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Remembering Ronald Harwood, the Jewish Writer with a Strong Jewish Sensibility

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Nathan Abrams remembers the work of Jewish playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood.

Sir Ronald Harwood, who is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay to Roman Polanski’s Holocaust film, The Pianist, died yesterday of natural causes.

He was born on 9 November 1934 in Cape Town, South Africa to Isobel (née Pepper) and Isaac Horwitz. He was educated in Cape Town before moving to England to pursue a career as a stage actor. He arrived at Southampton docks, aged seventeen, on 21 December 1951, with just 7s 6d in his pocket.

It was by then that he had changed his surname from Horwitz to Harwood after a school teacher insisted that he change it because it was too foreign-sounding, as well as too Jewish, for a public career in the English theatre.

Thereafter, the newly christened Harwood pursued a successful career in theatre and cinema. He penned scores of plays and screenplays with a strong Jewish spine to his work. He once told an interviewer that his Jewishness informed everything he did. ‘I am very Jewish. It is who I am.’

This is evident in Harwood’s keen interest in the Nazi period, which was the subject of various screenplays dealing with individuals who either voluntarily or unwillingly collaborated with the Nazi regime, or with those trying to escape its clutches.

Operation Daybreak, in 1975, dramatized the true story of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich in Prague by the Czech Resistance. 

Twenty years later, in 1995, he wrote the play Taking Sides about the complex figure of German conductor and composer Wilhelm Furtwängler. He was Hitler’s favourite conductor but also saved the lives of 120 Jews. The play dramatized the post-war United States denazification investigation of Furtwängler on charges of having collaborated with the Nazis.

A slight change of tack, but which also concerned a Jewish theme, was his 2001 play, Mahler’s Conversion, about the ambitious Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, who must convert to Catholicism if he is to become court composer in Vienna. Mahler was played by Harwood’s cousin, Sir Anthony Sher. 

In 2002 came possibly Harwood’s most famous work when he adapted the autobiography of the Polish-Jewish musician Władysław Szpilman, The Pianist. Szpilman had survived the Holocaust by hiding out in Nazi-occupied Poland. The film was directed by Roman Polanski whose previous films had only hinted at his own wartime experiences through allegories of trapped women (mainly) menaced by unseen forces. The Pianist was Polanski’s first movie to confront the horror he experienced directly. Harwood won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for the film in 2003.

Harwood and Polanski collaborated again on an adaption of Oliver Twist in 2005. Holocaust imagery also found its way into their remake of the classic Charles Dickens story.

Between those two projects, he wrote The Statement (2003) about Paul Touvier, a collaborationist Vichy French police official, who was indicted after World War II for war crimes but who escaped justice.

The play Collaboration in 2008 explored the complicated relationship between the pro-Nazi composer Richard Strauss and the Viennese Jewish writer Stefan Zweig (who later killed himself). That same year Harwood’s An English Tragedy tackled British fascist John Amery.

So, that almost penniless South African Jewish young man, who arrived on these shores as Horwitz but who was forced to change it to Harwood because of the prevailing climate in Britain during the early 1950s, leaves us with a rich body of work with a strong Jewish sensibility.

Ronald Harwood, 9 November 1934 – 8 September 2020.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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