Sonia Pauline Beker
PROMOTING THE ARTS IN THE BERKSHIRES SINCE 1994 DECEMBER / JANUARY 2019 ANNIVERSARY ISSUE
THE ARTFUL MIND
SONIA PAULINE BEKER Photographed by Tasja Keetman
SONIA PAULINE BEKERAUTHOR / EDUCATOR
INTERVIEW BY HARRYET CANDEEPHOTOGRAPHY BY TASJA KEETMAN
Sonia, tell me about your life. Sonia Pauline Beker: I’m was an only child of my sweet, Holocaust parents who created a warm, solid home in America for their little family. I always felt a bit disconnected from other kids, as my public schoolmates came from American parents who were more confident, outspoken and self-assured than my parents, who were somewhat more deferential, modest and quiet. I grew up in East New York, Brooklyn. Then, when I was 11, we moved to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. During the summers, we initially went to Rockaway Beach where we stayed in a boarding house with other Jewish immigrant families. My mom and I went to the beach everyday and I made friends with the other kids nearby. Then, we also spent summers in the Catskills with my aunt, uncle and cousins in bungalow colonies in Swan Lake. Those were exciting days for us young kids. We were free to roam the grounds of the bungalow colony and play games all day until our moms called us in for lunch and dinner. Our dads were away on weekdays and returned on Fridays for the weekend! It was so exciting for us when we saw our
dads again!! Often, they brought us small gifts and toys that we shared with our friends.
On Saturday nights, our parents dressed up and drove to the nearby hotels (Concord, Stevensville) to go to the nightclubs for variety and comedy shows. When I got older, I went with my friends! Loved them!! We’d do our hair, tease it up and hairspray it against the mountain humidity. Then, we’d cover it with kerchiefs because we didn’t want bats to fly into our hair!! There was such a feeling of abundance, laughter and sharing! Truly miss those days!! It was a place of healing, I think, for the survivors. On weekends, they swam and played cards or mah jongg during the day, bingo in the main house in the evening, and just relaxed. Then there were those excellent comedy shows on Saturday nights. I think they slowly restored their spirits in this Catskills culture.
As I grew up and went to high school, I became friends with a couple of girls with literary interests. We wrote for the school literary magazine and newspaper. We got together on weekends and went to see foreign films in Manhattan. My best and favorite subject was
English, which I continued to major in at SUNY Buffalo. I Went to England for my junior year, then stayed later to audit courses while I became the au pair for the university’s chancellor. Then, returned to SUNY Buffalo, graduated, went back to England to do a Master’s in English and American Lit., then returned to NY, worked in book publishing for a while, went back to school in Vermont to get a Master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language. Got my first job in Boston, then went to teach in Japan for 4 ½ years. Came back and entered the NYC school system as a high school teacher of ESL. Also taught some summers and evenings at Hunter College and the School of Visual Arts. Became more Jewishly observant through a modern orthodox synagogue on the upper west side, then Chabad. Just retired in 2014, which is also when I married Steve Zucker. It’s been a wonderful journey, and I look forward to more.
You have written a book, Symphony on Fire: A Story of Music and Spiritual Resistance During the Holocaust. Tell us about why you wrote this book?
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Sonia: When my parents both left this world, I felt very keenly that, as our Jewish survivors were leaving us, the world would be left without their special kind of decency, kindness, modesty, conscientiousness, wry humor, sense of irony, deep love of family, dignity and quiet grace. I knew I had to write my parents’ story, a story of music and the deep humanity that connects us all. It was a way to transcend the painful realization that anti- Semitism still stalks the planet, that ignorance, always the easy way out, can still rule people’s minds and create human catastrophe. I wanted to honor my parents and the family members I never knew, I wanted to fight the devastating trends of anti-Semitism with my book, and I will fight them all my life.
Can you tell us what your family’s lives were like before Hitler came into power? Sonia: Their lives were full of the sounds of music – my Uncle Wolf and my mother practicing the piano for upcoming concerts and lessons, and accompanying visiting cantors, such as Yossele Rosenblatt and Moshe Koussevitsky; my aunt practicing her singing; my Grandfather Akiva preparing for his choir performances. They also created small musical reviews for the family’s fun and enjoyment. My grandfather was quite religious, so the family was Shabbat and holiday-observant, although my Uncle Wolf eventually observed less as he became more involved in composing, performing and conducting music in his own right.
Music was central to the lives of the Beker family. There were seven children in the family. My father attended the Vilna Conservatory of Music, as did my
mom. They were far from wealthy, but were a happy, close-knit family. My dad’s grandparents lived around the corner, and the family would gather often at my dad’s home for Shabbat and holiday meals. There was lots of joking and laughter at the table, and the family enjoyed each other immensely. His aunts and uncles also lived nearby, and they were all as close as siblings. When he and his brother were in their late teens, they took musician jobs in music halls, nightclubs and local cafés where people would go after dinner to have coffee, fine pastries and hear music. They gave their wages to their parents for the family’s sustenance. Their lives continued in this way until September 1939 when Germany attacked Poland and the war broke out.
Your parents were accomplished musicians. Do you think music was one of the key factors that helped them survive through the Holocaust? And what about your other family members from Lithuania? Sonia: Yes, for both my parents, music was their lifeline and helped them navigate through the Holocaust. My mom, Fania Durmashkin-Beker, pianist, her sister, Henia Durmashkin-Gurko, singer, and my dad, Max Beker, violinist, were from noted musical families in Vilna, Lithuania. Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, was a Jewish cultural mecca, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, and music was the focal point of the lives of both the Durmashkin and Beker families. My mom’s father, Akiva Durmashkin, was a composer of cantorial music and choir director of Vilna’s Great Synagogue. And so, both Jewish liturgical music and secular, classical music were the pathways that their fathers especially, and children of both families pursued. After the Nazis occupied the city in June 1941, my parents families were taken to the Vilna ghetto in September of that year.
the book by sonia pauline beker
Uncle Wolf, the only Jewish conductor of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra before Nazi occupation, became the musical leader of the ghetto. He formed a small symphony orchestra, a 100-voice Hebrew choir and held musical competitions and concerts to raise the morale of the devastated ghetto inmates whose numbers dwindled daily as they were selected for transport to concentration camps, taken to Ponary, Vilna’s killing fields, for execution, or succumbed to disease and starvation. I think that music was Wolf’s passion and salvation. I imagine he believed that as long as he could compose, conduct and create, he could somehow stave off death and survive. This was not to be. My mother and her sister were sent to a string of concentration and hard labor camps, eventually ending up in Kaufering 2/ Landsberg, a sub-camp of Dachau. It was there, on their final death march, which the Nazis forced the inmates to participate in when they knew they were losing the war, that they were finally liberated by the Americans. They then became part of a DP (Displaced Persons) Camp where they and other musician survivors from Kovno, formed the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra. The Orchestra held its first Liberation Concert in May 1945 at St. Ottilien, a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria with a hospital that treated hundreds of Dachau and other concentration camp inmates at the end of the war. It was there they learned that their gifted brother, Wolf, had been executed in Klooga, an Estonian concentration camp, at the age of 31 just hours before the camp was liberated.
Meanwhile, my father, Max Beker, also from Vilna, was a violinist. His father, Berel, was an oboist in the Vilna Sym- Continued on next page...
THE ARTFUL MIND DECEMBER / JANUARY 2019 • 15
max, with violin, front left of conductor, in the stalat Viiia orchestra
phony, and his brother, Leib, was a percussionist and bass player. My dad was conscripted into the Polish Army at the start of the war. He and his fellow soldiers, both Polish and Jewish, were sent to the front. By the time the trains reached that area, Poland had fallen to the Nazis. My father and his regiment were taken as prisoners of war. He ended up at Stalag VIIIA in Silesia, worked in a mine and digging ditches on local farmland. The Jewish prisoners were separated from the Polish prisoners and received much harsher treatment.
One day my dad was walking through the camp and heard music. He entered a wooden building and saw a small orchestra of French and Belgian musicians rehearsing for a concert. He identified himself, told the conductor, a well-known Belgian conductor, Ferdinand Carrion, that he was a violinist, and Carrion, told him to stop by the next day for an audition, which my father passed with flying colors. He became the orchestra’s first violinist and the only Jew in the group. He also performed in the camp’s jazz band (he played saxophone!), and gypsy band – in costume!!
When my father was captured, he was a violinist without a violin. In Stalag VIIIA, his Jewish bunkmates pooled their meager wages and gave the money to a non-Jewish friend who had free access to go inside and outside the camp. They told him to buy my father a good violin and bring it back with him so they could give it to him. This is the violin he played in the Stalag orchestra, that he took with him when he and his friend snuck away from the prisoners’ death march, and the one he had when, after Liberation, he heard about the St. Ottilien/ Landsberg DP Camp and its primarily Vilna-based members, which encouraged him to go and join them. It was there that he met my mother. And it was there that, in May 1948, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra for two concerts in Landsberg and Feldafing. After five years,
the Orchestra disbanded and the musicians went to various destinations – Israel, Australia, the U.S. My father had relatives in Brooklyn, and so he went there first by ship in 1949. My mother and her sister, who met her future husband on the boat, followed in 1950, also by ship, and joined him there.
Tell us more about your parents connection with Leonard Bernstein. This is a great story of celebration and renewal. Sonia: Leonard Bernstein was in Germany on a cultural mission, and inquired about connecting with a Jewish survivor orchestra. He was directed to the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra in Landsberg. He rehearsed with them, and conducted two performances with them in Landsberg and Feldafing. He also accompanied my aunt on the piano as she sang Hebrew songs for the audience. At the end, they presented him with a concentration camp uniform as a token of remembrance. I know that symbolically this experience was so impactful for them. Here was a young, up and coming American Jewish conductor and composer singling them out to show the world “Am Yisrael Chai”, the Jewish people still live!! (This was the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra’s slogan). Not only to live, but thrive, and actually show their dignity and talent, that they still have and want to give their special gifts to the world after everything they went through!
You must have heard your parents playing music all the time, violin and piano, side by side, all through your life. What do you remember that they loved to play the most? Sonia: My folks used to play Yiddish songs, classical music, and tangos. I loved it when they played together! My mother and her sister made an album, also on CD, called “Songs to Remember”, a variety of ghetto songs and Yiddish melodies.
Being surrounded by music your whole life, do you play an instrument as well? Sonia: My mom started teaching me piano when I was 6, then, by the time I was about 9 or 10, brought me to a terrific piano teacher on the upper west side of Manhattan. I studied until I was a senior in high school, then stopped. In the interim, I played recitals and practiced daily. Perhaps it was a sense of pressure, that I felt the musical legacy of the family lay on my shoulders, but I never again continued with the same intensity. Now, I’m beginning to sit down at the keyboard and play a little again.
Were your parents easy to talk to about living through the war? Sonia: Both my parents were equally outspoken about their lives and war experiences to me from the time I was very small. Their lovely survivor friends used to come and visit and my parents and would play music together from that time. Everyone would reminisce, laugh and sometimes cry. I knew them, and about them, and I knew about my parents too. I thought the whole world was cognizant about the Holocaust and how almost a whole race of people with so many gifts to offer the world had been so cruelly annihilated.
What events took place as a result of your book? I know the adventurous side to you must have lead to some new and interesting connections and experiences? Initially, when my book was first published, I gave presentations about it for synagogues, children’s groups, schools and Jewish organizations in NY and other states. I was also interviewed by local publications. Then, after a couple of years, this level of interest subsided. I was happy that my story was out in the world, and life went on.
About three years ago, I was contacted by Karla
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(Above) pen and ink drawing of max beker by b. thomato, 1941(Right) max beker, pow
Schonebeck, an investigative reporter who lives in Landsberg, Germany, the location of the DP camp where my parents and aunt were members of the Jewish Displaced Persons Orchestra in Landsberg and in St. Ottilien. Karla had read my book, and was so moved by the story of my uncle, Wolf and the plight of the survivor DP orchestra that she decided to create a project memorializing my uncle in particular, and the Orchestra as well. The name of the project is the Wolf Durmashkin Composition Award or WDCA (you can Google it and read about it in detail). Karla emailed and phoned me for a number of months, we discussed crucial aspects of the project, she asked me to become a member of her team, and we then got my cousins on board. Since she first spoke to me about the project, it has grown tremendously and has a number of different facets.
First, in the fall of 2017, the WDCA team organized a competition for young composers from all over the world. These young composers submitted original compositions reflecting the theme of Uncle Wolf's life, namely, the drive and necessity to create and produce one's art on the highest level, even under the most dire circumstances, and, despite the fact that Wolf's life was cut down so tragically, the music and creativity go on.
orchestra members with leonard bernstein, far right. Fania to his left, max beker, 4th from right, and henia Durmashkin-gurko, 7th from right
There was a panel of judges to choose the winning composition, and Karla most generously invited me to be one of them on Feb. 19, 2018 in Munich. The hall where the judging took place was in a Munich University building that had been converted by the Third Reich to administrative offices. Hitler's private office was upstairs, above the room where we judged the compositions. So astonishingly ironic that right below that office we were celebrating the memory of my Uncle Wolf, a renowned Jewish composer, conductor and pianist, in Munich, cultural seat of the Third Reich, by a team of non-Jewish staff! My husband and I traveled there, and I participated in the judging process. Three winners were chosen. The first prize went to Bracha
Bdil, a young, Orthodox woman composer and teacher based in Jerusalem. She is the protege of Alexander Volkoviski (Tamir), who, at the age of 11 in the Vilna ghetto wrote the music for the song, "Shtiler, Shtiler," (lyrics by Shmerke Kaczerginski). Alex won first prize in the ghetto in a music concert organized by my uncle. More irony! Karla also hunted down the piano my mother played in the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra. It was in the home of the nephew of the German doctor who was stationed at the DP camp and who loaned it to the Orchestra. When the Orchestra was disbanded in 1949, it was returned to him and he, in turn, Continued on next page...
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Vilna, ca. 1930
passed it on to his nephew, a composer. Karla arranged for us to visit this gentleman and his wife so I could play on the piano (I haven't played for decades, but worked up a short Chopin prelude for the occasion). She also arranged for Bavarian TV to film this amazing experience -- it was beyond awe-inspiring!
Quite separately, I brought along my father's violin, the one he played in the Displaced Persons Orchestra in Munich, at St. Ottilien, in Landsberg and Feldafing, twice under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. Why? Before we left for Germany, I was contacted by Holocaust violin restorer and luthier, Amnon Weinstein, whose parents originally came to Tel Aviv from Vilna before WWII, and who not only restores Holocaust violins, but then gives them to professional Israeli violinists along with the violins' stories. (Amnon's story is told in a book by Prof. James Grymes called, "Violins of Hope." "Violins of Hope" has now become a concert and presentation venue that Amnon and his son are booked to perform across the U.S. for the next three years). Amnon Weinstein invited me, my husband, Karla and Wolfgang, her colleague, to attend a concert he held at Dachau Palace on Feb. 18, 2018, where Israeli and German violinists performed on his Holocaust violins, which he also displayed. There, at this amazing concert, I presented his son, Avshi, and wife, Assi with my father's violin, and was interviewed by AIPAC and German newspapers. We were privileged to attend the
performance which took place to a packed house, a 99% German audience. (Even more ironically, my mother and aunt were incarcerated in Kaufering/ Dachau!). This experience was absolutely life-changing for me as well!!
On May 10, 2018, the WDCA program and exhibition, funded by the Bavarian government and other cultural foundations, was held in Landsberg for one week. An important feature of this May's program was the award ceremony for the original compositions that we had selected in February. In Landsberg this May, the prizes were given to the three winners, and their pieces were performed by the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra in the Landsberg State Theater conducted by Mark Mast. Also, the WDCA honored the Bernstein-led concerts by duplicating in part the May 10, 1948 program. In the 1948 program, Bernstein played "Rhapsody in Blue", and, for our concert, a marvelous young Israeli pianist, Guy Mintus, played the piece with amazing improvisations of his own! He brought the house down!! I must say, too, that I shared a final song of Wolf's (called "Loz Mir Schveigen"), which he composed in the Klooga concentration camp, and which Amnon discovered in an old book in Tel Aviv. This song was performed by a young Jewish-German singer, Yoed Sorek. Among the attending guests was Michael Bernstein, nephew of Leonard, who enjoyed the proceedings immensely, and subsequently wrote about them in an article.
The May WDCA program was embedded into an international Jewish-German Festival Week attended by a number of Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra member descendants and witnesses from Israel, the U.S. and Canada. Attendees included Alex Tamir himself! In addition, there were film screenings, such as "Creating Harmony" by John Michalczyk, a documentary film inspired by my book, an art exhibit and lectures pertaining to this topic. It was endorsed by a number of cultural foundations in Germany, such as the Goethe Institute. Moreover, Karla and Wolfgang wish to use the project to continue the WDCA composition competition for young musicians to submit their work in the future.
Another important part of the exhibition was a series of beautifully rendered historical panels, artfully displayed, entitled, "From Lithuania to Landsberg: The Glory of Lithuanian and Vilna Jewish Culture." The exhibition itself is a comprehensive series of panels of historical text and photos about how the Lithuanian Jews, particularly the Vilna Jews, thrived and flourished in Lithuania, developed highly cultural communities, how they were incarcerated in ghettos, scattered to concentration camps, and then survived to find themselves in DP camps in Bavaria. The text contains information, photos and personal stories about both Jews and Germans connected to this particular population,
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(Top) gordonia Zionist youth group, Fania is far left.
(Left) leo Durmashkin and family: Venya, his daughter, stands between her parents
and much of the information is quite unique, not found in standard history books. The exhibition will also offer films and other multi-media information sources, all of which we are working on now, hoping to bring the exhibition and WDCA music competition to NY, Boston, Vilnius and Jerusalem.
You have visited your parents, family’s village, Vilna and seen for yourself, felt for yourself, the rich history surrounding you as you explored. What discoveries did you make? Sonia: Jewish Vilna is as much a character in the story of its Jews as the actual Jews themselves. From my book: “Vilna, now know as Vilnius, was the cultural mecca of Jewish Lithuania, and the birthplace of my parents. Amazingly, at the turn of the 21st century, it is experiencing a renaissance and has become a major tourist attraction. People from around the world visit its restored twisted cobbled streets, its cafes and medieval courtyards. Music emanates from its concert halls and theaters. Against this backdrop, Jewish secular and religious life is re-emerging, declaring its right to exist once more. A vanguard of concerned individuals at its Jewish Gaon State Museum guards the remnants of Vilna’s extraordinary Jewish history. Professors teach this history at Vilna University. And Jewish music is once again played in auditoriums, coffee houses, churches and at memorial concerts that commemorate Vilna’s ghetto sons, its murdered songwriters,
composers, poets, conductors, artist, novelists and musicians. The rich fabric that was Jewish Vilna at the beginning of the 20th century and through World War II has been irreparably torn. The complex weave of cultural and intellectual life, the variety of personalities, predictable inter-organizational feuds, the bonded, loving families, the culture’s dedication to modern and ancient traditions – to art, science and religion – the talent that flourished for a moment in time and that it offered to the world, will never be seen again. Vilna began as a dream in the 14th century by Duke Gedymin. The Jewish facet of this dream came to fruition during the 16th and 17th centuries religiously with the Vilna Gaon, trade opportunities, then, in the 19th century with the Haskalah (Enlightenment) Movement, the full development of Yiddish which became codified in Vilna as a language of religion, science, literature and medicine, all of which attracted more and more Jews to the city. Jewish Vilna, too, was a dream that burned brightly and was extinguished brutally.” Thanks to a network of friends and guides, I went through Vilna’s streets, visited my parents’ homes, walked in their footsteps, wept everyday, saw the ghosts of my people entwined among the tree branches of the boulevards and heard their voices in the ghetto alleyways and courtyards. What I encountered there was an overwhelming sense of what the world lost, and of what I lost.
I know you are a practicing Jewish American woman. Have you experienced anything of the supernatural, spirit world – you might have encountered something? Sonia: As an observant woman, I’ve learned that G-d rules the world. My presence in it is not accidental, but purposeful, and I have an opportunity to make it a better place through my connection with others. I’ve learned that Torah is the ultimate GPS guiding us through life’s experiences, providing us with a foundation of goodness, clarity and strength that will move us forward. Through my connection with Chabad, I’ve learned that the way to maximize our experiences with Torah and life is through joy. G-d wants us to be joyful and share that joy with our communities. Apropos to that, I once had a vision on Shabbat night in Tsfat, Israel. Tsfat has small, winding streets and many homes have their windows at street level. As I walked through a particular street, I watched as families gathered at their tables. The women lit Shabbat candles, and everyone began singing Shabbat songs of praise and celebration.
I came to a small courtyard, a wide space with the starry, night sky above. Suddenly, I saw the Shabbat songs as ribbons unfurling from each window.
The ribbons came together in the center of the courtyard and begin twisting around each other in a column, rising up and disappearing into heaven.
Continued on next page...
THE ARTFUL MIND DECEMBER / JANUARY 2019 • 19
Presences for my mother
letter from grandfather, boris beker to his sister, lisa in brooklyn
From all your relatives that endure the war, played music, lived and died, who can you relate to the most? Sonia: I think I connect most to my uncle, Wolf Durmashkin. I imagine he was extremely talented, a prodigy who performed piano and conducted an orchestra at the age of seven, and that he was probably immersed in music starting from that early age. He might have been somewhat shy and modest, although he had many friends and garnered a great deal of respect from so many people. I think that when he was involved in music, he became fully empowered, and felt the flow of life and beauty completely.
I’m definitely connected to the Durmashkin family of musicians, and to the Jewish Vilna culture before and during the war. The more I researched for my book, the more I loved my family members and the people who comprised the rich cultural life of the city.
Regardless of the terrors the Jews faced during WWII, they were able to feel joy and even a bliss when hearing the orchestra or playing in the orchestra, or singing in the choir. I find this so moving. Music is a powerful drug. Your thoughts? Sonia: I think music touches people very deeply, and moves our souls differently than other art forms. At a concert you can see how people respond to music so similarly, with sadness, with awe, with pain and with joy. Music goes beyond borders, touches our hearts and builds bridges between people and cultures. That’s why the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra was such a phenomenon. Concentration camp inmates who could barely walk, hobbled to the concert, while others were brought in stretchers just to hear the music, cry at memories the music evoked, and get in touch with their humanity again.
Do you feel some things are just timeless? Like, for example, the photo of your dad and POW bunkmate… You can just about step right on in and join them relaxing in their hard as nails bunk beds! What a gift for you it was to be given these photos and all the documents and memorabilia! In many ways, all of this keeps your parents and family alive. Do you think so too? Sonia: I completely agree!! To me, the photos are as fresh as the moment they were taken. The essence of my family members and their friends come through in each image! It’s a true document of the time
Life didn’t stop when my mother died.
There was no mad eclipse of the moon or startling sun storm to mark her journey, to make a tear in the landscape though time had changed forever.
But days later
There was a long moment when on a windy promenade overlooking the harbor,glittering with the jagged light of winter, a soft sudden warmth wound itself around my shoulders and head and held me beyond sun and wind and a bright bird swept its wingsskyward across wave simmers, dissolving high above the busy coast.
— Sonia P Becker
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m the Vilna ghetto announcing my Uncle wolf directing the hebrew choir
a letter to brooklyn written by sonia’s grandfather, boris beker, during the early part of the war shortly before the beker Family was executed at ponary.
and of the people in them! I have many framed and hanging on my wall in my Brooklyn apartment. I totally love them. While creating this book, have you met any remarkable people along the way that have helped you make this book possible you can tell us about, and their part in it? So many people come to mind – Ed Herman, consummate gentleman who was a GI stationed at St. Ottilien who, with his fellow GI, Bob Hilliard, procured more food, clothing and medicine for the Jewish inmates; my dear friend, Marija Krupoves, singer par excellence who, though a devout Christian, taught about the Vilna Jewish cultural community at the university there, sings Jewish ghetto songs in Yiddish in a heartbreakingly beautiful style and has a heart of gold; the Vilna Jewish community; my dear friend, Mira Van Doren, whose film, “The
World Was Ours”, codified the eminence of Vilna’s Jewish cultural life, and so inspired me in my research; my dear friend, Helen Schwimmer, journalist and writer of poignant life stories of survivors whose unerring search for substance kept me on track; my own Rabbi and Rebbetzin Raskin
whose spiritual support of me never wavered; and my husband, Steve Zucker, whose love and support meant everything to me all the moments of every day, and still do!!
Are you planning another book? You must enjoy writing! Sonia: I’m toying with the idea of writing another book based on the project and exhibition that was developed in Germany. So far, it’s still in my mind, but I think it would be a great sequel to “Symphony on Fire.” I enjoy the writing process, but find it very solitary.
My father came to the USA at the age of 13, from where he grew up in a shtetl in the Ukraine, Russia. He had dark skin, red hair, heavy accent, smoked filterless camels… very handsome, politically not sure, maybe Communist, or something, and did very well for himself and family. Coming from Europe and making a life in the USA is such the story of many of my childhood friends’ parents and families. Growing up in the Bronx, it was normal to eat lunch at a friend’s house whose parents had heavy accents, I could not understand them and felt afraid. Watching my friend take a piano lesson from her father, who shocked me with his German strictness! The overprotected mothers, like mine, afraid to let their kids out to play unless they were watched the whole
time…but we rebeled in high school, of course. Us, as kids, whispered to each other the secret that this grandma had tattooed numbers on her arm, and to go gentle with her, “hush-hush mine kindalach!”, we would hear... And boy! Can those elders play a wicked card game card and cook up a storm!! Bortsch, schav, stimmis, corned beef, tongue, kniedlach, maztah balls and brie—it goes on and on!…( See Laura Pian’s article in this issue on Gramma Becky’s Jewish Cooking Recipe this month!) So, Sonia...how does your background compare? Sonia: Some of this is familiar. I think my folks were very protective of me as well. That’s probably why I went to England for my junior year and stayed on, then went to Japan! I think I went a bit overboard to declare my independence, and I’m afraid I hurt my parents by distancing myself in such a way. I’m sorry for that, but we did get together often when I came back. For me, living in a community of survivors was quite normal and comfortable. I found them to be loving, humorous, caring people, always lots of food to eat when company came. Many had numbers on their arms, but it was accepted and we knew why the numbers were there. Yes, we also ate borscht, gefilte fish, kreplach, chicken fat and gribenes, and schav – I loved it when my mom cooked these old world delicacies!
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sonia and steve, berkshires, massachusetts, 2018photograph by tasja keetman
Catching up with the present, how did you discover the beautiful Berkshires? Sonia: I began coming to Tanglewood during the summers decades ago with friends, and was enchanted with the Berkshires. I never imagined having a home here – that was just too wonderful!! Then, when Steve and I got together, we began spending summer weekends here as well. Steve became so enamored of the Berkshires he suggested looking at homes here, and the rest is history. The Berkshires are more magical than I realized. Not only is the natural beauty superb, but the people are as well! Quiet, grounded, creative, peopleoriented, talented, articulate, warm! It’s all such a great gift, I think!
Who do you spend most of your free time with? What do you share in common that makes the relationship fit like a glove? Sonia: I spend a lot of time on my own, but share most time with Steve. Over time, I’ve come to know him more, understand him better and appreciate him more as well. We share our Jewish observance, love of the outdoors, love of the old Catskill days, love of similar foods, feelings about world events, world view and the Holocaust, just a fundamental sympatico that endures and grows.
What is one thing you consider vital to teach the next generation? What would you add into the scholastic roster? Sonia: Although this is probably impossible, I would try to limit the amount of time kids spend on their phones and computers, and try to show them how valuable
personal interaction and direct conversation is with friends and family. I would expect parents to take more initiative, as parents in my day did, to interact meaningfully with their kids, take them to films, museums, concerts and shows, make their kids accountable for basic chores at home from an early age, share in their triumphs and help them through rough spots with caring and wisdom. I would also teach them respect for seniors, and how older people are our historical treasures. I would also make it mandatory for high school students to think critically, research ideas to support their opinions, present valid evidence for their positions and not point fingers of blame at others. The Holocaust is no longer taught in NY high schools for more than two days. I would extend that to at least a week, giving students special projects and interviews entailing research and talking to Holocaust survivors or 2nd generation people. Tolerance, acceptance and connection must be taught. These are life lessons that are being left by the wayside.
If you could go back into time, where and when would that be, and what would you be doing? Sonia: I would have loved to have been part of the Vilna Jewish cultural community, to have been a member of Yung Vilne, the writer’s group that produced poetry and publications, and held readings. I also would have wanted to be part of the Paper Brigade, a group of Jewish Vilna writers who, in the Vilna ghetto, were appointed by the Nazis to empty the Strashun library of books, to then destroy them or have them sent back to Germany to become part of a Jewish relics museum. These people rescued many books and hid them. Those
who survived after the war came back, found them and donated them to an archive.
What is it you wish for the most, Sonia? Sonia: I wish to have a simple life as I have now. I feel extremely enriched, and want to continue to spend time in the Berkshires in my new creative community, as well as spending time in Brooklyn with my nurturing Jewish community there. I’d like to travel to Italy, Israel, Spain and other places. And, to be able to come back to Lenox, and feel my soul connect to nature.
Thank you, Sonia!
“The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.”
22 • DECEMBER / JANUARY 2019 HAPPY ANNIVERSARY ARTFUL MIND!!!