‘Music kept them going’
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‘Music kept them going’

Film on Displaced Persons Orchestra to premiere

Vivian Reisman can picture the emotional Friday night get-togethers at her early childhood home in Weehawken as if they were yesterday.

"They always started out so cheerful, with all the music and the singing and eating everything my mother cooked. Everyone brought instruments. It was an impromptu concert," said the Englewood Cliffs resident.

But as the evening wore on, and they sat around the dining room table reflecting on all they had endured, Reisman, the oldest of Henny and Simon Gurko’s three children, said, "they always ended with the same horrible sobbing."


Leonard Bernstein, right, with the Displaced Persons’ Orchestra. Henny Durmashkin Gurko is in the middle in bobby socks, open-toed shoes and a jacket and dress. She is third from right in the picture below. TOP PHOTO Gift of henny durmashkin gurko, museum of jewish heritage – a living memorial to the holocaust/BELOW COURTESY OF RITA LERNER.

Reisman recalls eavesdropping on her parents and their Shabbat visitors, Eastern European ?migr?s who included Reisman’s aunt, Fania, and uncle, Max Becker. Hidden behind the door of the bedroom she shared with her sister, Rita Lerner, just 13 months her junior, Reisman was riveted by their stories of suffering and loss.

The inconsolable grief of one couple, in particular, haunted Reisman. They, too, had had two daughters. When there was a selection targeting all those who were 1′ years old and younger, the couple’s older girl, 13, decided to leave her parents behind rather than let her sister die alone.

Lerner, who today lives in Englewood Cliffs, said, of the little she remembers overhearing before she fell asleep, "I had to block it out. It was too painful."

As they grew up, the sisters — and their younger brother, Abe Gurko, of Manhattan —learned more about the devastating history that connected their mother, a vocalist born Henny Durmashkin in 19’3, as well as their aunt, a concert pianist, and uncle, a violinist, to a close-knit group of about ‘0 professional musicians.

Liberated by American soldiers following a death march from Dachau in the spring of 1945, the Durmashkin sisters, the only two members of their famed Vilnius musical family to survive the Holocaust, became part of the Displaced Persons Orchestra at St. Otillien. The Bavarian town was the site of the monastery where the refugees were interned from 1945 to 1948.

The group’s extraordinary story is the subject of a new documentary, "Creating Harmony: The Displaced Persons Orchestra at St. Otillien," which will have its world premiere at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York on Sunday, June 10, at ‘:30 pm.

Lerner began to cry as she described how the grandmother she never knew, Sonia Durmashkin, was sent to the gas chamber after the family was deported from the Vilna Ghetto to a concentration camp. "My mother and aunt tried to apply makeup to make her look younger, but it didn’t work," Lerner said in a telephone interview. Pausing briefly, she added, "This gets so emotional for me."

Lerner continued: Her grandfather, Akiva, the cantor of Vilna’s main synagogue and respected composer of liturgical music, had been shot by the SS several years earlier at Ponary, a village on the city’s outskirts. Her uncle, her mother’s older brother Wolf, who had been a child prodigy and conducted the Vilna Philharmonic, was so brilliant a musician and composer that he was given special dispensation to come and go from the ghetto so that he could entertain audiences that included his Nazi captors. A partisan, he managed to smuggle a piano into the ghetto so that Jewish cultural life could continue. He was shot an hour before liberation, said Lerner, in Klooga, a concentration camp in Estonia.

Lerner’s mother, the youngest of the three siblings and in training to be an opera singer before the war, was fluent in eight languages. Years later, after raising her children, Gurko completed the education that was interrupted, earning degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. She eventually went to work as a Hebrew school teacher.

Lerner recalled that her mother filled their home with music. "She was never negative or bitter, even though life was hard for them here at first, not knowing the language and without any help. Anything she could possibly sing, in any language, she sang for us."

Although Gurko died in ’00’ before she could be interviewed for the film, footage of her is included from testimony recorded for the museum’s archives. The archives also contain artifacts she donated: posters announcing the orchestra’s concerts and photos of herself with conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein.

Others featured in the film, written and produced by John Michalczyk and Ronald A. Marsh, are flutist David Arben, a surviving member of the orchestra who spent his career at the Philadelphia Orchestra, thanks to a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music arranged by Bernstein, and the D.P. Orchestra manager, Jascha Gurewitz. A lot of the filming was done at the museum, said Lerner, a board member who was interviewed there for the film, along with her first cousin, Sonia.

How the orchestra, which was first known as the orchestra of survivors and later as the ex-concentration camp orchestra, got started was unclear to Lerner. She said she believed that the musicians connected with each other through word of mouth in the refugee camp. Nor did she know how they acquired instruments or funding for their concerts.

But, said Reisman, their mother often spoke about the fact that "music kept them going after liberation. It helped them to reconnect with what for them represented the normalcy of their lives before the war and gave them great fulfillment to bring music to survivors, helping to restore their faith and leading them down the long road of healing."

It wasn’t long before the orchestra gained renown in Europe and abroad for its stirring arrangements of popular Yiddish and Hebrew music, with vocal performances by Henny Durmashkin. Among its fans were two people who would become leaders of the future Jewish state, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meier.

Bernstein, whose star was rising in the United States, was another. In Munich after the war, Bernstein requested special permission to conduct the musicians. Bernstein managed to join them for three concerts, one in Munich and the other two at Landsberg and Feldafing, two refugee camps that had been sub-camps of Dachau. He accompanied Durmashkin on the piano, but only when she agreed to sing in Hebrew, not Yiddish, she related years later to her children, even though she became known to crowds as "Little Raiseleh," after a Yiddish song she helped make popular. (Lerner speculated that Bernstein’s preference for Hebrew stemmed from his Zionism.)

Of the orchestra’s experience playing with Bernstein, Reisman said, "My mother said it was incredible, moving. For a brief moment in time, Leonard Bernstein made them feel they could leave behind the hell they had lived through and soar into the magical world of music they loved so much. He left an indelible mark on her soul as well as an amazing legacy."

The orchestra’s performance at the Nuremberg Opera House attracted the attention of the international media, in the city to cover the war crimes trials. To highlight Nazi brutality, orchestra members, whose physical scars were still visible, wore the tattered remnants of their concentration camp uniforms on stage.

After Durmashkin left Europe (she met her future husband on the voyage to the United States in 1949), it wasn’t until years later, when she was invited to sing Hatikvah and The Star Spangled Banner at the dedication of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, that she performed again in public. Although, Lerner related, "she and her sister did cut an album, ‘Songs to Remember,’ a collection of Holocaust, Hebrew, and Yiddish music that are still played on Yiddish radio stations in Israel and elsewhere." They also entertained at an annual gathering of ?migr?s from Vilna.

Tickets to the screening of "Creating Harmony," at $10 per person, $7 for students/seniors and $5 for museum members, may be purchased online at www.mjhnyc.org

 A discussion with the filmmakers will follow the screening.

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