Yom HaShoah 2010: The Cello, The Dress And The Autograph Book
Thu, 04/15/2010
Jewish Week Book Critic
Time was out of the hands of labor camp inmates, but celloist Lev Aronson kept a life-saving beat in his head.
Time was out of the hands of labor camp inmates, but celloist Lev Aronson kept a life-saving beat in his head.

Mundane objects can be the containers of powerful stories. Those objects take on a degree of holiness when they are infused with memory and loss, and are the only tangible connection to lives and times that are no more.

Three new books related to the dark history of the Holocaust, are connected to objects that have become priceless and symbolic: a cello, a child’s dress and an autograph book.

The cello, sadly, is lost. Poet Frances Brent has written an uncommon, episodic biography of Lev Aronson, a Holocaust survivor who is a world-class cellist and teacher. At the center of the story are his musical instruments, which gave him strength, even when he no longer had a cello to play and would remember the music.

“The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson” (Atlas & Co.) opens with a description of a letter Aronson wrote in 1986 from Dallas, where he served a principal cellist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra after the war. He listed the names of the dead of his family, the loss of his livelihood and career as a soloist, and stolen items, including his prized Amati cello, confiscated in Riga in 1941. He was convinced that someone in Austria or Germany was playing the instrument. He died two years later, never knowing the fate of the Amati.

Born in Riga in 1912, Aronson began studying music at age 6. He came from a musical family: His grandfather was a klezmer musician, as he put it, an “unschooled country fiddler”; his parents, a tailor and seamstress were also amateur musicians. At 16, he traveled to Berlin to study law, but became so involved with music that he left the university, met his teacher and lifelong mentor, Gregor Piatigorsky, and traveled through Europe performing.

While imprisoned by the Nazis, first in the Riga Ghetto and then in a series of Polish work and death camps, he survived by working with his hands. He wrote that he felt “imprisoned but strangely free.”

While in a labor camp, Aronson and the other workers were told they had an hour to load a truck with coal, and if they didn’t finish the job in the allotted time, they’d be shot. They had no watches, no way to measure time; in fact, as he later wrote, “the concept of time didn’t exist in the camps.”

To pace the group, he would think-sing concertos, and knew they were 20 minutes long. He remembered every “orchestra entrance, every fingering and bow stroke. Memory was remarkable, it was remarkable to remember. The shovel became my cello.”

Aronson was freed during the last days of the war, in March 1945, and then had to escape the Russians. Twenty-five members of his family were murdered during the war. He came to the U.S. after the war and lived in Dallas for 40 years.

Brent writes in a spare and elegant style, based on much research. She did some investigative work to find the Amati, and perhaps, through the publication of this book, it will surface again.

Unlike the cello, the dress was saved. When Lola Rein Kaufman was a young girl in Czortkow, Poland, her mother made her dresses that were so beautiful they made her feel like a princess with a fairy godmother.

But life was hardly a fairy tale when the Nazis occupied the town in 1939. Her father was killed in a pogrom in 1942, and the next year her mother was shot by a German soldier. After that, her grandmother put all of her energy into saving 8-year old Lola. At first, a Ukrainian woman hid Lola under her bed, until the woman’s son-in-law threatened to turn her in to the Gestapo. Taking only a white dress with delicate embroidered flowers and leaves that had been made by her mother, the young girl fled to another farm. There, she hid in a six-foot-wide hole, along with three other Jews, who resented having to share their meager food and space with her. In the nine months she spent in that hole, she never took off the dress.

“The Hidden Girl: A True Story of the Holocaust” by Lola Rein Kaufman with Lois Metzger (Scholastic) is her story of losing her family, hiding and then, with amazing strength, living alone on the run when none of the escaping Jews wanted to care for her. Eventually, an uncle found her, made her part of his family and brought her to America. She held onto the dress — she has no photographs, no other possessions from her home.

Lola attended school, married a survivor who was also a hidden child, had children and grandchildren, and lived in the suburbs. Sometimes she still opens the refrigerator just to look at the food, privately remembering her history. For 50 years, she didn’t speak at all about what happened. Then, after attending a conference of hidden children, she slowly found the words, first, when interviewed, and then when contacted by the United States National Holocaust Museum to see if she had any war artifacts that she might lend them. She brought out the small dress, still in good condition.

The dress became part of the museum’s permanent collection and was also part of a traveling exhibit. Kaufman traveled around the country, accompanying the exhibit and speaking to audiences about her experience. “The Hidden Girl” is simply told and deeply felt — a story that’s not easily forgotten.

For Debbie Levy, a poesiealbum, or poetry album, provided a way to write about her mother’s family’s final year in Germany, 1938. The small book, like an autograph album but written with more care, had entries penned by her mother’s childhood friends. Most of the young scribes did not survive.

After Levy published a story in 1998 in The Washington Post about her mother, she heard from a number of women who had been her mother’s classmates at the Jewish School for Girls in Hamburg. Two years later, they had a reunion of seven. Her mother brought out the poetry album, signed by some of these women when they were girls. The women talked for three days straight.

“The Year of Goodbyes” (Disney/Hyperion), written in free verse as though from Levy’s mother’s point of view, uses entries from the poetry album to begin each chapter. The book reflects a time of increasing danger, fear and ominous loss — and a desire to hold on tight to normal life.

Shelf Life: Yom HaShoah “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story” by Irene Levin Berman (Hamilton Books) fills in a little-known chapter in Holocaust history. While in recent years, the story of the rescue of Danish Jews has come to light, little has been written about the Jews of Norway. Berman, who was born in Norway, escaped as a young child in 1942 — just days ahead of Nazi arrests — with her immediate family to Sweden, with the help of the Norwegian Resistance movement. A pilot carried the 4-year old girl in a knapsack through the forest and across the border. Members of her extended family did not manage to escape and were among the more than 700 Norwegian Jews deported to Auschwitz. Based on extensive research into her own family’s history and that of the Jewish community, she writes about Jewish life in Norway, before and after the war. She tells of those who returned to Norway to rebuild their lives and surrounded their wartime experience with silence.

“A Physician Inside the Warsaw Ghetto” by Mordecai Lensky (Yad Vashem) is a memoir by a Jewish doctor who provided devoted care to a community forced by the Nazis to live under devastating conditions. Lensky was able to escape from the ghetto, and was hidden, along with his family, with the help of Polish women, later recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.