Turning horror to hope

Turning horror to hope

Sisters remember their prodigy uncle, killed by Nazis in Germany, with concert recreating post-liberation Bernstein performance

Rita Lerner, fourth from left, and her sister, Vivian Reisman, in front of her, stand with their friends in front of a memorial stone at a subcamp of Dachau.
(Aall photos courtesy Rita Lerner)
Rita Lerner, fourth from left, and her sister, Vivian Reisman, in front of her, stand with their friends in front of a memorial stone at a subcamp of Dachau. (Aall photos courtesy Rita Lerner)

Every person who was murdered during the Holocaust contained a whole world. Each one was singular, unique, and irreplaceable. Each slaughter, every single death by accident or untreated disease, every death by starvation, every premature post-liberation death by lingering disease or malnutrition or a broken heart or spirit or soul, is the death of a never-to-be-duplicated world.

That is indisputably true.

It is also true that some Holocaust victims were so talented that each death represented two deaths, one of the physical being and the other of the gift that went unopened.

That’s true of Wolf Durmashkin, a musician who began performing when he was 6, and went on, at 25, to become the youngest person — and only Jew— to conduct the Vilna Symphony Orchestra. The Nazis murdered him when he was 31, in 1944, hours before the work camp where he was imprisoned — Klooga, in Estonia — was liberated.

Two of Mr. Durmashkin’s nieces, Rita Gurko Lerner and Vivian Gurko Reisman, who both live in Englewood Cliffs, went to Bavaria, where the German state officially honored the man whose life another German government had ended so casually and so cruelly. Coinciding with the 100th birthday of the American Jewish composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein — whose gifts, the musical world acknowledged at the time, would have made him a close peer of Mr. Durmashkin — and the 70th birthday of the state of Israel, the Germans were able to look both backward and forward in ways that made Ms. Lerner, Ms. Reisman, their brother, Abe Gurko of Los Angeles, and the friends who accompanied them to Germany, feel not only grief, which they had expected to feel, and pride, which they had hoped to feel, but also hope, which was both unexpected and welcome.

On May 10, the Bavarian government offered the first in what is meant to be the annual Wolf Durmashkin composition awards, offered to musicians from around the world as long as they are 35 or younger.

The city of Landsberg, which hosted the awards celebration, also presented a concert that day. It was a recreation of the extraordinary one presented by the Displaced Persons Orchestra, a group made up of concentration and labor camp survivors who had been musicians, had met after the war at the hospital called St. Ottilien, and who could still find it within themselves to play music. The group played for other survivors; in one memorable performance, on May 10, 1948, Leonard Bernstein led the Displaced Persons Orchestra. This May 10, with the Bavarian Philharmonic standing in for the survivor musicians, its conductor, Mark Mast, did Leonard Bernstein’s job.

It would understate the obvious to say that both Ms. Lerner and Ms. Reisman, along with their companions, felt a dizzying rush of contradictory emotions during their stay in Germany.

It’s meta — one of the New Jersey visitors holds up the front page of Landsberg’s daily newspaper, which chronicles the group’s visit.

Their uncle’s sisters, Henia Durmashkin Gurko — their mother — and Fania Durmashkin Beker— their aunt, as well as their uncle, Max Beker, all had been talented musicians; all three survived, and all three were part of the orchestra that played with Mr. Bernstein.

“The concerts on May 10 with the Displaced Persons Orchestra might not have been triumphal from a musical standpoint — the instruments were nearly as worn down as the players — but it left Lenny, the musicians, and the listeners emotionally overjoyed and inspired,” Michael Bernstein, the conductor’s nephew, wrote.

That, of course, was then.

Now, “I had second thoughts about going before I went,” Ms. Lerner said. She had been to Poland 30 years ago, but had not returned before this trip. Ms. Reisman had never been there. On this trip, almost all of the friends who made the visit from Bergen County with them were the children of survivors. They all had grown up with the legacy of pain; they all spoke the same language, even when they didn’t need, or couldn’t speak, words.

The group visited local concentration camps. “We went to Dachau,” Ms. Lerner said. “It had 11 subcamps — they discovered so many of them — and so they” — their German hosts — “took us to a subcamp and showed us how the inmates lived there. And then they took us to the train station, where there is a plaque. And there is a cattle car. It is one of the originals that brought the Jews to Dachau. “For all we know, our mother could have been on that train.”

“It was surreal,” Ms. Reisman said. “It was like an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t believe that I was walking the grounds where my mother had been, knowing what had happened there. It was very painful.” The peaceful green beauty of the German countryside added to the sense of incongruity, she said. “The juxtaposition of such beauty against such horror is so overwhelming, and so hard to fathom. How do you absorb such beauty and such horror?”

The group also went to St. Ottilien, the monastery first turned — at the American liberators’ insistence — into a hospital for liberated camp survivors. That’s where the Displaced Persons Orchestra was formed.

The group was met with kindness in Landsberg, Ms. Lerner said. “The people were so nice. It was mind-boggling.” This, she said, despite — or perhaps because of — the city’s relationship with Hitler. “He wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ when he was in prison there,” she said. “And Hitler Youth was organized there.”

Wolf Durmashkin’s family stands with the contest winners; from left, third-place winner Otto Wanke, Abe Gurko, Vivian Reisman, Rita Lerner, Sonia Beker, first place winner Bracha Bdil, and second place winner Rose Miranda Hall.

Last month’s award celebration grew out of book the Gurko siblings’ cousin wrote about Wolf Durmashkin, the uncle none of them met. Sonia Beker wrote “Symphony on Fire: A Story of Music and Spiritual Resistance During the Holocaust” in 2007; a few years ago, two non-Jewish German researchers — a journalist, Karla Schönebeck, and an artist, Wolfgang Hauck — found the book, and were so moved by its emotion, and also so convinced by its detail, that they decided to work toward establishing the award.

By coincidence, the first-place winner was a young Israeli pianist, Bracha Bdil. Second place went to an Englishwoman, Rose Miranda Hall, and the third prize when to an Austrian, Otto Wanke.

Ms. Bdil’s “teacher came with her,” Ms. Lerner said. “He is in his 90s. He was in the Vilna ghetto with our uncle, and he knew him. Our uncle held a music contest in the ghetto, and this man, the music teacher, won. He was 11 years old then.”

Next, there was the concert, where the Bavarian Philharmonic played the pieces that Bernstein had led 70 years ago. “A brilliant young Israeli pianist, Guy Mintus” — 26 years old, exciting, experimental, up-and-coming — “played his own version of ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ which was one of Bernstein’s favorite pieces, and which Bernstein played at the original concert,” Ms. Lerner said. “It was so good. It was so touching. It was so moving. It was so fabulous. He got such a rousing ovation. Grown men were crying.”

The commemoration also included an exhibition about the family. And it ended with a celebration of Israel at 70. “It was so beautiful — at least what we understood of it,” Ms. Lerner said, a bit ruefully. “A lot of it was in German.” But it ended in the universal language — music — that had brought them there. “It ended with Hatikvah,” she said. And of course hatikvah means hope.

From left, Dr. Cliff Salm, Abe Gurko, Rita Lerner, Michael Bernstein, and Vivian Reisman. Mr. Bernstein is Leonard Bernstein’s nephew.
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