or plays. I wanted to express something of the history of now and the 1930s contained in the fact that millions of people are today seeking to get visas, protection and refuge, asylum. As they were in the 1930s. And just as the majority of Jews were denied protection and visas by the British and American governments so today the very countries that have promoted human rights, the Declaration of Human Rights, Article XIV, to paraphrase it, “all people shall have the right to seek and to enjoy asylum in other countries,” are being denied their protection. And I wanted to bring forward in a very different way than perhaps is usually presented, I wanted to bring in the human side of it, the human stories, through the writings and the music of great people.
[sound of guitar music]
PORTER: One of the selections Redgrave performs in Planet Without a Visa is from Tennessee Williams.
[sound of guitar music]
REDGRAVE: [with guitar music in background, reading from a play] Most people in this country think Italian people are dark. Some people are, but not all are. Some of them are fair, very fair. My father’s people were dark and my mother’s people were fair, eh? My mother’s mother’s sister come here from Rocaforte?? In Sicily. To die with relations. But I think people always die alone. With or without relations. I was a little girl then. And I remember my mother’s mother’s sister sitting there so quiet in a corner. And I remember asking her one time, “Eh sie terezo, como sie sento morite?” [in Italian] “How does it feel to die?” Only a little girl would ask such a question. Ah! And I remember her answer. She said, “Unas sie sente sola. Sola.” [in Italian] “It’s a lonely feeling.” I think she wished she stayed in Sicily and died in a place that she knew. You and I have known each other a long time, Beulah, eh? I think you remember the time my people come here on a banana boat from Sicily by way of Caracas, Venezuela with a grind organ and a monkey my papa bought in Venezuela. I was not much bigger than the monkey.
PORTER: Each of the elements which make up Planet Without a Visa have something to do with people on the move. People reluctantly leaving home for an uncertain future. The Immigrant’s Lament was written by Bertholt Brecht.
REDGRAVE: [reading from Brecht] I earned my bread and ate it. Just like you. I’m a doctor. Or at least I was. The color of my hair, shape of my nose, cost me my home. My bread and butter too. He who for seven years had slept with me, my hand upon his lap, his face against my face, took me to court. The cause of my disgrace: my hair was black. So he got rid of me. But I escaped at nighttime through a word, endangered by my mother’s ancestry, to find a country that would be my host. Yet when I asked for work it was not good. “You are impertinent,” they said to me. “I’m not impertinent,” I said. “I’m lost.”
REDGRAVE: Last year I did a number of performances with some Chilean musicians. And we did them in Tarmina?? in Sicily and Regiocalabria. And in Naples. A week of performances in Naples. And last year I also did some performances in Tbilsi, Georgia, of the same program. I always vary it slightly depending on the guests that I can invite. And who are free to come with me. This time, this last performance in Chicago, Katerina Wolpe was with me, the wonderful concert pianist. And she and I have done a number of the different programs with the same theme and the same title.
[with piano music in the background]
KATERINA WOLPE: [with piano music in the background] Being a refugee—I mean I’m no longer a refugee now—but having spent the first 17 years of my life as a stateless refugee, not that you have to have been a refugee to feel strongly about the injustices of the world, but I mean it’s personally very, very strongly a message to me.
[with piano music in the background]
PORTER: This is concert pianist Katerina Wolpe.
[sound of piano music]
PORTER: Where were you a refugee from, Katerina?
WOLPE: Vienna, Vienna. I was the wrong race.
PORTER: Yes. And you went to?
WOLPE: [with piano music in the background] Well, first I went to prison and then I went to camp. And then I was in hiding. And then I went to some more camps. And then… that sort of thing. So yes, I mean I understand all this very well. Yes, yes.
[sound of piano music]
REDGRAVE: [reading on-stage] Fritz, what’s happened to us? Well, no, I never told you I wanted to go away and I have done for a long time because I can’t talk when I look at you Fritz. And then it seems there’s no point in talking because it’s all been settled already.
PORTER: Again, from Planet Without a Visa, this is an excerpt from The Jewish Wife, by Bertholt Brecht.
REDGRAVE: [reading from Brecht] I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something you said years ago, how some people are more valuable than others. So some were given insulin when they get diabetes and the others weren’t. And I accepted that. What an idiot! [laughs] Now they’ve invented a new distinction of the same sort and now I’m one of the less valuable ones. Serves me right. Umm? Yes, I’m packing. And don’t pretend you haven’t noticed it these last few days. Nothing really matters Fritz. Except that in our last one hour together if we didn’t look each other in the eyes. That is a triumph they cannot be allowed to have! [slapping sound] Those liars! Who force everyone else to lie. Ten years ago when somebody said “No one would notice that I was a Jew, you said instantly, ‘Oh yes, they would.’” And that was fine, that was straightforward. Why do you speak in such a roundabout way now! I’m packing so they won’t take away your job as Senior Physician because they’ve stopped saying good morning to you at the clinic. And because you can’t sleep at night. No, I don’t want to hear you telling me I mustn’t go. And I’m hurrying because I don’t want to hear you telling me I must.
PORTER: Are we doing any better today? On the right of asylum?
REDGRAVE: Well, what we are doing better with today’s, today we do have UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. And whatever obstacles or conditions they are obliged to work under, which are often extremely difficult, and impede their work and severely under-funded, they do work that was not done in the 1930s. And work which I support very much. We also today have the United Nations Children’s Fund. And today we have Amnesty International, which also do incredibly important work. Not to mention a whole number of other human rights organizations, either in-country or in exile. Who are working for the right of asylum and are working for asylum seekers. And lawyers commissions, who also work in-country or internationally for these rights. We do have that today. But I think as I said before already, I find there is a terrible similarity between the asylum laws of our governments today, in Europe, perhaps I might address myself to particularly since I’m a British citizen, which are more restrictive than they ever were before.
PORTER: To better understand the situation facing today’s refugees, Vanessa Redgrave recently traveled to meet ethnic Albanians trying to escape war in Kosovo.
REDGRAVE: I want out, up to, up into the hills, or the mountains I suppose they are technically, and I went up and saw the conditions under which a whole number of school teachers, doctors, wives, children, little babies, had been living, in this particular camp in a sort of a ravine by running water, which they needed to be able to survive. In this particular case coming from villages throughout a plain which had been shelled by one of the military aviation bases in—well, actually now in the whole of Europe—but it used to be the number two military aviation base, which is hidden in a mountain. Controlled by Belgrade of course. And that’s where the tanks came out of and the helicopters. Some of the helicopters came out and shelled the villages and the plain below this mountain where I went. On the day I went there, there was about 444 men, women and children. I visited the school. Shifts were being run under plastic with the, supple branches of young trees had been stripped and stuck into the ground and bent over so that the plastic was over them rather like greenhouse frames. And this teacher had been teaching the children in four shifts a day. When there was the possibility of doing so, because they were continually shelled. He’d been there—the school teacher—had been there since the end of June. And there had been continued bombarding of the villages, but the tanks and the shells couldn’t quite reach this particular spot which they’d chosen very well.
PORTER: We’ll continue our conversation with Vanessa Redgrave in a moment.
Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: During her visit to a refugee camp in Kosovo Redgrave examined conditions at a medical clinic.
REDGRAVE: We saw that UNICEF had been up ten days previously and had brought some medical supplies. So I met the doctor who’d made a little plastic tent where he had a couch and a sort of curtain divided so that he could—it was meticulous given that it’s conditions of very thick mud. And the shelling had only stopped a few weeks previously. It’s extraordinary work and it’s horrifying to see the conditions of the families because the, when you know—I mean, the last day I left, which was November the 2nd, the weather had changed and now there’s heavy snow everywhere. We knew that was coming but it hadn’t come. But in going to meeting some of the families returning to the villages, which the houses had been deliberately set fire to, as well as having been shelled, so that burned and blackened and thick with mud and destruction, the families have had to work to try and re-roof at least a section of a house or a farm building as the case might be. But most cases having made only one room habitable—when I say habitable I mean without any heating whatsoever and without any furniture left, without washing machines. And you have to think these are villages and towns which had washing machines, which had satellite TV dishes. They were modern homes. Don’t get the idea that this was some back woods. It wasn’t back woods. But it’s, the level of living amenities has been brought back to zero. It’s inspiring to see people working to rebuild. And it’s really unacceptable to see women and children suffering that way.
PORTER: While in Kosovo Redgrave met yet another person she could add to her stage production, Planet Without a Visa.
REDGRAVE: That evening I went to visit some artists who I know via various friends and that was when I met Ilir Bajri, who’s a wonderful composer, young musician. And the following morning had breakfast with his family. He played for us after breakfast, just before we left Pje, to return to Priseina. He played on the piano a wonderful jazz composition.
[sound of piano music]
PORTER: The song you are hearing is titled Simply Beautiful. It’s written and performed by Ilir Bajri. He is an ethnic Albanian and a music teacher in Kosovo.
[sound of piano music with jazz accompaniment]
ILIR BAJRI: [sound of piano music with jazz accompaniment in the background] Well, the conditions are horrible. Awful. We have—what’s good about this school that we have more and more people pupils every day, students as I call them, music students, every day. And until now we had around 90, 95 students. And, but the conditions are awful. We have only one room. Wet room, not heated. And we have one piano so I can hardly give, I have 25 students, I can hardly give more than 15, 20 minutes to each of them during the week. But we try. These students are determined and talented, and very good.
[sound of piano music with jazz accompaniment]
PORTER: You say you only have one piano. Was it always that way?
BAJRI: No, it wasn’t. When the, back in ’90, ’91, when Albanians were throwing out their institutions, buildings, this school was also thrown out and there were six upright pianos and lots of rooms and heated rooms and people could practice over there. But now, even, I want to talk to one of those Serbs that, authorities that keep these buildings. I went to talk to ask them, just at at least let our children practice over there but they refused that too.
PORTER: So these music students have a teacher like you.
PORTER: Who is traveling in American with Vanessa Redgrave, an Academy Award-winning actress.
PORTER: Putting on performances in America. Yet back, when you go back to your town in Kosovo you’ll be back in an unheated room with any number of students and one piano.
BAJRI: Yeah, well that’s, you have put it very well. Yeah, it’s like that.
KATERINA WOLPE: Well, I saw my first piano in a refugee camp. Which had been a sort of hastily converted hotel where there were now ten times as many refugees as there were ever supposed to be guests and there was a piano. And I was magnetically drawn to this.
PORTER: Again, concert pianist, Katerina Wolpe.
WOLPE: I had no, I had no training at all, till I was already able to play—you can see I was very much self-taught. And taught by the other refugees, you know. ‘Cause it wasn’t, it wasn’t a children’s camp, it was a mixed camp. So there were many grown-ups. And wonderful sort, wonderful Jewish professors of this and that who had all played the piano. And showed me a bit how to do it.
REDGRAVE: I think arts have a fundamental place in a civilized society and are a fundamental need to all human beings, especially under conditions of hardship and conflict but, and especially for children.
PORTER: Once again, Vanessa Redgrave.
REDGRAVE: It’s a fundamental need. Therefore if we’re coming to the question of human rights, we already start off with the human rights of all children to have all the facilities necessary to develop. And in developing themselves they will develop our society. But if children are deprived of this not only do we lose a generation of artists to come, but society is severely undermined as a whole, whether people like going to the theater or music or not. So I think that it’s not a question of using the arts. It’s a question of giving expression in another way to needs of our world. Needs in human beings. Needs of artists as well. Needs of communities. Needs of ordinary people. And especially needs of young people.
[sound of guitar music]
REDGRAVE: [sound of guitar music in background ]Given the way many governments react when people take up arms against unbearable oppression, I wanted to sing that song of the French Resistance:
When they poured across the border
I was ordered to surrender.
This I could not do.
I took my gun and vanished.
I’ve changed my name so often.
I’ve lost my man and children.
But I have many friends.
And some of them are with me.
An old woman gave us shelter.
Kept us hidden in a garret.
Then the Fascists came.
She died without a whisper.
There were three of us this morning.
I’m the only one this evening.
But I must go on.
The frontiers are my prison.
Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing.
Through the graves the wind is blowing.
Freedom soon will come.
Then we’ll come from the shadows.
PORTER: From a live performance of Planet Without a Visa, that is Academy Award-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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