The Jew who cracked the Iron Curtain!

There are the makings of a great novel and a splendid film in the intertwined lives of Victor and Lilian, a saga stretching across 70 years.

Hochhauser with Igor and David Oistrakh before their first performance of the Bach Double Concerto in 1963 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hochhauser with Igor and David Oistrakh before their first performance of the Bach Double Concerto in 1963
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This was a man who changed musical history in the world. A man who, with his wife and partner, Lilian, cracked open the Iron Curtain. Victor Hochhauser died on March 22, just before his 96th birthday, and left a void in the lives of family and hundreds of relatives and friends, and thousands of music-lovers and music-makers across the globe.
There are the makings of a great novel and a splendid film in the intertwined lives of Victor and Lilian, a saga stretching across 70 years. The brilliant accomplishments of such a full life left its mark on every aspect of classical music as well as ballet.
We first met Victor as a neighbor and fellow shul-goer in Yemin Moshe. I was drawn to his droll sense of humor, of the ridiculous, his lack of airs, and the twinkle in his eye. The man I knew did not square with the negatives spouted against him by a close British friend of mine. By breaking through the Iron Curtain, it was claimed, Victor was injuring the cause of Soviet Jewry. The conventional line was to have nothing to do with the Soviet Union until it begins to “let my people go.”
I have been told that an ugly campaign of malignment, insult and even death threats was mounted against the Hochhausers. It took a brave man, indeed, to face all of this and sail on, convinced, as was Lilian, that what they were doing was right.
And here, a historical aside. We observers of unfolding history and the human condition may often err in the light of future developments. The great stream of Russian artists, so many of them Jewish, brought over to England, like, among the first, violinist David Oistrakh, eventually led to a fissure in the Soviet armor, and eventually to a series of defections of world class artists. These ranged from Rudolf Nureyev, the supreme ballerino of his time, through to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
The point is also that when Victor, and later both Lilian and Victor, visited the Soviet Union (Lilian told me they probably made 100 trips), Victor brought medicines unavailable in the USSR, prayer books and fearlessly created contacts with what Elie Wiesel called the Jews of silence. In this, he was a forerunner of Wiesel and of an organized effort to send prayer books and Hebrew-language textbooks by the underground separate Mossad organization that fostered contacts with Soviet Jewry.
Victor’s daughter, Shari Greenberg of Jerusalem, stressed this quality of doing what is right regardless of the slights and slings of outraged majority opinion.
I could not help but associate this stubborn courage with his Haredi roots. On his mother’s side, Hochhauser was the fourth generation away from the great sage, Rabbi Moshe Schreiber-Sofer, known by the name of his major treatise, Hatam Sofer.
Although having such antecedents is not always a sign of piety (or for that matter, brains), in Victor’s case he ingested and retained a natural piety growing up, as he did, in the Haredi community of a Slovakian town called Košice (pronounced Kozitche).
His father fortunately foresaw the future dangers lurking for Europe’s Jews and moved the family to England in 1938. Victor continued his studies at the Haredi Gateshead Yeshiva, and entered upon a close and respectful relationship with Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, the charismatic leader of British ultra-Orthodoxy. Thus Victor always had a soft spot for Haredim even when he became more and more a man of the world and a connoisseur of great music.
Lilian and Victor Hochhauser
When we compound the intelligence of the Hochhauser team by two, with Lilian’s charming and outgoing personality, her ability and grace with Victor’s brilliant mastery of planning, finance, and taste, we then see a power, which explains much of their success. Another factor, Victor’s Slovakian upbringing equipped him with knowledge of a sister Slavic language, making his ability to understand and speak Russian that much easier. A word about Slovakian Jewry. In essence it was in many ways a geographical and linguistic continuation of Hungarian Jewry. For some arcane reason, Hungarian Jews of all persuasions seem blessed with a brilliance and also a sense of humor par excellence. And the then Czechoslovakia was a more open society – with a philo-semitic government – than Hungary, whose antisemitic Arrow Cross fascist party easily stood on the basis of embedded Jew-hatred.
To experience Victor’s arch and layered sense of humor, this vignette. We had invited a few guests for Shabbat afternoon drinks. We all stood about, glasses in hand, chatting. By chance, none of the guests, nor their host was wearing a kippa. Victor entered a bit late, the last arrival, wearing the kippa he adorned himself with on his Jerusalem visits. He cast a quick glace around the parlor, lifted his kippa, bowed, and with an impish smile and crinkled eye, he intoned the Talmudic blessing for the host’s home: “In honor of the venue!”
In two brief Hebrew words was recognition that we were bareheaded, the idea that we should be wearing kippot, and his ability to fit in. Those two words expressed learning, satire, and just plain fun, laughing at himself and us. If class can be defined as doing the right thing at the right time and place, then this was a class act. The impresario impressed indelibly that Shabbat.
Victor’s quiet, natural, deeply felt Jewish commitment showed itself in another story. The unforgettable Red Army Choir was in London under the auspices of the Hochhausers. Victor, in an aside, “What army? They took their best singers and put them into uniform!” Always, the musicians, or musical, dance or ballet troupes were escorted by KGB supervisors, who were supposed to prevent defection and make sure that contact with foreigners did not lead to espionage.
One singer was able to pry Victor away safely, and – I imagine in Yiddish – made this highly unexpected request. From memory, I cite: “My father is a shoihet (the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew shohet, the “ritual” slaughterer of fowl or four-footed kosher animals according to Jewish law). For years he has been unable to obtain a halaf (the specially designed and sharpened knife) and is afraid that his slaughtering may not be fully kosher. Can you get him a halaf?”
Of course, with one phone call the knife was supplied, and again clandestinely, handed over to the devoted son. The story, though ended sadly, since on return, the knife was confiscated and ended up in a museum.
Sad as this story may be, it did show the vitality of Jewish practice after dozens of years of Bolshevik repression of religion.
As I write this column, I want to answer two questions. First how can a husband-and-wife team work together in harmony? Lilian, by telephone from London, answered with her typical honesty and in full voice of a young woman. They did have their differences on technical issues…. A pause while the nonagenarian reflects. “I never considered that. Let me see. We just thought the same way,” she said.
But, as Shari pointed out, something which I already suspected, “They respected one another. Great respect!” This also means that both Victor and Lilian could create a warm home, with love and respect that embraced their four children.
The other question I asked myself: What was the secret of Victor’s drive, and his seeming fearlessness in creating a cultural crack in the Iron Curtain? No doubt he was closely monitored, and must have been aware of the dangers. No one can truly measure the motivation of another’s psyche, and I even believe that we are never fully aware of our motives.
However, in addition to the obvious reasons one immediately sees, such as keen and high intelligence, self-confidence, ambition, and drive, there is one more vital factor, in my judgment. Victor was born into a comfortably established and prestigious family, and grew up in Jewish rootedness, religious practice and learning. He lived in a hostile environment during his most formative years, in a solidly Catholic and mostly antisemitic Slovakia, and in a middle-Europe trembling with unease, new nation-states, new borders, and economic crises.
The family background and standing in the Jewish “inside” provided the security and self-confidence, while the constant element of change “outside” taught him almost subliminally that nothing in Europe is permanent, something the insular British might not be able to see. Thus he could analyze or sense that after Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union itself was permeable.
Lilian had 70 years of creativity with a man who in his own way possessed genius and probity. Their offspring have reason to be grateful, inheriting a loving family tradition to hand down the coming generations.
Avraham Avi-hai lives in Yemin Moshe, where his wife Henrietta and he had the opportunity to enjoy the Hochhauser connection as neighbors and friends. While visiting London, they also had occasion to be hosted in warmth and charm