Grapevine: Last will and testimony set to music

There seems to be a trend now for reviving forgotten music.

A DELEGATION on stage presents a JNF citation to Prof. Francesco Lotoro. From left: JNF-UK chairman Samuel Hayek; Lotoro; actor and master of ceremonies Natan Datner; and chairman of World JNF-KKL Danny Atar. (photo credit: JNF UK)
A DELEGATION on stage presents a JNF citation to Prof. Francesco Lotoro. From left: JNF-UK chairman Samuel Hayek; Lotoro; actor and master of ceremonies Natan Datner; and chairman of World JNF-KKL Danny Atar.
(photo credit: JNF UK)
Not everyone who came to the Notes of Hope concert that was co-sponsored by Jewish National Fund UK and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, realized what the event at the International Convention Center Jerusalem was about. One woman overheard enthusing afterwards on her cell phone, said that she had thought that she was coming to a regular Holocaust Memorial event and had been completely surprised by what she saw and heard.
The concert included 11 works, played for the first time in the presence of a concert hall audience. The compositions, from amongst more than 8,000 unknown works by victims of the Holocaust, were selected by Professor Francesco Lotoro, an Italian pianist, composer and musicologist, who together with his wife Grazia, has made it his life’s work to search for and orchestrate music composed in the camps and in the ghettos, but undiscovered for decades and never played for an outside audience.
The compositions were proof that even in the most dire of circumstances, the composers did not give in to despair and left their notes of hope as a legacy for the future.
The works ranged from classic to jaunty cabaret, included a little Yiddish, a plaintive Romani song, because there were also gypsies in the camps, and even a latter-day composition – “Lu Yehi” (May it Be) by Naomi Shemer, reminiscent of The Beatles’ hit “Let it Be.” Sung by Shiri Maimon, it symbolized the prayers and yearnings of all those unfulfilled musical talents lost in the Holocaust.
Of all the pieces played or sung, the only composer whose name was familiar to at least some of the members of the audience was that of master song writer Mordechai Gebirtig , whose Yiddish “Kinder Yohren” (Childhood Years) was sung by Yaakov Bodo after he had delivered a moving monologue in Hebrew about what had happened to Gebirtig’s beloved Krakow under the Nazi occupation.
As he spoke, he was accompanied by a soft, almost weeping violin solo of Gebirtig’s “Es Brent” (It’s Burning), describing how a town was swallowed up in flames.
Bodo was joined in a duet by the evening’s master of ceremonies Natan Datner, who sang “Kinder Yohrn” in Hebrew. Bodo, now 87, was wearing a shabby oversized coat onto which was sewn a yellow star with the word Jude emblazoned in large black letters.
Bodo was himself a child Holocaust survivor in his native Romania. The only other child Holocaust survivor on the program was Aviva Bar-On, 86, who spent three years in Theresienstadt, where she met poet and songwriter Ilse Weber who worked as a nurse in the children’s infirmary.
Weber loved to sing her songs to the children and thus bring a little happiness into their lives. After Bar-On recovered from her illness, she used to return to the infirmary to join in the singing and is the only survivor in the world who remembers Weber’s songs and sang them to Lotoro, who arranged the music for them.
Other composers whose works were played were Walter Lindenbaum, Emerich Kalman, Schmerke Kaczerginski, Irke Yanowski, Josef Roubicek, Willy Rosen, Vilem Zrzavy, Zikmund Schul and William Hilsley whose names, thanks to Lotoro, have risen from the ashes.
Aside from the performers already mentioned, there were singers Eden Holen; Osnat Harel; Idan Haim-David; and Nir Shiber, who performed in the style of their counterparts of the 1930s; elegant dancers Noa Hoffman and Matan Bar, accompanied by the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra and 19 young musicians from the Bikurim Performing Arts School in Eshkol and the Yerucham Conservatory, which are both supported by JNF UK.
There are simply not enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe the quality of the production, which was enhanced by sand animation artist Ilana Yahav, whose quickly changing Holocaust images were seen on three large video screens – one behind the orchestra, and the other two on either side of the balcony.
The standing ovations for Bodo, Maimon and Lotoro said it all from an audience comprising JNF leaders from around the world; a JNF delegation from the UK; mayors of Negev communities; Moshe Lion, who hopes to become mayor of Jerusalem; British Ambassador David Quarrey and some 40 other diplomats and ambassadors; members of Knesset; Holocaust survivors from the south of the country; Negev school children; and journalists from Israel and Britain.
Members of the British JNF delegation as well as individual Brits who flew in to Israel for the occasion paid £36 for a ticket. VIP Tickets that included priority seating and an invitation to a private reception before the concert were £360. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been scheduled to attend the reception but didn’t show, although Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was one of the speakers in the auditorium. All one can say is that Bibi missed out big time, and people were not really upset that they get to see and hear him, because they knew the proceeds were going to going to JNF projects supporting Holocaust survivors and veterans in the Negev.
Actually it was much more appropriate for Lieberman to be there, because his parents were Holocaust survivors. His father and uncle had joined the Red Army. His uncle was killed in battle. His father was captured, but escaped to fight again until he was released from the army in 1946. For all the years that he was away, said Lieberman, his father never lost his Jewish identity. In reference to the salvaged music of the Holocaust, Lieberman said that Hitler had killed six million Jews, but he couldn’t kill the spirit of the Jewish people and he couldn’t silence the music.
Similar sentiments were expressed by JNF UK chairman Samuel Hayek, who credited vice chairman Michael Sinclair with masterminding this remarkable music initiative that simultaneously mourned for those who were lost while celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary of life and independence.
Hayek said the composers would be proud to know that their music was being played in Jerusalem.
Danny Atar, KKL-JNF World Chairman spoke in similar vein.
There was one sour note. At the VIP reception, Sinclair tried in vain to be heard above the din and felt bad for 17-year-old percussionist Eran Shani from Kibutz Zikim, who was trying to convey what a joy it was personally and professionally to work with Lotoro, but couldn’t make himself heard. Among those who were disgusted by the rude behavior of the crowd was Dame Shirley Porter, who said that someone should teach them manners.
When Sinclair called Yeroham Mayor Michael Biton to the podium, Biton yelled for quiet and threatened, “Whoever isn’t be quiet here – we’ll take care of him.” It turned out to be an empty threat and the noise went on unabated. The Lithuanians have worked out how to deal with such a problem. They serve no food until after the speeches and anyone who makes trouble doesn’t get to eat.
■ THERE SEEMS to be a trend now for reviving forgotten music. Last month, the Hebrew University’s Jewish Music Research Center staged a wonderful performance at the Wise Auditorium on the Edmond J. Safra Campus in Givat Ram of Jewish soundscapes of Odessa, with music from the synagogue and the Jewish street that was sung in Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century but has seldom been heard there since.
In a series of pre-concert talks in the cafeteria beneath the auditorium, the audience learned that synagogue music in Odessa had been very much influenced by opera, and that even haredi men went to the opera where they heard women’s voices singing – even if they were not always prepared to listen to women singing outside of the opera.
The lectures also dealt with great cantors who were also composers and researchers of Jewish music and whose names have faded into obscurity.
Among them were David Nowakowsky, known as the Jewish Bach, who was a composer, teacher and conductor at the Brodsky synagogue; Pinchas Minkowsky, a composer, writer and researcher of music who was the cantor at the Brodsky synagogue; and Ephraim Zalman Rozumni, the cantor at Odessa’s Great Synagogue and the grandson of the Chief Rabbi of Nikolayev in Russia. Among the lecturers before the event was Prof. Emeritus Eliyahu Schleifer, who served as Professor of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College. A trained cantor himself, he was able to illustrate what he was saying by raising his voice in cantorial song.
Performers at the concert were Cantor Azi Schwartz of the Park Avenue Synagogue, New York; Vira Lozinski who specializes in Russian and Yiddish songs; The Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, conducted by Stanley Sperber; and pianist and organist Raymond Goldstein, who is well known for his musical arrangements for the Jerusalem Great Synagogue choir.
The program included several familiar synagogue texts, as well as popular Hebrew lyrics, sung to unfamiliar tunes. Nowakowsky had composed a tune to Bialik’s “Bein Nahar Prat Unehar Hidekel” (Between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers) different to that of Nahum Nardi, whose composition is better known in Israel. The famous Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt used to sing Nowakowsky’s version, said Anat Rubinstein, who conceived and produced Mama Odessa, but he never gave Nowakowsky credit, allowing people to think it was his own composition.
In the program, however, Rubinstein gave credit where it was due.
■ REGARDLESS OF where they serve, diplomats are exposed to greater and lesser degrees to the culture and customs of the host country. Thus, diplomats serving in Israel are exposed to many Holocaust-related events on international, national and local levels.
In the case of countries whose armies either fought with the allies or collaborated with the Nazis, the ambassadors also attend memorial events related to the Israeli citizens whose roots are in those countries.
Last year, Swiss Ambassador Jean-Daniel Ruch attended the Zikaron B’Salon (Memories in the Parlor) event, in which Holocaust survivors, speaking to a relatively intimate audience, tell of their experiences and ordeals during the Second World War. Not all were in camps or in ghettos. Some were partisans, some hid in forests, some were taken in by non-Jews and hidden in cellars, haylofts or secret caches built into a wall or a floor. Ruch was sufficiently impressed to decide that if the opportunity presented itself, he would host such an event in his residence.
The opportunity did come, via a book called Silent Letter, written by long-time educator and former diplomat Yitzhak Mayer, who had initially come to Switzerland as a stateless refugee and returned as an ambassador of Israel. Mayer was a child Holocaust survivor. He was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1934, and came to the Land of Israel in 1946. His father had fought in the resistance, but was apprehended in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz, as were Mayer’s grandparents.
None of them survived.
For a long time, Mayer, a prolific writer of prose and poetry, could not bring himself to write of his family’s harrowing wartime escape from Belgium, to France and to Switzerland.
Part of the reason was that as a boy, he had to be his mother’s voice. His mother was Hungarian and her French was far from fluent. She could arouse suspicion as soon as she opened her mouth, so she kept it closed and pretended that she was a mute. Thus, when Mayer finally persuaded himself to write the book, he did it in the form of a letter written by his mother, and called it Silent Letter.
Ruch read the book, and was particularly impressed by a chapter that told of crossing the Swiss border. Mayer’s mother was extremely ill and in an advanced stage of pregnancy. There were two Swiss guards at the border, whose orders were to keep people out.
But there were also two German soldiers on the other side, so in a moment of humanity, the Swiss guards permitted Mayer his mother and his brother to cross, and then realized that she was in need of medical attention and called a doctor. They didn’t really know what to do. One of them wanted to send her back. But the doctor would not allow it, and eventually the guards gave in.
“It is because of this doctor that we are here tonight,” said Ruch, commenting that Jews say that he who saved a single life saved a whole world – “and he did.” The doctor’s action imbued the Swiss ambassador with national pride.
There were other examples of such humanity, he said. Language is very important to Mayer, who speaks seven languages, and this, too, held him back from writing the story when he was younger, because he had to find exactly the right words. He was preoccupied for many years with the question of language, and sometimes wondered in what language God talked, and whether He taught Adam Hebrew.
The evening was conducted in the form of a conversation between Mayer and his long-time friend Rachel Elior, professor emerita of Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Mystical Thought at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She and Mayer are candid friends who know each other well, and talked mostly about language and dreams.
When Elior asked him to name his first language, he couldn’t remember – perhaps because he learned to speak several languages within a very brief time frame. In conversations at the reception in the ambassador’s garden earlier in the evening, he was switching back and forth between French, Hebrew and English. When he explained how he came to write the book about his experiences he said, “The only way I could speak about it was in the voice of my mother, who had no voice.” He made it clear however, that she was silent, but not dumb.
Mayer has an interesting definition of memory, which he says “means present today, in terms of happened to you in the past.”
■ THE INTERNATIONAL March of the Living, beyond the actual triumph of the survival of a people after generations of blood libel, discrimination and persecution, is filled with thousands of stories that are both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
One such story is about an Australian teenager named Kurt Brown, who was raised in a family of fundamentalist Christians. Brown had a very close relationship with his great grandmother, who always wore long sleeves, and who made it a family custom to wear long sleeves. When Brown was 13, his great-grandmother’s mind tended to wander occasionally, and one day, she started speaking in Dutch, a language that he does not understand. She explained to him that she had momentarily mistaken him for her young brother, to whom he bears a striking resemblance.
When Brown asked where he was, she replied that he was dead.
Having revealed that much, his great grandmother, in the course of time, realized that there were not many opportunities left in which to impart her secret. One day she told Brown that because he was her favorite great grandchild, she would tell him everything. The reason she wore long sleeves was to hide the number on her arm. The number had been tattooed there when she was a prisoner in Auschwitz. The reason that she was in Auschwitz was because she was Jewish. After liberation she married a non-Jewish pilot.
Brown had actually noticed the number when visiting during the hot Australian summer, when once in a while, when she was alone, his great grandmother rolled up her sleeves, but he hadn’t given the matter much thought until she told him everything about what she had endured.
He began to think that when she died, there would be no one to carry on all those generations of Jewish life for which she had been deported to Auschwitz. Under those circumstances, there had been no point to her survival. She might just as well have died there.
This kind of thinking was re-enforced when he participated in March of the Living, and saw Auschwitz- Birkenau for himself and stood by the gas chambers. He decided to convert to Judaism and is currently in the process of studying for that conversion. His family has disowned him, but he personally feels that he has come home to his people.
■ THE BIG question is whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be invited to the wedding, and if he is invited, whether his wife will let him go.
Whose wedding? That of his former chief of staff Ari Harow, who after a lot of pressure turned state’s witness against his former boss in some of the cases in which Netanyahu has been repeatedly questioned by the police. In the final analysis, it’s quite possible that nothing he says in court will be harmful to Netanyahu, but it’s going to be a while before he’s called on, if at all.
Meanwhile, Harow has reason to smile. He’s just announced his engagement to Talia Pollack, who happens to be one of the three daughters of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founding president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. It’s the second time around for each of them. The Los Angeles-born Harow has three daughters and a son from his previous marriage, and the Chicago-born Pollack, who raised her children in Miami, has a daughter and son from her previous marriage. The couple kept their relationship low-key until they were absolutely sure where it was going. Pollack frequently sings with her father, who during the Yom Kippur War came to Israel with his guitar and sang to the troops.
■ ALTHOUGH HE has not formally announced his intention to run for Mayor of Haifa in the upcoming mayoral elections Yuval Rabin, the son of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, is meeting with politicians and influential figures in the capital of the north to test the waters and determine whether he has a chance of winning.
What he has won in the interim is the heart of Natalie Aharon, with whom he has been keeping company for the past four years. She will be his third wife. He has a son, Michael, from his first wife, Ayelet Senior, and two daughters from his second wife Tali Patishi, who after the split in the marriage, took them to live in New York.
Aharon, who is set to be wife number three, had no idea of Rabin’s pedigree when they were introduced at dinner by mutual friends. She had been out of the country for an extended period and had no idea that the handsome man, who looks more like his mother than his father, belonged to a family that was famous both militarily and politically. There is talk of an August wedding.
Earlier this month, they flew to Ukraine so that Rabin could meet the mother of his bride-to-be.
■ WHILE MANY Israelis will be focusing on the Israel Prize ceremony on Thursday night, United Hatzalah will dedicate 70 additional ambucycles in celebration of Israel’s 70th Independence Day. Each ambucycle will be given the number of one of the years of Israel’s history from 1948 to 2018. Donors from around the world who have expressed interest in dedicating an ambucycle have been invited to participate in this project and to choose a year in Israel’s history that is special to them.
Guests at the dedication ceremony at the Sunset Auditorium in Bat Yam will include Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, and celebrated lawyer Professor Alan Dershowitz who has personally contributed to the cost of one of the ambucycles in honor of his upcoming 80th birthday on September 1.
Nine of the new ambucycles have been donated in loving memory of the victims of the Parkland school massacre that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14. Members of Palm Beach Synagogue in Florida raised the money for the nine ambucycles in an effort to create a legacy of lifesaving for children and teachers killed in the horrific attack.
“The Jewish response to tragedy is to beautify and sanctify life,” says Rabbi Moshe Scheiner of the Palm Beach Synagogue congregation. “That is the lesson, which all of the congregants who participated in the donation of the ambucycles understood very clearly, and one which we as Jews need to share with the world.”
■ AMONG THE traditional Israel Independence Day events is the annual International Bible Quiz for youth, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary. The quiz was inaugurated by Aura Herzog, the mother of Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog.
She headed the committee that organized Israel’s 10th anniversary celebrations, which included the launch of the Bible Quiz.
Some 10 years later, in 1968, she founded the Council for a Beautiful Israel. Members of the Herzog family, including those who marry into it, maintain a tradition of social welfare involvement in religion, army intelligence, education, civil rights, politics, beautification of public places and more.