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Out of friendship emerges a tribute to the Holocaust

Summoned to meet Pope John Paul II, Gilbert Levine was quietly led through more than a dozen rooms in the Apostolic Palace. At any moment, the new conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic expected the pontiff to be hustled in and out for a brief greeting.

Finally, Levine was left alone in a small, dark area. When a short while later the door to the next room was thrown open, he noticed a small man in white sitting down in a large, light room.

The man got up, took Levine's hand in his and led him over to his desk, where he again clasped his hands over the conductor's hands.

And so began an extraordinary friendship that led to the historic Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust in April in the Vatican. The concert represented the first time the Vatican formally commemorated the Holocaust and Jews and Catholics prayed together inside the Vatican for those who perished in the Shoah.

This month, a recording from Justice Records and a video of the concert from Rhino Home Video are being released, and the concert also is being shown on Public Broadcasting Service stations.

In December, Levine is scheduled to be officially invested into the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, becoming one of four Jewish people in the history of the papacy to be knighted.

"I'm a Jewish kid from New York. This is not stuff that happens to Jewish kids from New York," the 46-year-old Levine said in a recent interview.

His family came from Poland at the turn of the century, but the appointment in 1987 of a Jewish-American conductor to become the first foreign director of the Krakow Philharmonic was unusual.

Two months after his appointment, the pope _ who was a cardinal in Krakow before being elevated to the papacy _ arranged to meet the new artistic director of the cultural treasure from his homeland.

At that first meeting, Levine said, they spent about a half-hour in a conversation about a range of cultural, religious and intellectual subjects, including the personal experiences of Levine's mother-in-law in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The pontiff then asked Levine to conduct a concert in the Vatican commemorating his 10th anniversary in the pontificate in 1988. It wasn't until the fall of 1990, as Levine thought about what was possible to develop out of "this rather improbable relationship" with the pope, that he began to develop the idea of a concert to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

When he proposed the concert to John Paul in the spring of 1991, Levine said, "The pope gave it his blessing immediately."

In the end, Levine had the dreamer's initiative to never give up, said Rabbi James Rudin, interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee.

"What kept him going is that the dream was never lost. He knew what the event was going to look like, what it was going to feel like," Rudin said.

On April 7 _ Holocaust Memorial Day _ the pope and Rome's chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, walked down the central aisle of the Paul VI auditorium and sat next to each other in large armchairs listening to evocative music by Jewish and Catholic composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Franz Schubert performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Actor Richard Dreyfuss narrated part of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, as part of an excerpt from Bernstein's Symphony No. 3.

Sitting two seats away from the pope, Rudin said the music filled both the heart and the mind.

"I went into a remembrance mode. Here we are, after 2,000 years, the children of Judaism spiritually, and the children of Rome spiritually, here we are together," Rudin said.

For his part, Levine said that night he felt liberated to focus on the music as the program conductor.

He said the memory of his mother-in-law's family, or others among the 6-million Jews who died in the Holocaust, was not in the forefront of his mind as he stood at the podium.

But they were there in the music.

"They have become part of me," Levine said. "They have spiritually and mystically informed my understanding of the music."