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Building bridges to ‘When Brooklyn Was the World’

February 4, 2016 By Beth Amorosi Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Beth Amorosi (left) with “Bridge of Spies” Director Steven Spielberg. Photos courtesy of Beth Amorosi
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  Editor’s Note: Beth Amorosi is granddaughter of James Donovan, the heroic Brooklyn lawyer played by Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies.” She notes that her grandfather’s book, “Strangers On A Bridge,” originally published in 1964, was recently re-issued and has become a best-seller following the release of the movie. Below are some of her observations prior to coming to the family reunion this week in Brooklyn’s Eastern District Federal Court, where the original trial of Russian spy Rudolph Abel took place.)  See additional article here.

“When Brooklyn was the World” is a book I gave to my grandmother years ago for Christmas. Its title is apropos to my grandmother’s feelings about Brooklyn, as Brooklyn was not only “the world” for the first part of the 20th century, but it was her world — and it truly represented the world to her.

Both of my parents grew up in Brooklyn Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge and Park Slope, to be exact. I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Manhattan along with my three siblings, but I grew up intimately connected to the Brooklyn that my grandmother held so close to her heart and the Brooklyn of my parents’ generation. As a Manhattanite of my generation, Brooklyn and the outer boroughs were known as “Bridge and Tunnel” — places connected by bridges and tunnels to the borough of Manhattan, known to the world through the movies, media and music as the city that never sleeps. 

New York City is a labyrinth of land masses connected by the most beautiful bridges in the world, including the most historically and architecturally important one — the Brooklyn Bridge. What many people take for granted is not only how critical these bridges (and tunnels) are to our daily way of life, but also how critical they are to connecting all of us and to transporting all of us — literally and figuratively — to places we have never been. The Brooklyn Bridge in particular transports me to a place in time that may no longer exist, but still resonates so clearly in the present and holds so much possibility for the future.

This past year has been a year of building (and rebuilding) bridges: bridges to the past that tell a very important story to our present and future generations. “Strangers on a Bridge” is the first-hand account of my grandfather James Donovan’s role in Cold War history: his defense of Russian Spy Colonel Rudolf Abel and his negotiations for Abel’s exchange with American U2 pilot Frances Gary Powers. The book was originally published in 1964, but was reissued in August of 2015 by Scribner. It is now No. 1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list in espionage.

I was successful in this quest to have my grandfather’s story told again because of research, persistence, negotiations and the support of my family. But I was also successful because of “Bridge of Spies,” the blockbuster film dramatizing the same historical events that Steven Spielberg has brought to theaters worldwide, with Tom Hanks so skillfully and authentically playing my grandfather and Brooklynite Amy Ryan perfectly portraying my grandmother. This story is told in a beautiful original screenplay written by Matt Charman with the help of the Coen Brothers.

It is a breathtaking film bringing my grandfather’s story to life on the big screen, sharing a piece of lost history with a generation (or two) who may remember it, but who maybe did not know the whole story, and sharing a piece of lost history to new generations who knew nothing about it. Many films out right now (including the beautiful “Brooklyn”are worthy of our attention, but very few films — if any — convey a world that set the stage for who America is and what we stand for as a nation. “Bridge of Spies” is a masterpiece of a film presenting America as the master architect of bridge-building and of freedom, justice and standing up for what is right at whatever cost.

The climactic scene of “Bridge of Spies” appears, where else, but on a bridge. Not just any bridge, however, but the Glienecke Bridge (otherwise known as the “Bridge of Spies”), a bridge connecting (or dividing, in this case) the opposing East and West Germany. The drama of the scene unfolds as Rudolf Abel and Francis Gary Powers walk from one side to the other, back to their respective homes — “Strangers on a Bridge” passing each other in the early morning hours on Feb. 10, 1962. What each does not realize, however, are the deft back channel negotiations that it took to make this historic exchange possible.

Jim Donovan was a bridge builder: a connector of competing and conflicting ideologies and world views; a masterful architect of progress, of creating something that was never there before, of overcoming obstacles and reaching a goal that is not within reach unless there is that one common ground: the bridge. Like a bridge, he was formidable and stood tall and proud on behalf of American values. He stood up for what he believed in and never wavered. As Rudolf Abel calls him in the movie, he — like a bridge — was “Stoike Muzhique” — its literal translation: “standing man.” When I spoke with a Russian friend of mine, she actually went further to say that “Stoike” conveys courage, tenacity and persistence. “Muzhique” is not just any man, but a rugged, strong man.

I have been especially captivated in the last year by the beauty, allure, magic and symbolism of bridges. In a year marked by the telling of my grandfather’s story to the world through the reissue of “Strangers on a Bridge” and the film “Bridge of Spies,” I wish the coming year to be marked by making new connections, transcending boundaries, reaching far-flung destinations that were seemingly out of reach before, crossing over to places beyond all of our wildest dreams and remaining steadfast and strong in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The year 2015 was groundbreaking for me, and I can’t help but think that 2016 holds more of the same for all of us. Here’s to 2016 and a year filled with building bridges of all kinds and to being “Stoike Muzhique.”  Oh, and Brooklyn is the world once again! My grandmother would be beside herself.

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