Belina s/wOn December 12, 2006 one of Europe’s greatest and most intriguing folk singers – Belina – passed away in Hamburg, aged 81. With her permission and cooperation, a documentary of her life was planned – for she rarely talked about herself or her career.

“She stands there with her imperial and somewhat statuesque bearing, her brunette hair open, framing her expressive face of acerbic beauty. The attractive woman exudes cool remoteness, nearly unapproachable – and then there is her voice! A voice with a frisson of deep, dark, melancholic timbre, having strong, dramatic expression even when humming or skipping through melodies, of tenuous richness.” (Wiener Kurier, November 1967)

“Madame chanson” was her name – Belina! When stepping on stage, petite, wearing a black leather jacket, narrow slacks, red blouse and long hair, she mesmerized audiences by her fascinating charisma. Belina was also a genuine talent with languages. She spoke six languages: Polish, English, Yiddish, Russian and German. Yet, she was also able to express herself and sing in another dozen foreign languages. During her world tour with guitarist Siegfried Behrend, she was once given the score of a Korean folksong at noon with the request that she sing it the same evening. 
Belina sang it and the following day the concert reviews spoke of her rendition of the song in Korean as being a natural part of her – so convincing and immediate was the quality of her singing.
But, first and foremost, Belina was a sensational vocalist, completely devoted to music and singing. Her dark, rich voice was incredibly versatile. She could do justice to the tender intimacy of a Jewish lullaby as easily as she could the veiled melancholy of a French chanson, performing the tense vitality of a West Indies calypso with just as much as she could render the unruly passion of a Polish folksong. She had a sense for capturing the expressive core, her interpretation of songs were imbued with singular beauty and a uniquely magical air. This is no wonder. Belina shaped what she sang directly from experience and she led a life full of sunny and dark moments.

Lea-Nina Rodzynek was born in 1925 in a small Polish village east of the Vistula River and her talent in music came to her family's attention at a very early age. Now living in Israel, her sister remembers: “At home we all knew that our youngest sibling had a lovely voice. But we could never get her to demonstrate her singing when we had visitors. Father would have been proud, but sometimes she sang from an adjoining room.” 

Lea-Nina fled from Poland to Germany as a young woman and worked under an assumed name and false papers. She was detained when people found out who she was and learned of her Jewish origin. However, she managed to escape from the concentration camp and to go into hiding until the end of the war. She lived in Hamburg and Paris, performing on stage as a singer in the subterranean taverns of the Latin Quarter in Paris. There she came to be known as the “Black Angel of Montparnasse.”

In 1954 she moved to Switzerland where she initially worked as a beautician. However, the dream of earning her way as a singer never left her. After a short appearance on television and a number of radio broadcasts, a small tour through small towns followed. She earned a reputation among connoisseurs as a singer of Yiddish folk repertoire. However, her major breakthrough came in Germany. Director and hit parade star maker Truck Branss devoted his first personality show to her in 1962, propelling her to overnight popularity. And the name of Lea-Nina and the hard-to-pronounce last name were shortened to – Belina. In a “great half hour,” as one reviewer wrote, through her voice alone, she dominated the screen without an orchestra and with no technical gimmicks.

Belina became acquainted with the outstanding and popular guitarist Siegfried Behrend (1933-1990), who as a 30-year-old already had 1,000 compositions to his credit, most of them folk-based or inspired by earlier masters. He had already performed concerts in Moscow, Rome and Madrid as well as outside Europe to wide acclaim and performed in concert for the Shah of Persia, Egypt’s General Nasser and the Japanese Emperor in Tokyo. Together with Belina they were to perform in more than 120 countries – a triumphant series of concerts which met with one rave review after another.

She is spellbinding to the very last second! (The Straits Echo, Malaysia)
From the liturgy to the chanson, this is great art beyond criticism! (New Zealand Herald, Auckland)
She has well aware of the melancholy charm of her chanson and folk singing, repeatedly playing to this allure with the attitude of a tragic figure . (Berliner Morgenpost)

As “ambassadors of German culture,” in an unprecedented way Belina and Siegfried Behrend represented the young West German republic, yet in their home country they gradually fell into obscurity. Esther and Abi Ofarim followed in their footsteps and celebrated success after success across Europe. When Siegfried Behrend and Belina finally returned after a long interval, their heyday had passed. Siegfried Behrend married actress Claudia Brodzinska-Behrend in the ‘70s and with her singing, focused on avant-garde music. He died in 1990.

Belina was strongly affected by the break-up with her guitarist and rarely accepted offers to perform as a soloist after that. Her reputation as an actress was growing and she cultivated this entirely new area: “I played Polly in the Three Penny Opera. Many stage appearances, Jewish theater, small theaters, in Paris, in Germany.”

In 1981 she made a final, very beautiful, but unfortunately unacknowledged LP recording with guitarist Ladi Geisler. After this project, Belina retired from show business. Until her death, the mother of one son and two grandchildren lived in Hamburg and delighted in her unique souvenir collection from all over the world. Her living room called an Oriental bazaar to mind: a chiseled brass table from Turkey, two Persian vases, a wall tapestry from Addis Ababa, a pair of gods carved from precious hardwood brought back from Bolivia, and…and…and…

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