He spent his childhood in Brody, today’s Ukraine. He had a twin sister, Maria, also called Małka. Until the end of his life, he would often say: “Salek and Małke. One soul in two bodies.” When he was twelve, Sylvin left for Riga together with Małke. They were enrolled in a dance school run by Litvinova, a retired prima ballerina.

“Madame had a long stick. When the legs did not dance gracefully, she would hit us in the ankles. At first, I was all black and blue. But ten years later she said to us as a farewell: ‘All stages of the world will belong to you.’”

This was Litvinova’s reaction to the two siblings finding employment in the Adria Theatre in Warsaw.

“The first time we got there, Director Franciszek Moszkowicz, an old Jew from Lviv with a chimpanzee on his shoulder, called out to us: ‘My golden children from Galicia!’”

No record of their performances in Adria has survived. Neither are Sylvin and Małke listed on the venue’s payroll. However, they may have worked for Moszkowicz as part of his travelling troupe. They danced flamenco and travelled all over Europe. Budapest, Bucharest, Lviv, Hamburg, Leipzig, Vienna, Berlin. They happened to be in Germany when Hitler rose to power and in Czechoslovakia when he was invading the country. In Warsaw, they witnessed trucks full of German soldiers entering the city.

Rubinstein devised a special armband equipped with a rubber contraption. With one stroke of the hand, he could roll up or unfold the Star of David. He traded in gold. Adria was controlled by the Germans when Moszkowicz died. Rubinstein and his sister lived on the "Aryan" side.

In November 1940, they ended up in the Warsaw ghetto.

They lived in the staircase of a house in Sienna Street. They managed to escape through a barbershop which formed part of the ghetto wall and had an exit to the "Aryan" side. The hairdresser knew Rubinstein because he had often come to the salon to cut hair as a dancer in Adria. He didn't want money. Sylvin and Małke took off their armbands, made three small steps down, and they were free.

It was at that moment that they decided that Małka (“Don't worry, I don't look Jewish”) would go to Brody to pick up their mother and Sylvin’s wife with two children. Rubinstein wanted them all to die together. He said goodbye to his sister at the train station. She was standing in the corridor of the train car. She tried to open the window, but it jammed.

Małke, Sala and the children, and his mother. He never saw them again.

In the winter of 1940, Rubinstein was caught in a round-up in Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. He couldn't remember where they had taken him. Once he spoke about Szucha Alley, other times about the Gęsiówka Prison. Forty-eight prisoners in one cell. At night, they would pick the youngest ones and take them out. This was the beginning of the German holiday began –"Deutscher Feiertag."

“They took me, too. They ordered me to strip naked. The other naked boys were beaten as well. And raped. Fortunately, my mother had not circumcised me. And I knew how to make the sign of the cross.”

When someone asked how he got out, Rubinstein put a finger to his lips. “You needn't ask about that.”

He did not remember, for example, how he had met Rachel – the “handywoman,” or Moniek Manteuffel from Lviv. In the evenings, Marszałkowska Street was bustling with people. The trio would go out and about. The system was tried and tested: Rachel would stumble and fall into the arms of a random man, Sylvin would fish out the wallet out of his pocket, then Moniek would run away with the loot. Some said they were stealing guns during the war.

“The method was the same. It was no longer theft; it was an uprising!,” said Rubinstein. “Forty-eight guns for the ghetto.”

Did they really end up in the ghetto? There is no evidence to confirm this.

The year 1942.

“A German officer stopped me in the street in Warsaw. He was riding a horse. It turned out that he still remembered me from Berlin. He was the son-in-law of Otto Stenzl, the bandmaster of the Scala in Berlin. He told me to go to Kraków. There I met Kurt Werner. Kurt Werner served in the 257th Infantry Division under the command of Max von Viebahn.”

“He saved my life, because I was seeking death,” said Rubinstein, “When Małka was gone, I couldn't live any more. Twins know when something happens to the other one. He didn't like it when I called him Major, he told me to think of something else. And so he became Father Kurt. He got me fake papers. I went with him to Krosno, at that time he lived in Piasecki’s villa, and I was helping him. I was an agent. I smuggled grenades, took Jewish children to the convent, all on his orders.”

Teresa Maria Cordelli, Sylvin Rubinski, Sylvin Turski, Josef Porkowski – these are just some of the aliases he used. He often disguised himself as a woman. A film recording from the war has survived. It was shot in Rymanów near Krosno on a market day. A young, very tall woman is strolling among the stalls. She is wearing a pink sweater and a black patterned skirt. This is Rubinstein.

During the war, Sylvin Rubinstein met Stefania Muzyczka from Miejsce Piastowe near Krosno. He introduced himself as Sylvin Turski:

“I was twelve at the time, but I remember it perfectly well. He came over one day and just stayed. All the girls were charmed by him. He showed us various tricks. He would stand on one hand or balance on a scythe barefoot. And how shy he was! He washed up in the stable and even separated himself from the cows with a curtain. In his room, he had a photo of the singer Ewa Bandrowska-Turska on the bedside table. He said it was his aunt. Apparently, he was helping Jews and the Roma. My mother was wondering why this Turski and my brother were eating so much. But they would put bread in a sack and leave it at the riverbank for the Jews who were working by the road. Turski also made fish balls and his brother would take them there almost every day. My father, Jan Wawszkowicz, was a turnkey in the monastery. He saved Turski's life when the SS caught him in the field with a radio transmitter. My brother knew more, but he's dead now.”

Rubinstein said that in Krosno, he killed a man for the first time.

“I broke a German man's neck in the street. As a revenge for a little girl, a little Jewish girl. She jumped from the curb into the street. The German approached her, tore off the cat fur she was wrapped in, and shot her in the head. I made a list of all the dead bodies. No, not on a piece of paper. Here,” Rubinstein pointed to his head with his finger. “It's the best notebook. I was like a hyena. I was feeding on it.”

At the behest of Father Kurt, Rubinstein went to Germany. On 30 September 1942, as Sylvin Turski, he came to the Neuköln South-East Trauma Clinic, where there was a so-called “station” for Poles. He made beds and emptied bedpans.

“Egmont, a Pole from Silesia, had received an injection when still in Buchenwald. I washed him, cooled his forehead. When he died, I moved him to the washroom. Dead bodies were collected from there. I wanted to know where they were taken. I ended up in a huge hall similar to a circus arena. There were bowls placed on chairs, filled with livers, hearts, and kidneys. There were bodies cut open lengthwise on the tables and a red button next to each. I pressed one. It triggered a trap door to open. The skin and the rest of the insides were gone.”

Rubinstein did not last in Neuköln very long. Thanks to Werner, he got a job in Hans Starke’s chemical factory at 7 Tempelhofer Weg. The food for the workers reeked.

“I ate a spoonful. When I got to the apartment, I was doubled over in pain. I vomited my guts out. I had typhus. I woke up in hospital and tried to get up. I didn't have the strength. Then I saw my little sister. She was standing in front of me saying, ‘Dance Salek! Dance!’ I tensed my muscles as if I was dancing and raised my hand. I turned on my side, fell off the bed, and crawled over to a wooden ice box. In the morning, I was awakened by Nurse Herta’s yelling and a slap in the face. ‘You've pissed yourself,’ she screamed. The fever dropped and I had red frostbite marks from the ice all over my body. I can wash, bathe, but I cannot cleanse my soul. I would be tougher if I were by a furnace in a camp. I would push the Germans inside with my bare hands and feet.”

After the war, he lived in Berlin for several years.

“I missed it. I bought rubber breasts, fastened them with tape at the bottom, and attached flowers to the nipples. I danced as a man and a woman to keep my memory sharp. I became Imperia Dolorita, I always had my little sister with me. I danced for Americans, Englishmen, and Russians. They threw silver lighters and flowers at my feet. I had twenty-four fur coats, leopards, twenty-four pairs of shoes, twenty-four costumes, and pearls. There was no perfume that was too expensive for me. The men stared at me with drooling mouths. They would come to the Varieté and ask, ‘Has Dolores been on stage yet?’”

He made the first dress himself, from a Nazi flag.

“One day I noticed a Nazi flag among the ruins. At home, I ripped off the swastika, stood in front of a huge mirror, wrapped myself in the fabric and fastened it with a needle. Małke would do so when she was designing clothes.”

He looked for his sister through the Red Cross, in the camps in Oświęcim, in Treblinka, and in Majdanek. He reported her in the family search mailbox in Berlin. Many years after the war, he said: “Sometimes I turn on the TV and wait. Maybe they will show a movie about the Holocaust. I’m looking for her face.”

He settled in Hamburg, in the St. Pauli quarter. For several seasons, he performed at the Moulin Rouge on the Reeperbahn. Towards the end of his life, he received a small pension from the government and a small allowance from the German-Jewish Union. He went to flea markets, bought watches for repair. Sometimes, for a few euros he helped distinguish high quality gold from poor gold with his magnifying glass.

It was not easy to enter his apartment. For Rubinstein to open the door, you had to knock in a pre-arranged manner. Dresses were all over the place. Single colour, multi-coloured, with and without a long train. He sewed them himself, a little sloppily, without much attention. If one of them caught around his feet, Rubinstein would shout: “Fuck these rags!" I hate them!” But then he would immediately pick up the dress and put it tenderly back in its place.

There was a portrait of Małke on the wall. A candle was always lit under it.

At the age of 92, he performed at the Allee Theatre in Hamburg. He had two outfits: a man's garment and a dress he sewed himself.

Until the end of his life, he kept castanets in a suede pouch on his neck. If you asked him, he would get up, straighten his body, and show off his dancing. One movement of his hand over his head, a held breath. The middle finger slightly bent. He moved his hand. Bare feet tapped the floor.

"This," he said, "is how a man dances."

Then his facial features softened. His shoulders swept around in a circle, his gaze was fixed straight ahead.

"This," he said, "is how a woman dances."

His hands flowed, the eyes followed the movement of the fingers. These were the fingers of his sister Maria.

 

Angelika Kuźniak

 

Bibliography

  • Kuźniak A., “Wszystko o mojej siostrze,” Gazeta Wyborcza, 2016.
  • Kruse K., Dolores & Imperio: die drei Leben des Sylvin Rubinstein, 2000.
  • Czura M., Er tanzte das Leben, 2003.

 

 

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