George Bartenieff, Fixture of Downtown Theatre, Dies at 89

“For George,” she added, “the vision, the worldview, the poetics were the most important. We raided every savings account, pension, etc., we ever had to do the work we loved. As simple or as strange as that.”

George Michael Bartenieff was born on Jan. 23, 1933, in Berlin to Michael and Irmgard (Prim) Bartenieff, who were dancers. His father was Jewish, and as the situation darkened in Nazi Germany the parents went to the United States to try to establish a life, leaving George and a brother, Igor, in the care of an aunt.

“I’m half-Jewish, so I was hidden in the German half of my family,” Mr. Bartenieff explained in an oral history recorded in 2015 for the Primary Stages Off Broadway Oral History Project.

He attended a school in the Bavarian mountains that was somewhat removed from the turmoil elsewhere in Germany, and he remembered it fondly, especially the pageants the school would stage on various holidays.

“It made you aware that storytelling was as important as living,” he said of those spectacles.

His parents had settled in Pittsfield, Mass., using their dance expertise to start a physiotherapy business, and in 1939 they brought the boys over to join them. It was a time when German immigrants in the United States faced suspicion, something that The Berkshire Eagle, the local newspaper, sought to dispel with a 1940 article about the young newcomers.

“Neither child spoke a word of English when their parents met them at the pier in New York,” the newspaper said. “But in six months they’ve learned not only to speak English, but good, honest ‘United States.’ George is in the fourth grade at Mercer School; Igor, in the sixth. Either one can say ‘You bet’ and ‘OK’ quicker than you could yourself.”

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