Sisters remember sisters — and ‘superstar’ uncle killed in Holocaust

Sisters remember sisters — and ‘superstar’ uncle killed in Holocaust

Wolf Durmashkin, when he was 6 years old.
Wolf Durmashkin, when he was 6 years old.

Sisters Rita Lerner and Vivian Reisman have quite a story to tell.

It’s a story about family loyalty, about a talent so large it has been recognized by a prestigious award, and about a young man, only 31, who was executed in 1944, just one hour before the liberation of Klooga, a work camp in Estonia.

The Englewood Cliffs sisters tell the story of other sisters — one of them was their late mother, Henia — whose love for their slain brother, Wolf, lasted throughout their lives. And they tell the story of Wolf, who was offered a chance to flee the Vilna ghetto but stayed because he wouldn’t leave his sisters.

There also is a place in the story for Leonard Bernstein.

Wolf Durmashkin — a brilliant young musician now being recognized through an international competition for up-and-coming composers — “was a musical child prodigy,” his nieces said. “He began playing the piano at age 6, was giving piano recitals by age 7, and became the youngest conductor and only Jew to conduct the Vilna Symphony Orchestra.

Sisters Vivian Reisman, left, and Rita Lerner talk about their uncle.

“His sisters were close to him and adored him,” they added. “He was a superstar in the family and in the city of Vilna — a very cultural town.”

The Wolf Durmashkin Composition Awards, to be presented on May 10 in Landsberg, Germany, and including grants totaling $7,500, was the brainchild of journalist Karla Schönebeck and artist Wolfgang Hauck of Landsberg’s sociocultural association dieKunstBauStelle, in cooperation with the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich. Participation is open to young musicians of all nationalities; they must be no older than 35.

Representatives of the cultural organization, which was founded in January 2014, got in touch with Ms. Lerner and Ms. Reisman about a year ago to discuss a program that would “honor the legacy and the tragic loss of the brilliant pianist, composer, conductor, and choir director.” The idea came to the group via a journalist who learned Wolf’s story while doing research, and the award is intended to “celebrate his legacy with music and the arts, a teaching opportunity for young participants, while honoring those lost in the Holocaust.”

To truly understand Wolf’s character, we must turn our attention back to Vilna in 1941. It was then that all the Jews in the city were forced to move to a ghetto. While Wolf was issued a special dispensation to leave the ghetto to continue conducting, he nevertheless heeded the pleas of ghetto leaders to create an orchestra there, to raise morale. His sister Fania performed a Chopin piano concerto at its first concert. He also organized a 100-member choral group.

“It needed a piano,” Ms. Lerner and Ms. Reisman said. “They didn’t have one, so he instructed the people who were able to leave the ghetto to get one. They smuggled it in under their clothes, piece by piece. He helped them put it together.”

Concentration camp orchestra members wear their striped uniforms.

The ghetto musicians were so good that “the Nazis came in to watch him conduct and listen to the orchestra,” the sisters said.

When the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, the siblings were sent to Klooga, while their parents, Akiva — head cantor at a Vilna synagogue and composer of liturgical music — and Sheina, were taken to the Ponary forest and killed.

It was then that the music stopped.

His nieces remember stories their mother and aunt, who were able to survive the war despite being interned in several labor and concentration camps, told them. “He was a brilliant, nice, handsome, wonderful guy,” they said. “Because he could go in and out of the ghetto, he had non-Jewish friends who wanted to save him.

“But he wouldn’t leave his sisters.”

The Englewood Cliffs sisters’ mother, Henia, was trained in opera before the war. It is here that the family’s connection to composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein begins. “My mother was a singer, and Leonard came to Germany to conduct the Philharmonic,” Ms. Lerner said. “He wanted to work with the ex-concentration camp orchestra and got special permission from the government” to conduct concerts in the DP camps.

The concentration camp orchestra played together after liberation.

Both Henia and her sister, Fania, performed with the Displaced Persons’ Orchestra, which Bernstein ultimately led in three concerts, in Munich, Landsberg, and Feldafing. On May 10, 2018, as part of the Landsberg event honoring Durmashkin, a jubilee concert will commemorate Bernstein’s May 10, 1948, performance. That’s when he accompanied Henia on the piano. The concert will feature Mark Mast, conductor of the Bavarian Philharmonic Orchestra and a former student of Bernstein’s.

That same evening, “Creating Harmony,” a film about the Displaced Persons Orchestra of St. Ottilien, will be screened. The documentary, which premiered in 2007 at New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, features both Henia and Fania.

His nieces often wonder what their uncle might have become had he survived. “Who knows what somebody that talented could have accomplished?” they asked. “He was destroyed at the height of his promise.” As for Henia, “who trained with one of the top voice teachers to be a coloratura — because of her experiences in the ghetto, she lost the operatic part of her voice,” they said. “When she came here, Bernstein wanted to help her, but she got married and had kids.” Henia came to the United States in 1949; she met her husband, Simon Gurko, on the boat crossing the Atlantic, bringing them both to their new lives. Fania also came to the United States; she married Max Beker, who had played violin in the concentration camp orchestra, and they had a daughter, Sonia. (Henia and Simon Gurko had three children; their son, Abe, lives in Los Angeles.)

Still, Bernstein did help one of the orchestra members, David Arben, getting him a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; later he became the first violinist in the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra. “Many people don’t know about Bernstein’s association with survivors,” Ms. Reisman said.

The sisters both are active in making sure that the Holocaust’s survivors and their children are cared for, and that the Holocaust’s lessons are not forgotten. Ms. Reisman is a member of what she says is the country’s oldest group for children of survivors; it does not have a formal name but it is now in its 38th year. Ms. Lerner is on the board of trustees of the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in lower Manhattan.

They are eager for people to learn about Bernstein’s efforts and they hope that many will attend the events planned this year by the Leonard Bernstein Foundation as a world-wide celebration of his 100th birthday. “Bernstein went from camp to camp,” the sisters said. “After one of the concerts, he was presented with a concentration camp uniform. He said he went back to his room and cried his eyes out.”

Ms. Reisman and Ms. Lerner both have three children but different musical talents. Ms. Reisman is a talented pianist who went to Julliard. But “I took after my father,” Ms. Lerner said. “I clap.”

What: The First Annual Wolf Durmashkin Composition Award will be presented

When: On May 10, 2018

Where: In Landsberg, Germany

The works of the three prizewinners will be premiered on May 10 and events held between May 7 and May 11 will include a gala reception, a jubilee concert commemorating Leonard Bernstein’s 1948 concert, and the screening of “Creating Harmony,” as well as exhibitions, tours, and additional performances.

Original compositions, a maximum of 10 minutes long, can be submitted until January 10, including vocals and instrumentals, with up to five musicians. For registration, go to ; submit completed form and portrait to

For more information: go to

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