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Monday, February 28, 2005

Cross-dressing Nazi slayer

It's a month old, but I just found it. My guess is this slipped under your radars too...

by Ernest Gill

Hamburg- A 90-year-old transvestite flamenco dancer is stamping and clapping his way across theatre stages in Germany to promote a film about his life as a Jewish resistance fighter who killed Nazis in occupied Poland - and even in the heart of Berlin.

The seemingly incredible story of Sylvin Rubinstein, whose hands were as adept at lobbing grenades as they were at clicking castanets, is the subject of an extraordinary documentary film which is drawing a cult following at art cinemas in Germany.

Audiences erupt into cheers as Rubinstein, in full make-up, wig and ruffled flamenco gown, dances with ageless grace onto the stage to take his bows.

Audiences are captivated as he talks of his war-time exploits, which included dressing up in slinky cocktail dress to gain entry to a Gestapo dinner party in occupied Poland where his "surprise act" consisted of lifting his skirt - to whip out two grenades which he then hurled at his stunned onlookers.

Another time he picked off a Gestapo officer in the very centre of Berlin in broad daylight.

'Nasty Nazi'

"He was a particularly nasty Nazi who took positive delight in finding Jews who were hidden in people's homes," Rubinstein recalls, speaking in a distinctive mish-mash of German-Yiddish-Polish.

"He would have the Jews dragged off and also the German families who had sheltered them. Very nasty, indeed. Everybody in Berlin feared and hated him, Jews and Goyim alike," he says.

"Well, one fine day it was his birthday and a very elegant-looking lady (if I do say so myself) showed up at his office with a bunch of red roses, asking to see him alone," Rubinstein relates with a wry smile and an arched eyebrow.

Who would suspect a statuesque woman bearing flowers of wanting to gun down a major Gestapo officer in the very heart of Berlin? Nobody. And that is precisely how Rubinstein got away with that and other assassinations.

The film of his life, Er Tanzte Das Leben (Dancing His Life) by Marian Czura und Kuno Kruse, literally takes Rubinstein on a journey to his origins.

Born in 1917 in Russia, his aristocrat father was executed by the Bolsheviks while his Polish mother fled across the border to Poland with Sylvin and his twin sister Maria.

Penniless in the hamlet of Brodi, Sylvin and Maria learned early on they could charm pennies from passersby by dancing in the town marketplace.

By their teens, the brother-sister team were dancing professionally. Cashing in on a Latin craze, they did a flamenco act billed as Imperio y Dolores.

By the time they were 20, Imperio and Dolores were headliners at music halls in all European capitals, London, New York and as far away as Melbourne.

They were performing at Warsaw's Adria theatre when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Being Jewish, they were consigned to the Warsaw Ghetto where Rubinstein quickly had run-ins with Nazi guards.

Jailed and beaten, Rubinstein nonetheless managed a daring escape, wresting a machinegun from a guard and mowing down a dozen Gestapo officers. Once outside, however, he was no better off since he was still in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.

"One day a big, tall German army officer spotted me and kept staring at me," Rubinstein remembers. "He followed me and then walked up to me and I thought, well, this is it."

It turned out the officer, Wehrmacht Major Kurt Werner, was a fan of Imperio y Dolores and remembered Rubinstein from an appearance in Berlin before the war.

It was a chance meeting that ultimately would save both men's lives. Werner arranged for fake ID papers for Rubinstein and his sister and urged them to head for Switzerland. But his sister insisted on trying to fetch their mother, still back in Brodi.

"I saw her board the train heading east and I knew as we waved to each other that that was the last time I'd ever see her," Rubinstein says wistfully. "I could have insisted she stay with me. But I didn't. That is one of two things I've always regretted."

He never saw either his sister or his mother again.

Remaining in Warsaw, Rubinstein returned to Major Werner, who took the dancer under his wing and initiated him into the Polish resistance.

It was through Werner that Rubinstein became an accomplished assassin and sabotage artist using the cover name Silwan Turski.

The filmmakers took Rubinstein back to Brodi and Warsaw and even back to a Polish village where even today the mere mention of the name Turski elicits excitement. It was Turski who throttled a Nazi SS advance guard soldier with his bare hands, thus sparing a village from a reprisal raid.

After the war, Rubinstein returned to dancing. But Imperio y Dolores merged into just Dolores.

"Becoming Dolores was my way of coping with my twin sister's death," he says. "Only a twin can understand how horrific that was. It was like being torn in half. Not a day goes by that I don't think of her."

In Allied-occupied Germany it was Rubinstein's time to save Major Werner's life, testifying on his behalf before a US board to win Werner's freedom.

Rubinstein, in his female guise as Dolores, went on to become a major music hall entertainer in the 1950s. But advancing age and changing tastes took their toll.

Reduced to performing in seedy clubs in Hamburg's Reeperbahn red- light district, he retired around 1970.

"I was dancing in a place where the headline act was a couple having sex on stage. That was when I said, 'Dolores, it's time to hang up the castanets'."

Now 90, Rubinstein lives in a tiny apartment just off the Reeperbahn in the harbour district of Hamburg which he shares with a canary, a crippled pigeon and the mementoes of a lifetime.

Among those mementoes is a faded photo of Major Werner, with whom he remained a lifelong friend until Werner died at age 93.


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