The piano of Vilna Ghetto survivor

Alexander Tamir gives forth no music

August 17, 2019 13:29
3 minute read.
Music Jerusalem

Alexander Tamir enjoys a glass of homemade plum liquor.. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)

Among the songs composed in the forests and in the ghettos of Europe during the Second World War, several have become Holocaust hymns which are almost invariably sung at Holocaust remembrance events.  The music for one such Yiddish song "Shtiller Shtiller" (Quieter, Quieter) was composed by an 11-year-old boy in the Vilna Ghetto in 1942 named was Alik Wolkovsky.  The song is credited to him on most recordings and sheet music. The lyrics were written by his father together with the poet Shmerke Kaczerginski.

Most people have never heard of Alexander Wolkovsky.  Lovers of classical music know him by his Hebrew name, Alexander Tamir.

The change of identity included the deliberate erasing of memory.  Tamir, who died last Thursday, August 15, did not want to remember those horrific days in the Vilna Ghetto.  What he wanted to do was to play classical music on the piano and to teach young people how to appreciate music.

Over the years, several journalists tried to interview him about his youth, but his stock answer was that he didn't remember.

While studying at Jerusalem's Rubin Music Academy in 1951, Tamir met Bracha Eden, a native of the city who was also studying music there.

Their teacher, Prof. Alfred Schroeder, who had been a pupil of the internationally renowned  Artur Schnabel, encouraged them to play duets together, and so a piano team was born.  The two continued to play together in concerts in Israel and around the world for more than half a century until Eden's death in May 2006. They also made several recordings, and were frequently heard on Israel Radio's The Voice of Music.  Both Tamir and Eden were also music teachers and became professors at the music academy where they first met.

In their travels abroad, they played with some of the world's greatest orchestras.

Together they founded the Max Targ Chamber Music Center in Ein Karem where they regularly gave concerts, and where they encouraged other musicians to play.

Tamir went on to found the young artists competition and the Israel Chopin Society.

Following Israel's establishment of diplomatic relations with China, Russia and Poland, Eden and Tamir began to teach in those countries in the early 1990s.

The early talent that Tamir had shown for composition as a boy never left him, and throughout his long career he was not only a pianist and teacher but also a composer and lecturer.

Tamir arrived in the Land of Israel very shortly after his liberation in 1945.

Throughout the years, he never wanted to talk about the Holocaust, deliberately refraining from visiting his native Lithuania.

In 1998, he was contacted by film maker Raheli Schwartz, who had heard from a well-connected friend that Tamir was the composer of "Ponar," the Hebrew title of "Shtiller Shtiller." She was contemplating making a documentary about Jewish Lithuania, and she wanted him to confirm that he was indeed the boy who had composed it.  But before she approached him, she had spent more than a year trying to find the connection between Alik Wolkovsky and Alexander Tamir.  It was only when she was almost certain about it that she dared to approach him, and he was very evasive.  Eventually she broke down the barrier, and even persuaded him to come with her to Lithuania.

He did so only to honor the memory of his father, but the trip and its aftermath weighed heavily on him, and he said more than once afterwards that her was sorry to have gone. He saw no benefit in reliving the traumatic experience:  He just wanted to make music.

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