Tuned in to something extraordinary

When the world collapsed for Josef Žamboki in 1941, he moved on – without missing a beat – to create a new one.

Jozef Zamboki  (photo credit: ARIEL WEISS)
Jozef Zamboki
(photo credit: ARIEL WEISS)
‘Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,” noted English playwright William Congreve (1670- 1729). In Josef Žamboki’s case, it was far more than that – it was a lifesaver.
Žamboki was born in Belgrade, which then was in Yugoslavia, in 1932. He was the youngest of three children and his early childhood passed as all healthy childhoods should. But everything changed when he was nine years old, when Nazi Germany invaded in April 1941. Within a short space of time the youngster’s world collapsed around him. His father and older brother were taken away to carry out forced labor. He never saw them again. A few months later he, his sister Roza, mother and grandmother were sent to Sajmište, a fairground on the outskirts of Belgrade that was turned into a concentration camp under the direct supervision of the German occupation administration.
Žamboki and Roza survived thanks to the courageous actions of a neighbor from the Jewish Belgrade district of Dorol – a shoemaker by the name of Pal Žamboki (Žamboki adopted the family name of his savior, who has been recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations).
Now Netanya-based, Žamboki eventually became a highly successful businessman and industrial designer, and a shaker and mover – advancing bilateral ties between Yugoslavia and Israel in the 1990s. He found his way into the upper echelons of political circles here and Yugoslavia, becoming good pals with Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres.
He continues to maintain a busy professional life, and together with his singer wife Ruth, three years ago he established the International Masterclasses and Žamboki Competition of Vocal Arts (IMVAJ) in Jerusalem which, he says, “was founded in order to further knowledge of vocalists in Israel and European countries.” This year’s program is taking place July 25 to August 4.
Žamboki is active in ensuring the world does not forget the atrocities that took place in his youth.
“This was taken this year,” he says, pulling out a clipping from a Serbian newspaper with a photograph showing an enormous monument with a large group of people around it. “This was taken on International Holocaust Day, January 27. I am on an international Holocaust committee.
This statue would not have been created were it not for my efforts. We meet there every year. The [Serbian] prime minister gave a speech. I also spoke in front of all the TV cameras. I am the only survivor of the concentration camp; this year, there was no one else who could say ‘I was here.’” Had it not been for Pal Žamboki, Josef would not have been around to tell the tale.
“Pal was a translator for the Germans – he spoke German fluently. When they took us away, he came with us and told my mother he could save her and the children.”
But his mother said she could not leave her sick mother and the cobbler left with the children.
“My mother said they should wait a few days, to see if my grandmother’s health improved, but that he should take us children. The next day even Pal could not gain access to the camp.”
Pal Žamboki took the two children into his own modest home, which doubled as a shoemaker’s workshop, but he soon realized he could not manage with both of them and sent Roza to stay with his niece, Mariška Canadi, in Novi Kneževac, near the border with Hungary. She agreed and raised Roza along with her own children. Canadi is also recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations.
The shoemaker and Josef managed to continue living in Belgrade without attracting undue attention until, one day, the cobbler received a threat from a fellow professional.
“Žamboki did quite well with his work,” recalls Josef.
“Probably because of his translating work with the Germans he got orders for shoes – in those days footwear was custom made. But there was another shoemaker who couldn’t make a living and drank alcohol a lot, and he told Žamboki that he’d inform the Germans about me if Žamboki didn’t provide him with work.”
It was time to move on, and Žamboki and the boy relocated to Žamboki’s hometown of Stara Kanjiža, which was under Hungarian control. There, he registered as a Serb refugee of Hungarian descent whose wife had been killed by a bomb, and he claimed Josef as his son. The authorities bought the story and he received papers that enabled them to live safely in Stara Kanjiža.
Little Josef mostly kept himself happily occupied with other kids from the neighborhood. “I played with the others in the street,” he recalls. “There were German soldiers around, but they didn’t know anything or suspect anything.
The neighbors knew Žamboki had rescued me, but they didn’t say anything. There were good people there.”
The goodness also exudes from Žamboki as he relates the story of Holocaust-time experiences. He comes across as a genial man with a sunny disposition and an optimistic outlook. We eventually get around to the role his love of music played in his survival, and what he does with that today violin and harmonica, and my siblings also played music. One day I was out on the street near the restaurant with the German soldiers and I was playing my harmonica.”
The youngster was obviously doing a good job and one of the soldiers asked him to come into the restaurant to entertain the troops. “I played for them and they all clapped and cheered,” he recalls. Žamboki adds that he got a lot more than applause for his sonorous efforts, as did his neighbors.
“After I finished playing I asked the soldiers if I could take the leftovers of the dinner,” he explains. “They said that was fine and I gathered everything up and gave out food to everyone in the neighborhood.”
That became a daily life-saving ritual.
After the war, Žamboki studied industrial design in Zagreb and quickly developed a career. He landed a job with a large national corporation that manufactured furniture for many of Yugoslavia’s biggest companies and for the national parliament. He began traveling the world to attend trade fairs. In February 1969, shortly after his savior died, Žamboki was in Tehran and asked to take a 10-day break.
“I wanted to go to Hong Kong, but then I discovered I would be going to a fair in Tokyo the following year, so I thought I could pop over to Hong Kong from there.”
So he changed his plans and made his first trip to Israel. He visited people he knew from Yugoslavia who’d made aliya shortly after the establishment of the state. The latter were keen for the industrial designer to stay here and arranged for him to meet another former Yugoslav, who owned the Rim Furniture company in Jerusalem. Žamboki was offered a job on the spot, but he insisted on returning to Yugoslavia so that he could return to Israel with his wife, Ruth, sister Roza, brotherin- law and their three children. His brother-in-law was also provided with employment in Jerusalem.
Over the years Žamboki made strides on several fronts here and eventually set up his own industrial design studio, doing good business with companies across the globe. He also got in on the international trade scene, importing wood from now former Yugoslavia and exporting furniture there. He was also instrumental in establishing the first higher education programs in Israel in industrial design, at Tel Aviv University. He taught there, at ORT and also at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
Now much of his boundless energy goes toward nurturing the careers of budding Israeli opera singers, through the IMVAJ, which primarily takes place at the IASA Concert Hall near Malha in Jerusalem.
In addition to classes with top musicians and teachers from around the world – admission is free – the program also offers top-class entertainment, including a gala concert with IMVAJ singers joining forces with the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra under conductor Barak Tal, and a lieder and aria concert presented by veteran German mezzo-soprano Claudia Eder, a performance of Donizetti’s farce Viva La Mamma, and the world premiere of Albert, an opera composed by Moshe Zorman with the libretto by Oded Lifschitz. The latter will be performed at Tzavta in Tel Aviv on August 4 and 6.
The IMVAJ program is overseen by acclaimed opera singer Rona Israeli-Kolatt, with the teaching team also including the likes of Belgrade- based mezzo-soprano Jelena Vlahovic and German conductor Michael Hofstetter, with some of our own top-notch artists also on board, such as Tal and soprano and university professor Tamar Rachum.
Since the IMVAJ venture began, the Žambokis have brought in several leading opera stars and educators, including from the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala, and have also taken some of our own stars to Belgrade, where they have performed at events connected to International Holocaust Day.
Žamboki is determined to keep the musical flag flying high and proud across the world – and particularly in Jerusalem.
“There is a Nobel Prize for literature and science and all sorts of things, but [Alfred] Nobel – you know he invited dynamite – didn’t establish a prize for music or dance. They bring joy to our lives and we should celebrate them.
The Žambokis are certainly doing their best to share their musical joy with the rest of us and the indefatigable 85-year-old plans on keeping the vocal venture going for many years to come.
“I fantasize about, 50 or 100 years ahead, looking down from heaven and seeing Jerusalem full of singing,” he says. “Isn’t that a wonderful picture?”