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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Edward Herman’

Like The Stars Of The Heavens

Friday, September 21st, 2007


It happened a few days before Chanukah. I was driving home from the local mall, my trunk overflowing with games and toys for my three young children, when the car suddenly slowed to a crawl. I nervously steered it on to the grassy shoulder of the highway and hit the emergency brake. The gas gauge registered empty.


This was back in the days before cell phones so there was nothing to do but pop open the hood and wait, hoping a good samaritan or the highway police would eventually stop. But when the cars continued to whiz by I grew increasingly impatient and decided to hike to the nearest gas station I had passed about a quarter-of-a- mile back on the Belt Parkway.


“My car ran out of gas on the highway,” I sheepishly confessed to the gas station attendant.


“Can’t spare anybody right now,” he said. Instead, he offered to fill a two-gallon can halfway and I trudged back down the road, like the Biblical Rebekah hauling her jug from the well. It wasn’t until I removed the cap from the can that I realized the spout was missing, so I had no way of pouring the gasoline into the tank.


As the sun started to sink, so did my spirits. Why me? Why today? Why here on this busy highway that was beginning to feel like a desolate stretch of desert? The answer would arrive shortly. I watched the battered car pull off the road. It was a red Chevy, just like the model my father used to drive. While a child peered out at me from the rear window, a young woman emerged from the driver’s seat. She walked purposefully over to the trunk, opened it and removed an object, then turned and came towards me, smiling broadly.


As she handed me the tin can with the spout, she said with an unmistakable Hispanic accent, “I bring this for you – you need this.” And that’s how it’s been for most of my life. Inexplicably, a stranger will mysteriously appear to provide me with exactly what I need at that moment, whether it’s a life-saving boat, a partner for life, a life-altering Shabbos meal, or a can with a spout.


Hash-gachah Pratis, Divine Providence, has brought extraordinary people into my life – like Mr. E. Edward Herman. The E. stands for Eliezer (G-d was my help) and that says it all. Like our Patriarch Abraham’s right-hand man, this Eliezer, who is well into his 80s, is a visionary whose wisdom, limitless energy and generosity of spirit continue to be a source of inspiration for those of us who have been blessed with his friendship.


As a young G.I., he influenced my life with his heroic deeds on behalf of the St. Ottilien Displaced Persons Camp in Germany where I was born and then he reappeared a half -century later to become my most enthusiastic fan. Not content just to read my articles, he encouraged me to “write a book.” The direct result of his gentle persuasion is Like The Stars Of The Heavens. The title comes from the promise G-d made to Abraham to make his offspring “like the stars of the Heavens” (Genesis 22:17). But unlike the fleeting stardom of celebrities who walk the red carpet, the essence of the stars that shine in this volume – including rabbis, doctors, educators, lawyers, entrepreneurs and writers – is their inner light which guides them to lead lives of purpose and meaning, illuminating the way for all of us.


Originally published in The Jewish Press between 1994 and 2005, the articles collected in this anthology reveal a parallel universe where Jews don’t kvetch, they kvell, about their meaningful relationships, their good fortune and their faith. Epilogues have been added to several of the original articles to provide you with the “rest of the story.”


As a ba’alat teshuvah, I have experienced the broad spectrum of Jewish life with friends and relatives who define themselves as Modern-Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, black-hat, convert and unaffiliated. So whether I’m writing about a Yale student battling against enforced co-ed habitation, or a follower of The Grateful Dead who becomes a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, their stories also reflect my own complex journey along our diverse contemporary Jewish thoroughfare.

 

 


Helen Zegerman Schwimmer

 

When my family immigrated to America in the early 1950s, the buzzword was “assimilation” and the strategy was to quickly integrate foreigners into mainstream society by housing us among the general population. Although there were no ESL classes, I was a voracious reader and ultimately excelled in my second language, earning my B.A. in English from Brooklyn College. When I had children of my own I took great pleasure in sharing with them the linguistic joys of the language with books like The Cat in the Hat.



A mere generation later, who could have predicted that the language of the shtetlwould become so trendy that this childhood classic is now available in Yiddish? Yiddish, once earmarked for extinction, like the people who spoke it, is not only alive and well but thriving on theater stages, across the pages of best-sellers, and in the streets of the most cosmopolitan city in the world. And now I even find myself explaining to my own non-Yiddish speaking children why I neglected such a meaningful part of their heritage.


A glossary appears at the back of my book to define unfamiliar words, which, unlike schlep, have not yet become an integral part of the American lexicon. Some words are Hebrew in origin, while others may be Polish or Ukrainian and still others German, reflecting the journeys of our ancestors, over the millennia, like the stars of the Heavens.


This story appears in Helen Zegerman Schwimmer’s newly published book,


Like The Stars of The Heavens, available from chosencouture.com, amazon.com and select bookstores. She can be contacted at hzs8@aol.com.

Learning To Play A Sacred New Song

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

       The conductor gazed down at the orchestra, waved his baton and the stirring sounds of Grieg’s “Triumphal March” began to fill the air. As Max Beker guided the bow over the strings of his violin, Fania Durmashkin’s fingers moved expertly across the piano keys. But on May 27, 1945 these accomplished musicians from Vilna, Lithuania, who had contributed so much to the classical and Yiddish musical traditions of their culturally rich city, weren’t performing in the rarified atmosphere of the Vilna Concert Hall. Today they were playing the familiar melodies of home, recalling the life they had lived before the world descended into madness, on a makeshift stage erected on the grounds of the St. Ottilien Monastery in Bavaria, Germany.

 

         Seated among the hungry, the sick, and the broken, who had gathered for a concert by survivors for survivors to commemorate their liberation, was Robert Hilliard, a 19-year-old American GI who was stationed on an army base located a few miles from the St. Ottilien Displaced Persons’ Camp. As the editor of the base newspaper, he had come to the Liberation Concert in pursuit of an interesting story. Little did he realize on that fateful day, that he would become a vital link in a miraculous chain of events that would ultimately span over 60 years.

 

 


Fania Durmashkin Beker

 

 

         Hilliard described the performance as “A liberation concert at which most of the liberated people were too weak to stand. A liberation concert at which most of the people still could not believe they were free…. A concert of life and a concert of deathThe movements and faces of the musicians were cramped, tight, fearfulas if they momentarily expected guns and clubs to tear apart what, after so many years, must have felt to them like only a dream. When the concert ended many people were crying, few more openly than I.”

 

         But Hilliard did more than just cry. Overwhelmed by the misery he had just witnessed he returned to the base determined to correct the abysmal conditions in the DP camp. He enlisted the help of a fellow GI, E. Edward Herman and together, they devised a plan that not only alleviated the suffering of survivors at St. Ottilien but eventually succeeded in changing the U.S. military’s policy toward all of the DP camps. The details of their courageous efforts are revealed in Hilliard’s memoir, Surviving The Americans: The Continued Struggle of the Jews After Liberation.

 

 


Max Beker

 

 

         Although they had left Germany by the time that I was born in the DP Camp, I finally met these two men who had made such a major impact on the lives of survivors when they reunited with St. Ottilien alumni in the year 2000. Footage of the emotional reunion was included by John Michalczyk, co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College, in his award winning documentary, “Displaced: Miracle at St. Ottilien,” which was based on Hilliard’s book.

 

         It is at this point that the past and the present converge – when paths cross, lives intersect and fate reveals its guiding hand. While Sonia Beker was doing research for a book she was writing to honor the memory of her parents, Max Beker and Fania Durmashkin, the Vilna musicians who met at the St. Ottilien DP camp, she learned of the existence of the documentary. This discovery led her directly to former GI, E. Edward Herman, who immediately recognized the need for a sequel based on the wealth of material in Sonia’s newly published book, Symphony on Fire: A Story of Music and Spiritual Resistance During the Holocaust available from Amazon.com.

 

         In her profoundly moving memoir, Sonia Beker chronicles the lives of her parents from their musical beginnings in Vilna, their incarceration in the Vilna ghetto, the concentration, labor and Nazi POW camps, their meeting at the St. Ottilien DP camp and finally, the new life they built together in America. Rich in personal photographs, letters and documents, she paints an intimate and loving portrait of both the Durmashkin and the Beker musical family dynasties against the historical backdrop of the thriving Jewish community of Vilna.

 

 


St. Ottilien Displaced Persons’ Orchestra.

 

 

       Sonia writes of her parents: “When the Holocaust destroyed their nurturing, loving families and came close to destroying them as well, music was their passport to survival and transcendenceThey performed as members of a Jewish orchestra for the Nuremberg tribunal, for David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, and for DP camp inmates throughout Bavaria. Their reputation was such that, when Leonard Bernstein learned of the remarkable Jewish survivor orchestra who performed in their striped concentration camp uniforms, he was inspired to conduct them.” Sonia’s aunt, her mother’s only surviving relative, Henny Durmashkin, a talented singer who was also a member of the orchestra, was personally accompanied by Bernstein on the piano as she performed songs in Hebrew to honor the newly founded state of Israel.

 

         Symphony on Fire is a valuable addition to the expanding library of books on the Holocaust, detailing both the horror and the heroism. As Sonia Beker notes, “our survivors are slowly leaving us and, just as I’d feared, with their departures, the conscience of the world is dimming. New and bizarre international atrocities and accusations against the Jews fill the news. As a result, there cannot be enough of these memoirs in print or in the electronic media to touch the minds and hearts of everyone who will read and absorb the lessons from the past.”

 

         The remarkable story of the St. Ottilien Orchestra, who toured throughout war-torn Europe giving hope and inspiration to survivors like themselves, might have been relegated to a mere footnote in history. But through the efforts of Sonia Beker, Henny Durmashkin’s daughter, Rita Lerner, E. Edward Herman, and filmmakers John Michalczyk and Ronald Marsh, the documentary, “Creating Harmony: The Displaced Persons’ Orchestra at St. Ottilien” celebrates the resilient, courageous and determined nation that not only rose like a phoenix out of the ashes but learned to play a magnificent new song.

 

         When the documentary had its world premiere in New York on June 10, 2007 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial To The Holocaust, the audience was visibly moved by the heroic story of the Jewish musicians who created music that was truly sacred. Each time the members of the St. Ottilien Orchestra reunited with their violins, their clarinets and their cellos they not only healed their wounded bodies and souls but they also reaffirmed the spiritual harmony of creation.


 


 


 


Helen Zegerman Schwimmer is the author of “Like The Stars of the Heavens” to be published the summer of 2007. She can be contacted at: hzs8@aol.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/learning-to-play-a-sacred-new-song/2007/06/20/

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